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Scooped by Dr. Stefan Gruenwald!

Barcodes let scientists track every ant in an ant colony

Barcodes let scientists track every ant in an ant colony | Amazing Science |
Study tracks workers as they change jobs with age.


For creatures with very small brains, ants build strikingly complex societies. How a colony of hundreds or thousands of ants maintains order remains poorly understood, but new high tech research methods might be able to shed some light on the complexity of the colony.


A team of Swiss scientists glued barcodes to hundreds of ants living in six laboratory colonies and recorded all of their movements for more than a month. The video analysis recorded the position and orientation of every ant, twice a second. They published the results of the ant tracking in Science this week.


What can you learn from watching 9 million ant-to-ant interactions?

Not surprisingly, the researchers found out that ants divide and conquer. They found three main groups of workers—one tends the young, another forages for food, and a third keeps the nest clean. Other studies have documented this segregation of labor before, but Mersch et al wanted to figure out how the ants know which groups they belong to.


Each colony has a queen ant, the only member who reproduces, but previous research has shown that despite the regal name, she doesn’t lead or organize the colony activity.


These researchers suspected that age might play a role in the division of labor, but it’s not easy to figure out how old an ant is. Instead, the researchers spent 60 weeks in advance of the experiment tagging the ants as they emerged from their pupal state—each week got its own color code.


Analyzing the color codes, they found that younger ants were more likely to work nursing the young, and older ants were more likely to be foragers. In general, they watched ants transition from nursing to cleaning to foraging as they age, but there’s a lot of individual variation in how quickly these transitions took place.


If you’ve ever watched an army of ants invade a picnic, marching in line to haul your crumbs back to the nest, you know that they are capable of highly coordinated action. This coordination comes via a combination of communication using scents deposited in the environment and through touching antennas, which probably provides a combination of chemical and sensory stimuli.


To measure how fast ants could spread information like “food over here” or “threat over there” throughout the community, the researchers measured how many degrees of separation exist between all the ants. They found that for one theoretical ant with important news, it takes about an hour of individual ant-to-ant interactions for almost all of community—about 150 individuals on average—to receive the information.


This intensive ant tracking technique provided researchers with 3 key Ws of communication: who, where, and when. However, science still can’t tell us what the ants are actually saying to each other, or anything about the fifth W: why.

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Unique view of Earth's most biodiverse ecosystems from 400 square metres of mesh high up in the rainforest canopy

Unique view of Earth's most biodiverse ecosystems from 400 square metres of mesh high up in the rainforest canopy | Amazing Science |

Scientists have taken to the trees to study rainforest habitats for years, but getting to the top of the canopy can be problematic. Now a French pilot and Swedish aeronautical expert have created a range of inventive solutions, including an inflatable raft that can be lowered from the sky right onto the tree tops.


Dany Cleyet-Marrel has been a hot air balloon and airship pilot since 1975. In 1986, he came up with the concept of the Canopy Raft, a platform 'aeroported' in by hot air balloon. The raft itself has a hexagonal design, with sides made from inflatable material and webbing in between each strut. Scientists can use the raft as a workstation nestling in the canopy of the rainforest. It has already been used in Cameroon, Gabon, and Madagascar and was featured on the British website, Deputy Dog. 

After testing with a hot air balloon, but then Cleyet-Marrel teamed up with Lindstrand Technologies to design an airship for towing the raft. This company is run by Per Lindstrand, a Swede best known for his series of record-breaking trans-oceanic hot air balloon flights with Sir Richard Branson.


Lindstrand Technologies created the AS 300, which at 8,500 cubic metres is said to be the biggest airship in the world. It needed to be this size to carry the 750kg Canopy Raft. It was later used to carry what the Lindstrand team calls a sledge – a kind of inflatable gondola that can lift three people into the canopy to collect botanical and entomological samples.


The effectiveness of the contraption has led to some problems. Lindstrand said that the team are not using the AS 300 airship and raft at the moment because officials in some  countries were unhappy that it allowed scientists to see vast areas of deforestation that governments did not want to be publicised.


Cleyet-Marrel is planning further trips, but instead of the raft he'll be using the Canopy Bubble (shown above), a one-seater 210 cubic metre helium balloon, designed to let scientists move around the treetops, gliding along ropes up to two kilometres long. Cleyet-Marrel says: "The Canopy Bubble allows a researcher to remain in contact with the canopy during two or three hours in the morning, evening or at night. The passenger can move along the rope simply by pulling him or herself along the rope by hand or with a jumar clamp in case of adverse wind. A secondary rope attached to the main rope enables a researcher to cover greater distances away from the main rope and thus increases the field of investigation."

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Proof of Quantum Annealing in over 100 qubits in Dwave's Quantum Computer leading to speedups over classical

Proof of Quantum Annealing in over 100 qubits in Dwave's Quantum Computer leading to speedups over classical | Amazing Science |

Experiments by researchers at USC, ETH Zürich, and the Center for Quantum Information Science and Technology, Microsoft Research have demonstrated that quantum annealing with more than one hundred qubits takes place in the D-Wave One device, despite limited qubit coherence times. The key evidence is the rich, correlation between the success probabilities on the device and a simulated quantum annealer. In particular we see a bimodal distribution of easy and hard instances, where the hard instances are characterized by avoided level crossings with small gaps. Sensitivity to these small gaps of the quantum model demonstrates that the device has sufficient ground state quantum coherence to realize a quantum annealing of a transverse field Ising model. Considering the pure annealing time, the performance for typical (median) instances matches that of a highly optimised classical annealing code on a high-end Intel CPU.

While for 108 spins a majority of optimization problems is still relatively easy, experiments using up to 512 spins on the next generation device will enter a very interesting regime where almost all instances become hard for both simulated annealing and simulated quantum annealing. Simulated annealers require about three orders of magnitude more computational effort for N = 512 spins compared to N = 108 spins for our problems, and there will be potential to see advantages of a quantum annealer over classical algorithms.

Quantum speedup can then be detected by comparing the scaling results of the simulated classical and quantum annealers to experiments, as we discuss in detail in the supplementary material. Going to even larger problem sizes we soon approach the limits of classical computers. Optimistically extrapolating using the observed scaling, the median time to find the best solution for our test problem will increase from milliseconds to minutes for 2048 variables, and months for 4096 variables, and the scaling might be much worse if fat tailed distributions start to dominate, as we had previously observed for other Monte Carlo algorithms. A quantum annealer showing better scaling than classical algorithms for these problem sizes would be an exciting breakthrough, validating the potential of quantum information processing to outperform its classical counterpart.

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Bees Age Faster When They Raise Offspring

Bees Age Faster When They Raise Offspring | Amazing Science |

Your parents always said you were giving them gray hair. Now, science is backing them up, at least in the case of bees. Researchers have found that nurturing the hive's progeny accelerates aging in the insects. In summer, worker honey bees usually spend several weeks feeding the queen's new larvae (the queen is marked in green). Workers then change careers, living out their days as pollen-collecting foragers. They die a mere 2 weeks after making the switch, showing a steep decline in brain function. But bees born just before winter, without a brood to nourish, live nearly a year. To investigate, researchers placed winter bees in a summerlike environment, both with and without young bees to care for. The bees with a brood played along, feeding the babies and then developing into foragers who died after 2 weeks. But brood-free foragers lived up to 10 weeks with no cognitive decline, the researchers report online today in The Journal of Experimental Biology. They noticed high levels of lipofuscin, an "age pigment," in short-lived foragers and much lower levels in longer-lived bees. These changing levels suggest that, for bees, aging is a dynamic process that can be slowed or even reversed. Maybe that explains why your dad started playing bass in a garage band after you left the nest.

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Fresh bean leaves can trap bedbugs, researchers find

Fresh bean leaves can trap bedbugs, researchers find | Amazing Science |

Inspired by a traditional Balkan bedbug remedy, researchers have documented how microscopic hairs on kidney bean leaves effectively stab and trap the biting insects, according to findings published online today in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. Scientists at UC Irvine and the University of Kentucky are now developing materials that mimic the geometry of the leaves. Next step is to perfect synthetic materials that can do the same


Bedbugs have made a dramatic comeback in the U.S. in recent years, infesting everything from homes and hotels to schools, movie theaters and hospitals. Although not known to transmit disease, their bites can cause burning, itching, swelling and psychological distress. It helps to catch infestations early, but the nocturnal parasites’ ability to hide almost anywhere, breed rapidly and “hitchhike” from place to place makes detection difficult. They can survive as long as a year without a blood meal.


Current commercial prevention methods, including freezing, extreme heating, vacuuming and pesticides, can be costly and unreliable. Many sufferers resort to ineffective, potentially dangerous measures, such as spraying nonapproved insecticides themselves rather than hiring a professional.


Doctoral student Megan Szyndler, entomologist Catherine Loudon and chemist Robert Corn of UC Irvine and entomologists Kenneth Haynes and Michael Potter of the University of Kentucky collaborated on the new study.


Their work was motivated by a centuries-old remedy for bedbugs used in Bulgaria, Serbia and other southeast European countries. Kidney bean leaves were strewn on the floor next to beds and seemed to ensnare the blood-seeking parasites on their nightly forays. The bug-encrusted greenery was burned the next morning to exterminate the insects.


Through painstaking detective work, the scientists discovered that the creatures are trapped within seconds of stepping on a leaf, their legs impaled by microscopic hooked hairs known botanically as trichomes.


Using the bean leaves as templates, the researchers have microfabricated materials that closely resemble them geometrically. The synthetic surfaces snag the bedbugs temporarily but do not yet stop them as effectively as real leaves, Loudon said, suggesting that crucial mechanics of the trichomes still need to be determined.


Theoretically, bean leaves could be used for pest control, but they dry out and don’t last very long. They also can’t easily be applied to locations other than a floor. Synthetic materials could provide a nontoxic alternative.


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Treating plants with hydrogen sulfide doubles crop yields

Treating plants with hydrogen sulfide doubles crop yields | Amazing Science |

Hydrogen sulfide, the pungent stuff often referred to as sewer gas, is a deadly substance implicated in several mass extinctions, including one at the end of the Permian period 251 million years ago that wiped out more than three-quarters of all species on Earth.

But in low doses, hydrogen sulfide could greatly enhance plant growth, leading to a sharp increase in global food supplies and plentiful stock for biofuel production, new University of Washington research shows.

"We found some very interesting things, including that at the very lowest levels plant health improves. But that's not what we were looking for," said Frederick Dooley, a UW doctoral student in biology who led the research.

Dooley started off to examine the toxic effects of hydrogen sulfide on plants but mistakenly used only one-tenth the amount of the toxin he had intended. The results were so unbelievable that he repeated the experiment. Still unconvinced, he repeated it again – and again, and again. In fact, the results have been replicated so often that they are now "a near certainty," he said. "Everything else that's ever been done on plants was looking at hydrogen sulfide in high concentrations," he said.

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Nanotechnology Imaging Breakthrough in Measuring Nanomaterials Under Extremely High Pressures

Nanotechnology Imaging Breakthrough in Measuring Nanomaterials Under Extremely High Pressures | Amazing Science |

A team of researchers has made a major breakthrough in measuring the structure of nanomaterials under extremely high pressures. For the first time, they developed a way to get around the severe distortions of high-energy X-ray beams that are used to image the structure of a gold nanocrystal. The technique, described in April 9, 2013, issue of Nature Communications, could lead to advancements of new nanomaterials created under high pressures and a greater understanding of what is happening in planetary interiors.
Lead author of the study, Wenge Yang of the Carnegie Institution’s High Pressure Synergetic Consortium explained: “The only way to see what happens to such samples when under pressure is to use high-energy X-rays produced by synchrotron sources. Synchrotrons can provide highly coherent X-rays for advanced 3-D imaging with tens of nanometers of resolution. This is different from incoherent X-ray imaging used for medical examination that has micron spatial resolution. The high pressures fundamentally change many properties of the material.”
The team found that by averaging the patterns of the bent waves—the diffraction patterns—of the same crystal using different sample alignments in the instrumentation, and by using an algorithm developed by researchers at the London Centre for Nanotechnology, they can compensate for the distortion and improve spatial resolution by two orders of magnitude.
“The wave distortion problem is analogous to prescribing eyeglasses for the diamond anvil cell to correct the vision of the coherent X-ray imaging system,” remarked Ian Robinson, leader of the London team.
The researchers subjected a 400-nanometer (.000015 inch) single crystal of gold to pressures from about 8,000 times the pressure at sea level to 64,000 times that pressure, which is about the pressure in Earth’s upper mantle, the layer between the outer core and crust.

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Researchers build fiber cable capable of carrying data at 99.7% of the vaccuum-speed of light

Researchers build fiber cable capable of carrying data at 99.7% of the vaccuum-speed of light | Amazing Science |

A research team at the University of Southampton in England has built a fiber cable that is capable of carrying data at 99.7 percent of the vacuum-speed of light. They have done so, they report in their paper published in the journal Nature Photonics, by constructing a cable with a hollow core and special inner walls that prevent refraction.

Fiber cables technically at least, carry data at the speed of light (299,792,458 meters per second in a vacuum), because the media they carry, is in fact a beam of light. But, in practice, data is carried far slower than that because of latency delays caused by refraction as light moves through the silica glass, which reduces common fiber cable data rate throughput by approximately 31 percent. To get around this problem, researchers have been looking at ways to replace the core of the fibers with air, which suffers far less from refraction.

The stumbling point has been how to get the light beams moving through the cables to follow the cable when bends and turns are encountered. That's where this new research comes in—the group has found a new way to build a hollow core fiber cable that allows for bending light as it moves around turns while minimizing loss due to refraction. The secret is, the team reports, an "ultra-thin photonic-bandgap rim" that provides low data loss, a wide bandwidth and far less latency than standard fiber cables. The result is a cable that in the lab was able to move data, using division multiplexing, at a rate of 73.7 terabits per second, which is approximately 1000 times better than standard fiber cable.

There is a hitch, of course. While data loss is relatively low (3.5 dB/km), it's still too high for use with anything but very short-hop applications, such as the fiber connections inside of supercomputers or perhaps within a data center where the paths the fiber cables take can be run in extremely straight lines. Because of that, the researchers will be working to improve their cable—if they succeed it could one day mean the end of waiting when downloading files, or better yet, to making applications such as real-time ultra high definition 3D transmissions, possible for general use across the Internet.

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Researchers at MIT have unraveled the structure of bone with almost atom-by-atom precision

Researchers at MIT have unraveled the structure of bone with almost atom-by-atom precision | Amazing Science |
MIT researchers decipher the molecular basis of bone’s remarkable strength and resiliency; work could lead to new treatments and materials.


The bones that support our bodies are made of remarkably complex arrangements of materials — so much so that decoding the precise structure responsible for their great strength and resilience has eluded scientists’ best efforts for decades.

But now, a team of researchers at MIT has finally unraveled the structure of bone with almost atom-by-atom precision, after many years of analysis by some of the world’s most powerful computers and comparison with laboratory experiments to confirm the computed results.

Buehler, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering (CEE) at MIT, says the riddle was to find how two different materials — a soft, flexible biomolecule called collagen and a hard, brittle form of the mineral apatite — combine to form something that is simultaneously hard, tough and slightly flexible.

The constituents are so different that “you can’t take these two materials individually and understand how bone behaves,” Buehler says. Hydroxyapatite is like chalk, he says: “It’s very brittle. If you try to bend it even a little, it breaks into pieces.” Collagen, on the other hand, is what gelatin is made of — the very epitome of a wobbly substance. 

Neither material, on its own, could provide adequate structural support for the body. “It takes the best qualities of the two substances,” Buehler says. “But how this works is the big unknown.”

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UCSF researchers have uncovered a role in brain development for long noncoding RNA

UCSF researchers have uncovered a role in brain development for long noncoding RNA | Amazing Science |

Unlike messenger RNA, which is transcribed from the DNA in genes and guides the production of proteins, lncRNA molecules do not carry the blueprints for proteins. Because of this fact, they were long thought to not influence a cell’s fate or actions.


Nonetheless, lncRNAs also are transcribed from DNA in the same way as messenger RNA, and they, too, consist of unique sequences of nucleic acid building blocks.


Evidence indicates that lncRNAs can tether structural proteins to the DNA-containing chromosomes, and in so doing indirectly affect gene activation and cellular physiology without altering the genetic code. In other words, within the cell, lncRNA molecules act “epigenetically” — beyond genes — not through changes in DNA.


The brain cells that the scientists focused on the most give rise to various cell types of the central nervous system. They are found in a region of the brain called the subventricular zone, which directly overlies the striatum. This is the part of the brain where neurons are destroyed in Huntington’s disease, a condition triggered by a single genetic defect.


UCSF researcher Ramos combined several advanced techniques for sequencing and analyzing DNA and RNA to identify where certain chemical changes happen to the chromosomes, and to identify lncRNAs on specific cell types found within the central nervous system. The research revealed roughly 2,000 such molecules that had not previously been described, out of about 9,000 thought to exist in mammals ranging from mice to humans.


In fact, the researchers generated far too much data to explore on their own. The UCSF scientists created a website through which their data can be used by others who want to study the role of lncRNAs in development and disease.


“There’s enough here for several labs to work on,” said Ramos, who has training grants from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) and the NIH.


“It should be of interest to scientists who study long noncoding RNA, the generation of new nerve cells in the adult brain, neural stem cells and brain development, and embryonic stem cells,” he said.

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Nano-Suit Protects Fruit Fly Larva from Dry-Out-Death in Space-Like Vacuums

Nano-Suit Protects Fruit Fly Larva from Dry-Out-Death in Space-Like Vacuums | Amazing Science |

Put a fruit fly larva in a spacelike vacuum, and the results aren't pretty. Within a matter of minutes, the animal will collapse into a crinkled, lifeless husk. Now, researchers have found a way to protect the bugs: Bombard them with electrons, which form a "nano-suit" around their bodies. The advance could help scientists take high-resolution photographs of tiny living organisms. It also suggests a new way that creatures could survive the harsh conditions of outer space and may even lead to new space travel technology for humans.

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Scientists Identify Two Genes (HoxA5 and HoxC5) Essential for Breathing

Scientists Identify Two Genes (HoxA5 and HoxC5) Essential for Breathing | Amazing Science |

Researchers have discovered that two genes Hoxa5 and Hoxc5 play a critical role in establishing the neuronal circuits required for breathing.


The three-year study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience identifies a molecular code that distinguishes a group of muscle-controlling nerve cells collectively known as the phrenic motor column (PMC).

“These cells lie about halfway up the back of the neck, just above the fourth cervical vertebra, and are probably the most important motor neurons in your body,” explained senior author Prof Jeremy Dasen of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.


Harming the part of the spinal cord where the PMC resides can instantly shut down breathing. But relatively little is known about what distinguishes PMC neurons from neighboring neurons, and how PMC neurons develop and wire themselves to the diaphragm in the fetus. The PMC cells relay a constant flow of electrochemical signals down their bundled axons and onto the diaphragm muscles, allowing the lungs to expand and relax in the natural rhythm of breathing.


“We now have a set of molecular markers that distinguish those cells from other populations of motor neurons, so that we can study them in detail and look for ways to selectively enhance their survival,” Prof Dasen said.

To find out what distinguishes PMC neurons from their spinal neighbors in mice, the scientists injected a retrograde fluorescent tracer into the phrenic nerve, which wires the PMC to the diaphragm, and then looked for the spinal neurons that lit up as the tracer worked its way back to the PMC. They used transgenic mice that express green fluorescent protein (GFP) in motor neurons and their axons in order to see the phrenic nerve. After noting the characteristic gene expression pattern of these PMC neurons, the scientists began to determine their specific roles.


“When Hoxa5 and Hoxc5 are silenced in embryonic motor neurons in mice,” the scientists reported, “the PMC fails to form its usual, tightly columnar organization and doesn’t connect correctly to the diaphragm, leaving a newborn animal unable to breathe.”


“Even if you delete these genes late in fetal development, the PMC neuron population drops and the phrenic nerve doesn’t form enough branches on diaphragm muscles,” Prof Dasen said.


Prof Dasen plans to use the findings to help understand the wider circuitry of breathing – including rhythm-generating neurons in the brain stem, which are in turn responsive to carbon dioxide levels, stress, and other environmental factors. “Now that we know something about PMC cells, we can work our way through the broader circuit, to try to figure out how all those connections are established,” he said.


“Once we understand how the respiratory network is wired we can begin to develop novel treatment options for breathing disorders such as sleep apneas,” said lead author Dr Polyxeni Philippidou.

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Merely a Sip of Beer Can Trigger a Rush of Chemical Pleasure in the Brain

Merely a Sip of Beer Can Trigger a Rush of Chemical Pleasure in the Brain | Amazing Science |

New research shows just a sip can cause the potent neurotransmitter dopamine to flood the brain.


If you take just a sip of beer, and moments later—before you’ve had close to enough alcohol to get intoxicated, perhaps even before the beer has hit your stomach—feel a distinctly pleasurable sensation, it might not be strictly due to subtle aromas that result from the beverage’s blend of malt, hops and yeast. The cause of your pleasure might be due to tangible changes in your brain chemistry—specifically, a surge in levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine.


Scientists have long known that part of the reason alcohol induces pleasure is that intoxication leads to the release of dopamine, which is associated with the use of other drugs (as well as sleep and sex) and acts as a reward for the brain. But new research suggests that, for some people, intoxication isn’t necessary: Simply the taste of beer alone can provoke a release of the neurotransmitter within minutes.


A group of researchers led by David Kareken of Indiana University came to the finding, published today in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, by giving tiny amounts of beer to 49 adult men and tracking changes in their brain chemistry with a positron emission tomography (PET) scanner, which measures levels of various molecules in the brain. They chose participants with varying levels of typical alcohol consumption—from heavy drinkers to near-teetotalers—and even tested them with the beer they reported that they drank most frequently. Because they used an automated system to spray just 15 milliliters (about half an ounce) of beer on each participant’s tongue over the course of 15 minutes, they could be sure that any changes in brain chemistry wouldn’t be due to intoxication.


The effect was significant. When the men tasted the beer, their brains released much higher levels of dopamine within minutes, compared to when the same test was conducted on the subjects at other times with both water and Gatorade. They were also asked to rate how much they “craved” a beer at several points during the experiment, and perhaps less surprisingly, their cravings were generally much higher after tasting beer than Gatorade or water.


Interestingly, the amount of dopamine release per person wasn’t random. People who had a family history of alcoholism (as reported on a survey) showed notably higher dopamine levels after tasting beer as compared to others. But participants who were heavy drinkers but didn’t have the family history had merely average dopamine levels.


The researchers believe this could be a clue as to why some people are predisposed towards alcoholism—and why it’s more difficult for them stay on the wagon if they’re trying to quit. The immediate release of dopamine from just a taste of beer would likely serve as a powerful mechanism that drives their cravings, and a tendency towards experiencing this burst of pleasure might be genetically inheritable. This could be part of the reason that people with a family history of alcoholism are twice as likely to experience alcoholism themselves.


Previous work has shown that in people with alcoholic tendencies, stimuli that are merely associated with drinking (such as the smell and sight of a alcoholic drinks or a bar) can trigger dopamine release in the brain. This work shows that for an unlucky group predisposed to suffering from alcoholism, bursts of dopamine can occur even if they’re not heavy drinkers—and it only takes a sip for the pattern to start.

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Interactive map plots locations of more than 100 million species

Interactive map plots locations of more than 100 million species | Amazing Science |

The United States Geological Society (USGS) has launched an online database and map that keeps track of more than 100 million different species and where they live within the United States.


Biodiversity Serving Our Nation, or BISON (a backronym if ever there was one), contains location-specific records of where living species are within the US. Its data comes from hundreds of different organisations and thousands of scientists, making it the most comprehensive map of American biodiversity ever made.


Anyone can search by scientific or common name of any living species (plant or animal), and can look to see what lives within any specific geographic area they want by drawing a perimeter—so, for example, searching to see exactly which forests in Virginia have been infected with a tree fungus.


All the results give a breakdown of the data (in map and list form), with information relating to where the data came from and how it was collected. BISON is hosted on servers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which are often used for large data processing like this. Not only are the locations of each species displayed, but up to 50 different environmental factors are also noted for each location to give a full ecological picture of everywhere within the US.


The idea is that it creates a unified source of information for everyone who needs to know the ecological status of a parcel of land. According to the USGS, that means "land managers, researchers, refuge managers, citizen scientists, agriculture professionals, fisheries managers, water resource managers, educators, and more." Altogether there are 110,233,486 individual species records on BISON's database. It forms the American government's node of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, a worldwide effort to make biodiversity data as free and open as possible as a way of encouraging sustainable development.

The UK is a part of that network, too. Most of Western Europe and the Americas, and Australia and New Zealand, is involved, but African and Asian countries are sadly lacking in enthusiasm thus far.

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When Do Babies Become Conscious?

When Do Babies Become Conscious? | Amazing Science |

For everyone who’s looked into an infant’s sparkling eyes and wondered what goes on in its little fuzzy head, there’s now an answer. New research shows that babies display glimmers of consciousness and memory as early as 5 months old.


For decades, neuroscientists have been searching for an unmistakable signal of consciousness in electrical brain activity. Such a sign could determine whether minimally conscious or anesthetized adults are aware—and when consciousness begins in babies.


Studies on adults show a particular pattern of brain activity: When your senses detect something, such as a moving object, the vision center of your brain activates, even if the object goes by too fast for you to notice. But if the object remains in your visual field for long enough, the signal travels from the back of the brain to the prefrontal cortex, which holds the image in your mind long enough for you to notice. Scientists see a spike in brain activity when the senses pick something up, and another signal, the “late slow wave,” when the prefrontal cortex gets the message. The whole process takes less than one-third of a second.


Researchers in France wondered if such a two-step pattern might be present in infants. The team monitored infants’ brain activity through caps fitted with electrodes. More than 240 babies participated, but two-thirds were too squirmy for the movement-sensitive caps. The remaining 80 (ages 5 months, 12 months, or 15 months) were shown a picture of a face on a screen for a fraction of a second.


Cognitive neuroscientist Sid Kouider of CNRS, the French national research agency, in Paris watched for swings in electrical activity, called event-related potentials (ERPs), in the babies’ brains. In babies who were at least 1 year old, Kouider saw an ERP pattern similar to an adult’s, but it was about three times slower. The team was surprised to see that the 5-month-olds also showed a late slow wave, although it was weaker and more drawn out than in the older babies. Kouider speculates that the late slow wave may be present in babies as young as 2 months.

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Parasite Inspires Surgical Patch

Parasite Inspires Surgical Patch | Amazing Science |

By mimicking a technique used by an intestinal parasite of fish, researchers have developed a flexible patch studded with microneedles that holds skin grafts in place more strongly than surgical staples do. After burrowing into the walls of a fish's intestines, the spiny-headed worm Pomphorhynchus laevis inflates its proboscis to better embed itself in the soft tissue. In the new patch (sample shown in main image), the stiff polystyrene core of the 700-micrometer-tall needles (inset) penetrates the tissue; then a thin hydrogel coating on the tip of each needle—a coating based on the material in disposable diapers that expands when it gets wet—swells to help anchor the patch in place. In tests using skin grafts, adhesion strength of the patch was more than three times higher than surgical staples, the researchers report online today in Nature Communications. Because the patch doesn't depend on chemical adhesives for its gripping power, there's less chance for patients to have an allergic reaction. And because the microneedles are about one-quarter the length of typical surgical staples, the patches cause less tissue damage when they're removed, the researchers contend. Besides holding grafts in place, the patch could be used to hold the sides of a wound or an incision together—even, in theory, ones inside the body if a slowly dissolving version of the patch can be developed. Moreover, the researchers say, the hydrogel coating holds promise as a way to deliver proteins, drugs, or other therapeutic substances to patients.

The Science & Education team's curator insight, April 19, 2013 12:20 AM

As someone who has sat and removed surgical staples this is a nice piece of technology

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The African coelacanth Latimeria - a living fossil - got its genome sequenced

The African coelacanth Latimeria - a living fossil - got its genome sequenced | Amazing Science |

The discovery of a living coelacanth specimen in 1938 was remarkable, as this lineage of lobe-finned fish was thought to have become extinct 70 million years ago. The modern coelacanth looks remarkably similar to many of its ancient relatives, and its evolutionary proximity to our own fish ancestors provides a glimpse of the fish that first walked on land. Here we report the genome sequence of the African coelacanth, Latimeria chalumnae. Through a phylogenomic analysis, we conclude that the lungfish, and not the coelacanth, is the closest living relative of tetrapods. Coelacanth protein-coding genes are significantly more slowly evolving than those of tetrapods, unlike other genomic features. Analyses of changes in genes and regulatory elements during the vertebrate adaptation to land highlight genes involved in immunity, nitrogen excretion and the development of fins, tail, ear, eye, brain and olfaction. Functional assays of enhancers involved in the fin-to-limb transition and in the emergence of extra-embryonic tissues show the importance of the coelacanth genome as a blueprint for understanding tetrapod evolution.

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Microbatteries: The most powerful batteries are only a few millimeters in size

Microbatteries: The most powerful batteries are only a few millimeters in size | Amazing Science |

Though they be but little, they are fierce. The most powerful batteries on the planet are only a few millimeters in size, yet they pack such a punch that a driver could use a cellphone powered by these batteries to jump-start a dead car battery – and then recharge the phone in the blink of an eye. Developed by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the new microbatteries out-power even the best supercapacitors and could drive new applications in radio communications and compact electronics. Led by William P. King, the Bliss Professor of mechanical science and engineering, the researchers published their results in the April 16 issue of Nature Communications.

“This is a whole new way to think about batteries,” King said. “A battery can deliver far more power than anybody ever thought. In recent decades, electronics have gotten small. The thinking parts of computers have gotten small. And the battery has lagged far behind. This is a microtechnology that could change all of that. Now the power source is as high-performance as the rest of it.”

With currently available power sources, users have had to choose between power and energy. For applications that need a lot of power, like broadcasting a radio signal over a long distance, capacitors can release energy very quickly but can only store a small amount. For applications that need a lot of energy, like playing a radio for a long time, fuel cells and batteries can hold a lot of energy but release it or recharge slowly.

“There’s a sacrifice,” said James Pikul, a graduate student and first author of the paper. “If you want high energy you can’t get high power; if you want high power it’s very difficult to get high energy. But for very interesting applications, especially modern applications, you really need both. That’s what our batteries are starting to do. We’re really pushing into an area in the energy storage design space that is not currently available with technologies today.”

The new microbatteries offer both power and energy, and by tweaking the structure a bit, the researchers can tune them over a wide range on the power-versus-energy scale.

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Researchers Prevent HIV 'Reservoirs' from Forming

Researchers Prevent HIV 'Reservoirs' from Forming | Amazing Science |

Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have discovered how the protein that blocks HIV-1 from multiplying in white blood cells is regulated. HIV-1 is the virus that causes AIDS, and the discovery could lead to novel approaches for addressing HIV-1 "in hiding" – namely eliminating reservoirs of HIV-1 that persist in patients undergoing antiretroviral therapy. The study was published today in the online edition of the journal Cell Host & Microbe.


Antiretroviral therapy can reduce blood levels of HIV-1 until they are undetectable. But despite drug therapy, reservoirs of HIV-1 can persist in several types of white cells, notably macrophages – important immune cells that help clear pathogens and other potentially harmful substances from the body.


"If you stop antiretroviral therapy, the virus emerges from these reservoirs and returns to the general circulation in a matter of days, as if the patient had never been treated," said senior author Felipe Diaz-Griffero, Ph.D., assistant professor of microbiology & immunology at Einstein. "Now we know the protein that we need to control so we can prevent HIV-1 reservoirs from forming or eliminate them entirely."


Scientists have known that a protein called SAMHD1 prevents HIV-1 from replicating in certain immune cells. But until now, it was not understood why SAMHD1 fails to function in immune cells like macrophages that are vulnerable to HIV-1 infection.


Using mass spectrometry, a tool for determining molecular composition, Dr. Diaz-Griffero found that SAMHD1 can exist in two configurations known as phosphorylated and unphosphorylated. (Phosphorylation is an important cellular process in which phosphate groups attach to other molecules, thereby activating various signaling and regulatory mechanisms within the cell.) When SAMHD1 is phosphorylated – the situation in immune cells that divide – the cell is not protected from being infected with HIV-1. When the protein is not phosphorylated – as occurs in the nondividing macrophages – the cell is protected from HIV infection.


"We are currently exploring ways to keep this protein unphosphorylated so that HIV reservoirs will never be formed," said Dr. Diaz-Griffero.

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Hybrid energy harvester generates electricity from vibrations and sunlight

Hybrid energy harvester generates electricity from vibrations and sunlight | Amazing Science |

Devices that harvest energy from the environment require specific environmental conditions; for instance, solar cells and piezoelectric generators require sunlight and mechanical vibration, respectively. Since these conditions don't exist all the time, most energy harvesters don't generate a constant stream of electricity. In order to harvest ubiquitous energy continuously, researchers have designed and fabricated a hybrid energy harvester that integrates a solar cell and piezoelectric generator, enabling it to harvest energy from both sunlight and sound vibration simultaneously.

The researchers, Dae-Yeong Lee, et al., from Sungkyunkwan University and Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology, both in South Korea, have published their study on the hybrid energy harvester in a recent issue of Nanotechnology. "By using the hybrid energy harvester, two different energy sources can be utilized in one platform," coauthor Hyunjin Kim at the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology told "Thus the total output power from the hybrid harvester can be increased compared to each separate harvester. Furthermore, by harvesting two energy sources in one device, continuous output can be generated even when only one energy source is available." To design the harvester, the researchers turned to silicon nanopillar solar cells for the sunlight harvesting half of the device. Previous research has shown that silicon nanopillar solar cells are promising candidates as photovoltaic devices due to their low reflection, high absorption, and potential for low-cost mass production.


"This energy harvester can be very useful where there is no electric grid connected," coauthor Won Jong Yoo at Sungkyunkwan University said. "For example, this device will be useful in moving vehicles such as moving boats, trains, automobiles, etc. The output of 0.8 V is just preliminary data. If we optimize the device structure and fabrication condition, the output power will be increased significantly." In the future, the researchers plan to fabricate all-flexible hybrid energy harvesting devices using plastic substrates in order to harvest mechanical energy more efficiently.

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In-package plasma process quickly and effectively kills bacteria

In-package plasma process quickly and effectively kills bacteria | Amazing Science |

Exposing packaged liquids, fruits and vegetables to an electrical field for just minutes might eliminate all traces of foodborne pathogens on those foods, according to a Purdue University study.

Kevin Keener, a professor of food science, looks for new ways to kill harmful bacteria, such as E.coli and Salmonella, that contaminate foods and cause serious illnesses and deaths. His method uses electricity to generate a plasma, or ionized gas, from atmospheric gases inside the food package.

This process creates a wide variety of bacteria-killing molecules including ozone, nitrogen oxides, hydrogen peroxide and others. These molecules only exist for a few hours and then revert back to the original atmospheric gas, leaving a bacteria-free product.

In findings published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology, Keener and researchers at the Dublin Institute of Technology demonstrated that sealed-package atmospheric plasma works well to kill bacteria in growth media. Their experiments showed that bacteria on these surfaces were eliminated with 20 seconds of treatment and 24 hours of exposure to the gases it creates. Keener said the cost of the process should be comparable to current chemical and heat treatments used to sanitize foods.

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New species of forcepflies discovered in Brazil, only third known in its bizarre family

New species of forcepflies discovered in Brazil, only third known in its bizarre family | Amazing Science |

A new species of forcepfly namedAustromerope brasiliensis, was recently discovered in Brazil and described in the open access journal Zoo Keys. This is the first discovery of forcepfly in the Neotropics and only the third known worldwide. The forcepfly, often called the earwigfly because the male genital forceps closely resemble the cerci of the common earwig, remains a scientific enigma due to the lack of information on the family.

Forcepflies make up the Meropeida family, which has been around since the world's continents were combined in a supercontinent Pangea, meaning that the Meropeidae family could be more than two hundred million years old. Even so the new species marks the discovery of only the third extant forcepfly known, one is known from Australia and another from North America.

Little is known about the actual biology of the Meropedia. The forcepfly has broad wings that are capable of fully folding over the abdomen; its body is flattened and its head is "opisthognathous," meaning that it has retractable jaws. From observations, scientists have concluded that adults are nocturnal and reside primarily on the ground. They are also capable of stridulation, or producing sound by rubbing body parts together like a cricket. In most cases an arthropod will do this when looking for a mate, warning off predators, or marking territory, however scientists don't yet know why the forcepfly performs stridulation. Even less is known about immature or juvenile stages of the forcepfly, including their appearance.

What can be concluded though is that the world's rainforest still contain numerous biological surprises. The forest where this species was found, also known as the Mata Atlântica, is more ancient than even the Amazon. Encompassing a multitude of environments from coastal mangrove forests to moist forests, the Mata Atlântica, or the Atlantic Forest, has developed completely unique ecosystems found no-where else largely due to its massive size and distance from the Amazon.

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Supernova left its mark in bacteria: Radioactive iron may be first fossil imprint of a nearby cosmic explosion

Supernova left its mark in bacteria: Radioactive iron may be first fossil imprint of a nearby cosmic explosion | Amazing Science |

Sediment in a deep-sea core may hold radioactive iron spewed by a distant supernova 2.2 million years ago and preserved in the fossilized remains of iron-loving bacteria. If confirmed, the iron traces would be the first biological signature of a specific exploding star.

In 2004, scientists reported finding the isotope iron-60, which does not form on Earth, in a piece of sea floor from the Pacific Ocean. They calculated how long ago this radioactive isotope had arrived by using the rate at which it decays over time. The culprit, they concluded, was a supernova in the cosmic neighbourhood.

Shawn Bishop, a physicist at the Technical University of Munich in Germany, wondered if he could find signs of that explosion in the fossil record on Earth. Some natural candidates are certain species of bacteria that gather iron from their environment to create 100-nanometer-wide magnetic crystals, which the microbes use to orient themselves within Earth’s magnetic field so that they can navigate to their preferred conditions. These 'magnetotactic' bacteria live in sea-floor sediments. So Bishop and his colleagues acquired parts of a sediment core from the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, dating to between about 1.7 million and 3.3 million years ago. They took sediment samples from strata corresponding to periods roughly 100,000 years apart, and treated them with a chemical technique that extracts iron-60 but not iron from nonbiological sources, such as soil washing off the continents. The scientists then ran the samples through a mass spectrometer to see if any iron-60 was present.

And it was. “It looks like there’s something there,” Bishop told reporters at the Denver meeting. The levels of iron-60 are minuscule, but the only place they seem to appear is in layers dated to around 2.2 million years ago. This apparent signal of iron-60, Bishop said, could be the remains of magnetite (Fe3O4) chains formed by bacteria on the sea floor as radioactive supernova debris showered on them from the atmosphere, after crossing inter-stellar space at nearly the speed of light.


No one is sure what particular star might have exploded at this time, although one paper points to suspects in the Scorpius–Centaurus stellar association, at a distance of about 130 parsecs (424 light years) from the Sun.


“I’m really excited about this,” says Brian Thomas, an astrophysicist at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, who was not involved in the work. “The nice thing is that it’s directly tied to a specific event.” “For me, philosophically, the charm is that this is sitting in the fossil record of our planet,” Bishop says. He and his team are now working on a second core, also from the Pacific, to see if it too holds the iron-60 signal.

Jacob Rabe's curator insight, May 3, 2013 12:33 PM

The sea is so deep and vast. Those who are brave enough to go down, are often forced to come back up from lack of oxygen and the extreme pressure. We are still finding new stuff on the ocean floor and the discoveries are fascinating.


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Researchers May Have Finally Detected a Dark Matter Particle

Researchers May Have Finally Detected a Dark Matter Particle | Amazing Science |

Dark matter: it’s invisible, it’s elusive, it’s controversial… and it’s everywhere — in the Universe, yes, but especially in the world of astrophysics, where researchers have been exhaustively trying to reveal its true identity for decades. Now, scientists with the international Super Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (SuperCDMS) experiment are reporting the detection of a particle that’s thought to make up dark matter: a weakly-interacting massive particle, or WIMP. According to a press release from Texas A&M University (whose high-energy physicist Rupak Mahapatra is a principal investigator in the experiment) SuperCDMS has identified a WIMP-like signal at the 3-sigma level, which indicates a 99.8 percent chance of an actual discovery — a “concrete hint,” as it’s being called.

“In high-energy physics, a discovery is only claimed at 5-sigma or better,” Mahapatra said. “So this is certainly very exciting, but not fully convincing by the standards. We just need more data to be sure. For now, we have to live with this tantalizing hint of one of the biggest puzzles of our time. If this is indeed a WIMP it will be the first time such a particle has been directly observed, lending more insight into what dark matter is… or isn’t.

Notoriously elusive, WIMPs rarely interact with normal matter and therefore are difficult to detect. Scientists believe they occasionally bounce off, or scatter like billiard balls from, atomic nuclei, leaving behind a small amount of energy capable of being tracked by detectors deep underground, particle colliders such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and even instruments in space like the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) mounted on the International Space Station.

The CDMS experiment, located a half-mile underground at the Soudan mine in northern Minnesota and managed by the United States Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, has been searching for dark matter since 2003. The experiment uses very sophisticated detector technology and advanced analysis techniques to enable cryogenically cooled (almost absolute zero temperature at -460 degrees F) germanium and silicon targets to search for the rare recoil of dark matter particles.

“This result is from data taken a few years ago using silicon detectors manufactured at Stanford that are now defunct,” Mahapatra said. “Increased interest in the low mass WIMP region motivated us to complete the analysis of the silicon-detector exposure, which is less sensitive than germanium for WIMP masses above 15 giga-electronvolts [one GeVa is equal to a billion electron volts] but more sensitive for lower masses. The analysis resulted in three events, and the estimated background is 0.7 events.”

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NOvA Neutrino Detector Sees Particles in 3D

NOvA Neutrino Detector Sees Particles in 3D | Amazing Science |

What will soon be the most powerful neutrino detector in the U.S. has recorded its first 3D images of particles. NOvA has begun collecting data from cosmic rays – particles produced by a constant rain of atomic nuclei falling on the Earth’s atmosphere from space.


“It’s taken years of hard work and close collaboration among universities, national laboratories and private companies to get to this point,” said Dr Pier Oddone, director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.


Scientists’ goal for the completed detector is to use it to discover properties of mysterious fundamental particles called neutrinos. Neutrinos are as abundant as cosmic rays in the atmosphere, but they have barely any mass and interact much more rarely with other matter.


“The more we know about neutrinos, the more we know about the early Universe and about how our world works at its most basic level,” explained NOvA co-spokesperson Dr Gary Feldman of Harvard University.


Later this year, Fermilab will start sending a beam of neutrinos 500 miles through the earth to the NOvA detector near the Canadian border. When a neutrino interacts in the NOvA detector, the particles it produces leave trails of light in their wake. The detector records these streams of light, enabling physicists to identify the original neutrino and measure the amount of energy it had.


“When cosmic rays pass through the NOvA detector, they leave straight tracks and deposit well-known amounts of energy. They are great for calibration,” said Fermilab researcher Dr Mat Muether. “Everybody loves cosmic rays for this reason. They are simple and abundant and a perfect tool for tuning up a new detector.”

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