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Scooped by Dr. Stefan Gruenwald!

Researchers count 16,000 different tree species in the Amazon

Researchers count 16,000 different tree species in the Amazon | Amazing Science |

After decades of research, scientists from around the world have quantified the number of individual trees and species scattered throughout the Amazon Basin.

Kenneth Feeley, professor in the FIU Department of Biological Sciences and co-author of the study, is one of 100 international researchers from 88 institutions who contributed to “Hyperdominance in the Amazonian Tree Flora,” an article published in Science in October.

The study examined more than 1000 1-hectare plots, or nearly 4 square miles, in the Amazon Basin. The basin, located throughout parts of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru and Venezuela, is the part of South America drained by the Amazon River. At 2.1 million square miles, the Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest. Using extrapolations from data compiled for more than 10 years, researchers estimate there are nearly 390 billion individual trees of about 16,000 species.

Feeley, who has spent more than 15 years studying the ecology, biogeography and conservation of tropical plant and animal communities, provided collections of fruit, plant and leaf specimens, known as herbaria, to the study and analyzed and compared data.

“One of the most remarkable and important outcomes of this study is the revelation of how little we actually know about the Amazon” Feeley said. “This study attempts to answer incredibly basic questions: How many trees are there in the Amazon? How many species of tree are there? What are the most common species? How many rare species are there? To event attempt to answer these questions, we worked for many years to gather immense amounts of data from across the huge expanses of remote and uncharted territories.”

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Cloudy skies on nearby super-Earth indicate that clouds may envelop many alien planets

Cloudy skies on nearby super-Earth indicate that clouds may envelop many alien planets | Amazing Science |

One of the best-studied nearby extrasolar planets — a body just a little larger than Earth — is swaddled in alien clouds, researchers have found. It is the smallest and most Earth-like world yet to yield the secrets of its atmosphere. Another study has found tantalizing hints of clouds on a larger, Neptune-sized world. The pair of discoveries, reported today in Nature12, suggests that clouds may envelop many exoplanets.

The scrutinized planet, which is known as GJ1214b, is classified as a super-Earth type planet because its mass is intermediate between those of Earth and Neptune. Recent searches for planets around other stars ("exoplanets") have shown that super-Earths like GJ 1214b are among the most common type of planets in the Milky Way galaxy. Because no such planets exist in our Solar System, the physical nature of super-Earths is largely unknown.

Previous studies of GJ 1214b yielded two possible interpretations of the planet's atmosphere. Its atmosphere could consist entirely of water vapor or some other type of heavy molecule, or it could contain high-altitude clouds that prevent the observation of what lies underneath.

But now a team of astronomers led by UChicago's Laura Kreidberg and Jacob Bean have detected clear evidence of clouds in the atmosphere of GJ 1214b from data collected with the Hubble Space Telescope. The Hubble observations used 96 hours of telescope time spread over 11 months. This was the largest Hubble program ever devoted to studying a single exoplanet.

The researchers describe their work as an important milestone on the road to identifying potentially habitable, Earth-like planets beyond our Solar System. "We really pushed the limits of what is possible with Hubble to make this measurement," said Kreidberg, a third-year graduate student and first author of the new paper. "This advance lays the foundation for characterizing other Earths with similar techniques."

"I think it's very exciting that we can use a telescope like Hubble that was never designed with this in mind, do these kinds of observations with such exquisite precision, and really nail down some property of a small planet orbiting a distant star," explained Bean, an assistant professor and the project's principal investigator.

GJ 1214b is located just 40 light-years from Earth, in the direction of the constellation Ophiuchus. Because of its proximity to our solar system and the small size of its host star, GJ 1214b is the most easily observed super-Earth. It transits, or passes in front of its parent star, every 38 hours, giving scientists an opportunity to study its atmosphere as starlight filters through it.

Kreidberg, Bean and their colleagues used Hubble to precisely measure the spectrum of GJ 1214b in near-infrared light, finding what they consider definitive evidence of high clouds blanketing the planet. These clouds hide any information about the composition and behavior of the lower atmosphere and surface.

The planet was discovered in 2009 by the MEarth Project, which monitors two thousand red dwarf stars for transiting planets. The planet was next targeted for follow-up observations to characterize its atmosphere. The first spectra, which were obtained by Bean in 2010 using a ground-based telescope, suggested that the planet's atmosphere either was predominantly water vapor or hydrogen-dominated with high-altitude clouds.

More precise Hubble observations made in 2012 and 2013 allowed the team to distinguish between these two scenarios. The news is about what they didn't find. The Hubble spectra revealed no chemical fingerprints whatsoever in the planet's atmosphere. This allowed the astronomers to rule out cloud-free atmospheres made of water vapor, methane, nitrogen, carbon monoxide, or carbon dioxide.

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MIT: How human language could have evolved from birdsong

MIT: How human language could have evolved from birdsong | Amazing Science |
Linguistics and biology researchers propose a new theory on the deep roots of human speech.

“The sounds uttered by birds offer in several respects the nearest analogy to language,” Charles Darwin wrote in “The Descent of Man” (1871), while contemplating how humans learned to speak. Language, he speculated, might have had its origins in singing, which “might have given rise to words expressive of various complex emotions.” 

Now researchers from MIT, along with a scholar from the University of Tokyo, say that Darwin was on the right path. The balance of evidence, they believe, suggests that human language is a grafting of two communication forms found elsewhere in the animal kingdom: first, the elaborate songs of birds, and second, the more utilitarian, information-bearing types of expression seen in a diversity of other animals.

“It’s this adventitious combination that triggered human language,” says Shigeru Miyagawa, a professor of linguistics in MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, and co-author of a new paper published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology

The idea builds upon Miyagawa’s conclusion, detailed in his previous work, that there are two “layers” in all human languages: an “expression” layer, which involves the changeable organization of sentences, and a “lexical” layer, which relates to the core content of a sentence. His conclusion is based on earlier work by linguists including Noam Chomsky, Kenneth Hale and Samuel Jay Keyser.

Based on an analysis of animal communication, and using Miyagawa’s framework, the authors say that birdsong closely resembles the expression layer of human sentences — whereas the communicative waggles of bees, or the short, audible messages of primates, are more like the lexical layer. At some point, between 50,000 and 80,000 years ago, humans may have merged these two types of expression into a uniquely sophisticated form of language.

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NYT: Michio Kaku interviews 300 of the world's top scientists and predicts the future

NYT: Michio Kaku interviews 300 of the world's top scientists and predicts the future | Amazing Science |

Michio Kaku: When making predictions, I have two criteria: the laws of physics must be obeyed and prototypes must exist that demonstrate “proof of principle.” I’ve interviewed more than 300 of the world’s top scientists, and many allowed me into laboratories where they are inventing the future. Their accomplishments and dreams are eye-opening. From my conversations with them, here’s a glimpse of what to expect in the coming decades:

1.     Computers Will Disappear

2.     Augmented Reality Will Be Everyday Reality

3.     The Brain-Net Will Augment the Internet

4.     Capitalism Will Be Perfected

5.     Robots Will Be Commonplace

6.     Aged Body Parts Will Be Replaced

7.     Parents Will Design Their Offspring based on Genomics

8.     Cybermedicine Will Extend Lives

9.     Dictators Will Be Big Losers

10.   Intellectual Capitalism Will Replace Commodity Capitalism

Via Pierre Tran, Amy Cross, Mike Busarello's Digital Storybooks, Jukka Melaranta
Teresa Lima's curator insight, January 10, 2014 4:38 AM


I think the future is unpredictable, and no one  can predict the future!

Carlos Polaino Jiménez's curator insight, January 16, 2014 7:38 AM

Predicción científica del futuro, esto es un tema a leer por lo menos.

Jesús Martinez's curator insight, January 18, 2014 8:07 AM

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‘Invisible' bicycle helmet developed in Sweden - an airbag for the head

‘Invisible' bicycle helmet developed in Sweden - an airbag for the head | Amazing Science |

 A new “invisible” bicycle helmet that uses technology similar to a vehicle airbag has been developed in Sweden. The Hövding device, worn around the neck, is designed to shoot a protective, inflatable nylon hood around the user's head within one tenth of a second of impact. Designers Terese Alstin and Anna Haupt said they were tired of traditional hard plastic designs that were unfashionable and ruined their hair.  “I don’t want anything on my head,” said Alstin. “I don’t want my hair to be destroyed.” 

The pair began to work on the device in 2005 when they were studying Industrial Design at Sweden’s University of Lund. Over the next seven years the pair engineered, refined and tested the collar, which can monitor a cyclist's movements more than 200 times a second using an inbuilt computer, sensors and gyro.

If it senses a collision, a small gas canister held in the back of the collar inflates the protective cover within milliseconds. “We had to simulate all known accidents,” Alstin said, adding that they had enlisted the help of professional cyclists to help them develop it. "Everything from an icy road crash to getting hit by a car."

Haupt added that the air pressure remains constant for several seconds allowing a cyclist to withstand multiple head impacts during the same accident before it starts to deflate.

“It’s actually three or four times better in terms of shock absorbance,” Alstin said. “And that’s the most important factor. It covers more of the head - including the entire neck - than traditional helmets."

Thomas Faltin's curator insight, December 31, 2013 6:23 AM

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Lung cancer breathalyzer trialed in the UK

Lung cancer breathalyzer trialed in the UK | Amazing Science |

With lung cancer survival rates greatly improved by early detection, we've seen a number of efforts to develop a better way to detect the disease in its early stages. So-called lung cancer breathalyzers are one technology being developed by a number of research teams, including one from the University of Huddersfield in the UK, which plans to trial a breathalyzer device in pharmacies.


The project to develop the device, which is taking place over three years, involves researching a lung cancer "biomarker signature" that is detectable in breath. Previous studies have already shown that carbon-based sensors embedded with gold nanoparticles and even dogs can detect chemicals in the breath indicating the presence of the disease in the lungs.

Via Ray and Terry's
Paul Joseph Smith's curator insight, December 30, 2013 11:35 PM

lung cancer

Thomas Faltin's curator insight, December 31, 2013 6:23 AM

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The amazing history of the Nobel Prize, told in maps and charts

The amazing history of the Nobel Prize, told in maps and charts | Amazing Science |

The U.S. has 4 percent of the world's population and 34 percent of its Nobel laureates. That's the most of any country in the world, by far: next-highest ranked is Britain with 120 laureates.

Up top is a heat map showing which countries have had the most Nobel laureates in the prize's history. Most countries have zero Nobel laureates. The faint yellow countries have received exactly one Nobel in the 113 years since the first prize was given. There's a small cluster of orange countries with maybe 10 to 15 Nobel laureates. A very tiny group of dark red countries have taken most of the Nobel prizes.

Just over 1,000 Nobels have been awarded since the prize was first established in 1901. Most of those have been in sciences but there's also the literature prize and, most famously, the peace prize. We've added up every Nobel awarded since 1901 and separated them out by country. The results are fascinating – and revealing.

A stunning 83 percent of all Nobel laureates have come from Western countries (that means Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia or New Zealand). We'll dive into some of the statistics of the Nobel below. But first here's a map of the prizes broken down by region.

Thomas Faltin's curator insight, December 31, 2013 6:22 AM

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Earth's crust was unstable in the Archean eon and dripped down into the mantle

Earth's crust was unstable in the Archean eon and dripped down into the mantle | Amazing Science |

Earth's mantle temperatures during the Archean eon, which commenced some 4 billion years ago, were significantly higher than they are today. According to recent model calculations, the Archean crust that formed under these conditions was so dense that large portions of it were recycled back into the mantle. This is the conclusion reached by Dr. Tim Johnson who is currently studying the evolution of the Earth's crust as a member of the research team led by Professor Richard White of the Institute of Geosciences at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). According to the calculations, this dense primary crust would have descended vertically in drip form. In contrast, the movements of today's tectonic plates involve largely lateral movements with oceanic lithosphere recycled in subduction zones. The findings add to our understanding of how cratons and plate tectonics, and thus also the Earth's current continents, came into being.

Because mantle temperatures were higher during the Archean eon, the Earth's primary crust that formed at the time must have been very thick and also very rich in magnesium. However, as Johnson and his co-authors explain in their article recently published in Nature Geoscience, very little of this original crust is preserved, indicating that most must have been recycled into the Earth's mantle. Moreover, the Archean crust that has survived in some areas such as, for example, Northwest Scotland and Greenland, is largely made of tonalite–trondhjemite–granodiorite complexes and these are likely to have originated from a hydrated, low-magnesium basalt source. The conclusion is that these pieces of crust cannot be the direct products of an originally magnesium-rich primary crust. These TTG complexes are among the oldest features of our Earth's crust. They are most commonly present in cratons, the oldest and most stable cores of the current continents.

With the help of thermodynamic calculations, Dr. Tim Johnson and his collaborators at the US-American universities of Maryland, Southern California, and Yale have established that the mineral assemblages that formed at the base of a 45-kilometer-thick magnesium-rich crust were denser than the underlying mantle layer. In order to better explore the physics of this process, Professor Boris Kaus of the Geophysics work group at Mainz University developed new computer models that simulate the conditions when the Earth was still relatively young and take into account Johnson's calculations.

More information: Tim E. Johnson et al. Delamination and recycling of Archaean crust caused by gravitational instabilities, Nature Geoscience 7, 47–52. Published online 1 December 2013. DOI: 10.1038/ngeo2019

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UC Berkeley Researchers Propose "Neural Dust" Brain-Computer Interface

UC Berkeley Researchers Propose "Neural Dust" Brain-Computer Interface | Amazing Science |

Advances in brain imaging and neural activity detection technologies, such as fMRI and EEG, have allowed us to learn much about the brain over the years, and neural implants have offered the ability to stimulate and all but control activity in certain parts of the brain. However, these brain-computer interfaces are limited in that they offer finite resolution, are hard to apply to many brain regions, and usually can only stay directly connected to the brain for a short period of time due to their invasiveness.

Engineers at the University of California, Berkeley, have proposed an ultra-small, ultrasound-based neural recording system that they call “neural dust”. Neural dust consists of thousands of sensors that are 10-100 micrometers in size containing CMOS circuits and sensors to detect and report local extracellular electrophysiological data. The neural dust is powered by ultrasonic waves via a transducer that is implanted just below the dura. The sub-dural unit also interrogates the neural dust and sends information to another receiver outside the body.

If neural dust becomes a reality, it could give us a much higher resolution look at what is going on inside the brain, as it will be able to record from thousands of sites within the brain, in contrast to the hundreds of channels that current technology allows. Moreover, because these tiny sensors are literally the size of dust particles, they could cause far less damage to the surrounding brain tissue and could stay embedded in the brain for long periods of time.

Journal article: arXivNeural Dust: An Ultrasonic, Low Power Solution for Chronic Brain-Machine Interfaces

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To bird or not to bird? The Archaeopteryx debate continues

To bird or not to bird? The Archaeopteryx debate continues | Amazing Science |

In 2012, the controversial case over whether or not Archaeopteryx lithographica, perhaps the most iconic dinosaur species of all time, was a bird was settled. Apparently. (free pdf) This was an important analysis for two reasons. Firstly, it countered a previous study showing that Archaeopteryx was more closely related to dinosaurs like Velociraptor and Deinonychus, and secondly used advanced, sort of non-traditional methods in palaeontology, called maximum likelihood and Bayesian analysis, to work out its relationships. None of this is news. It was extensively covered upon release way back, and also revisited recently with the discovery of Aurornis xuiwhich was found to be the most basal bird (i.e., that which was closest to the origin of the group, typically known as Avialae, or Aves).

Now a new study, from the December issue of a journal called Cladistics, has re-examined the data from the 2012 study, asking the question of whether or not the analyses they used even made sense to do in the first place. This is actually quite important. Maximum Likelihood and Bayesian analysis where designed with models in mind for describing the evolution of nucleotide data, that is genetic sequence data. Whether or not they can actually be used in fossil data, or that which is based purely on anatomy, is questionable, as anatomical features, or characters, evolve in a different manner to genetic data (e.g., there aren’t anytransversions or transitions). Given how often now these methods are used for genetic data, and to great effect, it’s a bit weird that it seems to have been largely overlooked by palaeontologists and scientists who use morphology to reconstruct evolutionary relationships.

Usually, palaeontologists use a method called parsimony analysis, which is a much simpler model for generating evolutionary trees. To use any of the programs below, download one of the nexus files from here (dinosaurs!), and run it with the program – worth a fiddle for a bit of science-ing!

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Brains on Trial: Determine criminal fate based on high-tech images of the brain

Brains on Trial: Determine criminal fate based on high-tech images of the brain | Amazing Science |
What if we could peer into a brain and see guilt or innocence? Brain scanning technology is trying to break its way into the courtroom, but can we—and should we—determine criminal fate based on high-tech images of the brain?

Join a distinguished group of neuroscientists and legal experts who will debate how and if neuroscience should inform our laws and how we treat criminals. This World Science Festival program is based on a two-part PBS special, “Brains on Trial with Alan Alda,” which aired on September 11 and 18, 2013, supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Laura E. Mirian, PhD's curator insight, December 30, 2013 10:32 AM

Although this may be possible there is always the chance it could be wrong and then we have Vanilla Sky.

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Rabies may not be the invincible killer we thought: Treating rabies with an induced coma

Rabies may not be the invincible killer we thought: Treating rabies with an induced coma | Amazing Science |

The immune system may be able to defeat rabies even after it reaches the brain – could there be an alternative therapy to the Milwaukee protocol?

Rabies is caused by single-stranded negative-sense RNA viruses in the genus of Lyssavirus. Rabies virus (RABV; genotype I) is the most prolific of the 12 viral species classified within the genus, and it is responsible for greater than 55,000 human deaths annually[1]. Typically, RABV is transmitted in the saliva after the bite of an infected mammal. In the Americas, bats and carnivores are the major reservoirs of RABV[2]. Multiple insectivorous bat species play a role in RABV transmission to humans in the United States[3].

In 2011, 8-year-old Precious Reynolds of California became only the sixth person known to survive rabies without receiving a vaccine shortly after infection. At the University of California Davis Children's Hospital doctors treated Reynolds with the Milwaukee protocol – an experimental procedure that plunges the patient into a drug-induced coma, taking the brain "offline" while the immune system scours the virus from infected neurons. But the Milwaukee protocol is not a miracle cure for rabies – far from it. Since Rodney Willoughby of the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee developed the treatment in 2004, the protocol has been tried at least 35 times around the world in attempts to save people with rabies. Including Reynolds, only five have ostensibly benefited from the treatment.

Why has the Milwaukee protocol worked in only a few cases? The answer may be that the survivors owe their lives not to the experimental treatment, but to a combination of fortunate circumstances and a robust response from their own immune systems. New research suggests that rabies is not quite the unequivocally fatal disease we think it is. The six known survivors may have been infected with weak strains of the rabies virus that their immune systems were able to eventually scrub from their brains – with or without the Milwaukee protocol.

Evidence of Rabies Virus Exposure among Humans in the Peruvian Amazon

  1. Re-evaluating the burden of rabies in Africa and Asia. Bull World Health Organ 83360368 (2005)Medline
  2. Rabies re-examined.Lancet Infect Dis 2327343 (2002)Medline
  3. Emerging epidemiology of bat-associated cryptic cases of rabies in humans in the United States. Clin Infect Dis 35738747 (2002)Medline
  4. Human rabies and rabies in vampire and nonvampire bat species, southeastern Peru, 2007. Emerg Infect Dis 15:13081310 (2009)Medline
  5. Rabies virus in insectivorous bats: implications of the diversity of the nucleoprotein and glycoprotein genes for molecular epidemiology. Virology 405352360 (2010)Medline
  6. Antigenic analysis of rabies-virus isolates from Latin America and the Caribbean. Zoonoses Public Health41153160 (1994)Google Scholar

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Using genetic algorithms to discover new nanostructured materials

Using genetic algorithms to discover new nanostructured materials | Amazing Science |

Researchers at Columbia Engineering, led by Chemical Engineering Professors Venkat Venkatasubramanian and Sanat Kumar, have developed a new approach to designing novel nanostructured materials through an inverse design framework using genetic algorithms. The study, published in the October 28 edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), is the first to demonstrate the application of this methodology to the design of self-assembled nanostructures, and shows the potential of machine learning and "big data" approaches embodied in the new Institute for Data Sciences and Engineering at Columbia.

"Our framework can help speed up the materials discovery process," says Venkatasubramanian, Samuel Ruben-Peter G. Viele Professor of Engineering, and co-author of the paper. "In a sense, we are leveraging how nature discovers new materials—the Darwinian model of evolution—by suitably marrying it with computational methods. It's Darwin on steroids!"

Using a genetic algorithm they developed, the researchers designed DNA-grafted particles that self-assembled into the crystalline structures they wanted. Theirs was an "inverse" way of doing research. In conventional research, colloidal particles grafted with single-stranded DNA are allowed to self-assemble, and then the resulting crystal structures are examined. "Although this Edisonian approach is useful for a posteriori understanding of the factors that govern assembly," notes Kumar, Chemical Engineering Department Chair and the study's co-author, "it doesn't allow us to a priori design these materials into desired structures. Our study addresses this design issue and presents an evolutionary optimization approach that was not only able to reproduce the original phase diagram detailing regions of known crystals, but also to elucidate previously unobserved structures."

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Comprehensive (1,500+) hyperlinked TED talk spreadsheet - Ideas worth spreading

Comprehensive (1,500+) hyperlinked TED talk spreadsheet - Ideas worth spreading | Amazing Science |

Updated 12/30/2013

Each year, the world's leading thinkers and doers gather for an event many describe as the highlight of their year. Attendees have called it "The ultimate brain spa" and "A 4-day journey into the future, in the company of those creating it." There are now several ways to participate in a TED conference... either in person or online.

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Scorpion genome (Mesobuthus martensii) is fully sequenced and has 10,000 more genes than humans

Scorpion genome (Mesobuthus martensii) is fully sequenced and has 10,000 more genes than humans | Amazing Science |

This may sting a little: Scorpions have about 10,000 more genes than humans do. The Chinese golden scorpion, Mesobuthus martensii, has at least 32,016 genes, Zhijian Cao of Wuhan University in China and colleagues report October 15 in Nature Communications. Humans have just over 22,000 genes. 

The researchers found 116 genes that encode neurotoxins, including 45 previously unknown ones. Many of the neurotoxins paralyze proteins in cell membranes that open and close to generate electrical signals, which nerve cells use to communicate. Mutations in the scorpion’s own membrane protein genes make the arachnid immune to its own venom.

Scorpions also have 160 enzymes that help them digest fats and detoxify plant chemicals from the herbivorous insects they eat. Some of these enzymes transform a chemical called coumarin into fluorescent compounds that make the animals glow blue under UV light, the team found.

The animals also make a type of light-sensing protein called Mmopsin3 in their tails. The protein senses ultraviolet to blue light. At least 20 other proteins made in the scorpion’s tail help transmit the light signal from the skin to the brain, the researchers discovered.

As the first complete scorpion genome and the second in Chelicerata, M. martensii is found to have the most protein-coding genes among sequenced arthropods. The M. martensii genome expands the genetic repertoire of arthropods into a previously unknown territory, which will aid further studies on the comparative genomics and evolution of arthropods. Considered a special type of arthropods, extant scorpions have preserved the primary features of Paleozoic ancestors from the Cambrian age. However, the Mesobuthus lineage is found to have a gene family turnover at a level significantly greater than the insects, challenging the common wisdom that scorpions apparently evolved more conservatively as ‘living fossils’. The data reveal the decoupling of the molecular and morphological evolution in scorpions, a phenomenon documented for the first time in an arthropod.

Underlying the molecular evolution of the M. martensii genome are the expansion of the gene families enriched in the basic metabolic pathways, signalling and stress response pathways, neurotoxins, and cytochrome P450 families of enzymes, and the different dynamics of expansion between the shared and the scorpion lineage-specific gene families. Genomic and transcriptomic analyses further illustrate the genetic features in M. martensii associated with the prey, nocturnal behaviour, feeding and detoxification, which are believed to be important to its long-term adaptation. These include the diversification of neurotoxins and their receptor genes, the expression of light-signal transduction genes enabling photosensor in the tail and the expansion of P450 families involved in detoxification and hormone biosynthesis. Taken together, these analyses on the scorpion genome reveal a unique adaptation model distinctive to other sequenced arthropods. The genomics study on M. martensii yields new insights into the evolution of arthropods, and raises some new questions as well, for example, the cause of the accelerating expansion of the scorpion lineage-specific gene families, and the general roles of the non-visual photosensor in the evolution of arthropods. This work builds a foundation for future exploration of these intriguing creatures, and also provides a valuable resource for addressing those fundamentally important questions.

Accession codes: The genome assembly has been deposited in GenBank under BioProject PRJNA171479. The genome and related annotation files are accessible at

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10 amazing science and technology innovations coming up in 2014

10 amazing science and technology innovations coming up in 2014 | Amazing Science |
From the world's largest underground hotel to Star Wars-style holographic communication, the coming year is set to unveil an array of incredible advances in science and technology

Via TechinBiz
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Strange New Worlds: The Most Important Alien Planet Discoveries of 2013

Strange New Worlds: The Most Important Alien Planet Discoveries of 2013 | Amazing Science |

Here's a list of the top exoplanet finds of 2013, from a tiny world about the size of Earth's moon to a blue gas giant on which it rains molten glass.

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When Did Galaxies Get Their Spirals? Approximately 3.7 Billion Years After the Big Bang

When Did Galaxies Get Their Spirals? Approximately 3.7 Billion Years After the Big Bang | Amazing Science |

“The onset of spiral structure in galaxies appears to occur between redshifts 1.4 and 1.8 when disks have developed a cool stellar component, rotation dominates over turbulent motions in the gas, and massive clumps become less frequent,” write the astronomers.

The redshift of a galaxy directly relates to that galaxy’s age. As the Universe expands, ancient light traveling through the universe will get stretched. This ‘light-stretching’ is known as redshift. The higher the redshift, the further the light has traveled, so the older it is.

Therefore, from the redshift measurements of this small collection of galaxies in the UDF, the researchers have found that a definite spiral galaxy structure begins to form for galaxies at redshift 1.8, which equates to approximately 3.7 billion years after the Big Bang. However, these are only the embryos of spiral galaxies, the “woolly”-type galaxies with very basic structures smeared with nebulous clouds of star formation. It’s not until approximately 8 billion years after the Big Bang (redshift 0.6) that more complex, multi-arm spiral structures form.

“The observations of different spiral types are consistent with the interpretation that clumpy disks form first and then transition to spirals as the accretion rate and gas velocity dispersion decrease, and the growing population of old fast-moving stars begins to dominate the disk mass,” they write.

In a nutshell, early galaxies are a turbulent mess of gas, dust and voracious star formation. These tumultuous times are not conducive to the galaxy settling into a more refined spiral structure. But given enough time, older stars begin to dominate the galactic landscape as the once-giant star formation regions shrink. These factors limit the instabilities throughout the galaxy, heralding a long, quiescent spiral galaxy structure not too dissimilar to the Milky Way’s shape some 13.75 billion years after the Big Bang.

Thomas Faltin's curator insight, December 31, 2013 6:23 AM

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BGI to Sequence 2,200 Geniuses in Search for the "Genome Of The Genius"

BGI to Sequence 2,200 Geniuses in Search for the "Genome Of The Genius" | Amazing Science |
In the world of genomics, Chinese biotech giant BGI is big and getting bigger. The firm agreed to purchase Bay Area juggernaut Complete Genomics for a bargain basement $117 million in 2012.

BGI owns 156 DNA sequencers and produces 10% to 20% of the world’s genetic information. Now the firm is putting their DNA sequencing might behind an investigation into the genetics of genius.

Suitably, one of BGI’s homegrown savants, 20-year-old Zhao Bowen, will head up the study. According to his bio, Zhao dropped out of high school to join BGI “after a startlingly productive internship contributing to BGI’s cucumber sequencing project.” His smart gene study promises to be a bit more challenging.

According to the Wall Street Journal, 1,600 of the study’s 2,200 genomes were provided by Dr. Robert Plomin of King’s College, London. Plomin collected the DNA of individuals with IQs over 160 (average IQ is said to be around 100) who had previously participated in a program called the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth. BGI signed up another 500 on their website. (The WSJ doesn’t account for the remaining 100.)

Zhao’s team is already busy sequencing the genomes and optimistically says they’ll be done in three months. The team will compare their genius genomes to a random selection of the population to see if they can isolate differences between the two.

Will they find anything useful? The WSJ compares the study to the genetics of height which depends on “1,000 genetic variations that partly explain why some people are taller than others.” It took 10,000 genomes for scientists to see results. If the genetic determinants of height are subtle and complicated, intelligence must be out of the ballpark, down at the pub, mumbling into a pint of ale.

BGI very clearly gets all this stuff. They know it’s a difficult and controversial topic. Sections of their FAQ read like a financial services disclaimer. “We do not claim that our study design is capable of identifying all g-associated alleles given enough participants, let alone all loci linked with other components of intelligence; or that g is a perfect measurement of intelligence, brain health, etc. We simply wish to start the process of discovery, and believe that this is a good place to begin.”

And maybe that’s enough for now. It’ll be fascinating, and probably controversial, when the team announces their findings. After all, if someone thinks they’ve found the genes behind intelligence—what then will they do with that information?

Thomas Faltin's curator insight, December 31, 2013 6:23 AM

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Scientists discover how AIDS virus enters key immune cells

Scientists discover how AIDS virus enters key immune cells | Amazing Science |

One of the reasons why we still do not have a cure for HIV infection yet is that the virus infects cells of the immune system that activate the response that should stop infection. In concrete terms, the main HIV targets are a sort of white cells named CD4 T lymphocytes, so called because they have the protein CD4 on their membrane. 

While we have more than 20 different drugs available today in the market, all of them act blocking the cycle that HIV follows to infect those CD4 T lymphocytes, but do not cure because they do not manage to eliminate all the viruses from the organism. One of the possible explanations for that fact is that the available treatments do not fully act on another kind of immune cells, called dendritic cells, where HIV also penetrates and remains almost fully infectious. Dendritic cells are responsible for activating the immune response, but when they do it, they also infect CD4 T lymphocytes in parallel. Therefore, the proliferation of the infection is more efficient when dendritic cells harboring viruses are around.

Now, scientists from the AIDS Research Institute IrsiCaixa, funded by “la Caixa” Foundation and the Health Department of the Generalitat de Catalunya (the autonomous catalan government), have identified the entry door that HIV uses to hide into dendritic cells, an enigma that the scientific community had been trying to solve for years. The work has just been published in the international scientific journal PLoS Biology, and it has been supported by the HIVACAT Program for the research and development of a vaccine against AIDS.

Siglec-1 is the molecule that can be found on the surface of dendritic cells that allows the entry of HIV into cells. It acts as a gateway for HIV to mature dendritic cells when are joined by the gangliosides of the virus, functioning as a key. Thus, dendritic cells accumulate large amounts of virus inside and become Trojan horses, allowing the infection of the CD4 + T cells, the main target of HIV, and contributing to spread HIV through the body.

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Human Brain Cells Make Mice Smart

Human Brain Cells Make Mice Smart | Amazing Science |

Study shows that intelligence derives from brain cells other than neurons

A team of neuroscientists has grafted human brain cells into the brains of mice and found that the rodents’ rate of learning and memory far surpassed that of ordinary mice.  Remarkably, the cells transplanted were not neurons, but rather types of brain cells, called glia, that are incapable of electrical signaling.  The new findings suggest that information processing in the brain extends beyond the mechanism of electrical signaling between neurons.

The experiments were motivated by a desire to understand the functions of glia and test the intriguing possibility that non-electric brain cells could contribute to information processing, cognitive ability, and perhaps even the unparalleled cognitive ability of the human brain, which far exceeds that of any other animal.

Current thinking about how the brain operates at a cellular level rests on a foundation established over a century ago by the great Spanish neuroanatomist and Nobel Prize winner, Ramon ý Cajal, who conceived the “Neuron Doctrine.” This doctrine states that all information processing and transmission in the nervous system takes place by electrical signals passing through neurons in one direction, entering through synapses on the neuron’s root-like dendrites and then passing out of the neuron through its wire-like axon as high-speed electrical impulses that stimulate the next neuron in a circuit through points of close apposition called synapses.  All thinking of how the brain receives sensory input, performs computational analysis, generates thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, rests on the Neuron Doctrine.

The possibility that glia, which lack any of the tell-tale attributes of neurons (dendrites, synapses, or axons) could contribute to information processing and cognition is well beyond traditional thinking.  Glia are understood to be cells that support neurons physically and physiologically and respond to neuronal disease and injury. In recent years, however, some neuroscientists have begun to wonder whether these neuron support functions, together with other aspects of the poorly understood glial biology, could participate in learning, memory and other cognitive functions.

Human glia cells are different: Looking through a microscope at a type of glial cell called an astrocyte, neuroscientist Maiken Nedergaard, was struck by a peculiar observation.  “Steve [Goldman] and I were culturing human brain cells many years ago and noted that the cultured astrocytes were much, much larger than in cultures [of astrocytes] prepared from rodent brain,” she says recalling the moment of inspiration for these human-mouse transplant experiments.  Nedergaard is a pioneer in research on neuron-glia interactions working together with Steven Goldman, an expert in neural stem cells.  Both are members of the Center for Translational Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center.  “Human glia, and astrocytes in particular, are substantially different from those of rodents,” Goldman explains. “Human astrocytes are larger and more varied in morphology, features that accompanied evolution of the human brain.”

Dr. Stefan Gruenwald's insight:

Interestingly, Albert Einstein's glia cell / neuro ratio was also much higher in certain areas when compared to "normal" human brains.'s_brain

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Making waves: In the hunt for invisibility, other benefits seen

Making waves: In the hunt for invisibility, other benefits seen | Amazing Science |

A new way of assemblingthings, called metamaterials, may in the not too distant futurehelp to protect a building from earthquakes by bending seismicwaves around it.

At the heart of both metamaterials and invisibility are waves. If electromagnetic waves - whether visible light, microwave or infrared - can be bent around an object it would not be visible on those wavelengths. It was long thought you couldn't control light in this way with natural materials as their optical properties depended on the chemistry of the atoms from which they were made.

It was only when Smith and his colleagues experimented with altering the geometry of material in the late 1990s that they found they could change the way it interacted with light, or other kinds of wave - creating metamaterials. With that, says Andrea Alu, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, scientists found "it may be possible to challenge rules and limitations that were for centuries considered written in stone."

The past decade has seen an explosion in research that has built on Smith's findings to make objects invisible to at least some forms of light.

"There have now been several demonstrations of cloaking at visible wavelengths, so cloaking is truly possible and has been realised," says Jason Valentine of Vanderbilt University, who made one of the first such cloaks. These, however, have limitations - such as only working for certain wavelengths or from certain angles. But the barriers are falling fast, says Valentine.

In the past year, for example, Duke University's Yaroslav Urzhumov has made a plastic cloak that deflects microwave beams using a normal 3D printer, while Alu has built an ultra-thin cloak powered by electric current.


Funding much of this U.S. research is the military. Urzhumov said in an email interview that the U.S. Department of Defense is "one of the major sponsors of metamaterials and invisibility research in the U.S." The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which commissions advanced research for the Department of Defense, has funded research into metamaterials since 2000, according to the department's website.

Military interest in metamaterials was primarily in making a cloak, said Miguel Navarro-Cia of Imperial College London, who has researched the topic with funding from the European Defence Agency and U.S. military.

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The brain’s visual data-compression algorithm

The brain’s visual data-compression algorithm | Amazing Science |
Data compression in the brain: When the primary visual cortex processes sequences of complete images and images with missing elements --- here vertical

Researchers have assumed that visual information in the brain was transmitted almost in its entirety from its entry point, the primary visual cortex (V1). “We intuitively assume that our visual system generates a continuous stream of images, just like a video camera,” said Dr. Dirk Jancke from the Institute for Neural Computation at Ruhr University.

“However, we have now demonstrated that the visual cortex suppresses redundant information and saves energy by frequently forwarding image differences,” similar to methods used for video data compression in communication technology.

Using recordings in cat visual cortex, Jancke and associates recorded the neurons’ responses to natural image sequences such as vegetation, landscapes, and buildings. They created two versions of the images: a complete one, and one in which they had systematically removed vertical or horizontal contours.

If these individual images were presented at 33Hz (30 milliseconds per image), the neurons represented complete image information. But at 10Hz (100 milliseconds), the neurons represented only those elements that were new or missing, that is, image differences.

To monitor the dynamics of neuronal activities in the brain in the millisecond range, the scientists used voltage-dependent dyes. Those substances fluoresce when neurons receive electrical impulses and become active, measured across a surface of several square millimeters. The result is a temporally and spatially precise record of transmission processes within the neuronal network.

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Mutation in plant flowering hormone postpones when a plant stops producing flowers, yielding many more fruits

Mutation in plant flowering hormone postpones when a plant stops producing flowers, yielding many more fruits | Amazing Science |

Cold Spring Harbor researchers announced that they have determined a way to dramatically increase tomato production. Their research has revealed a genetic mechanism for hybrid vigor, a property of plant breeding that has long been exploited to boost yield.

Every gardener knows the look of a ripe tomato. That bright red color, that warm earthy smell, and the sweet juicy flavor are hard to resist. But commercial tomato plants have a very different look from the backyard garden variety, which can grow endlessly under the right conditions to become tall and lanky. Tomatoes that will be canned for sauces and juice are harvested from plants that stop growing earlier than classic tomato varieties, and are therefore more like bushes. While the architecture of these compact bushy plants allows mechanical harvesters to reap the crop, the early end of growth means that each plant produces fewer fruits than their home garden cousins.

But what if commercial tomato growers could coax plants into producing more fruit without sacrificing that unique and necessary bushy plant shape? Today, CSHL researchers announced that they have determined a way to accomplish this. Their research has revealed one genetic mechanism for hybrid vigor, a property of plant breeding that has been exploited to boost yield since the early 20th century. Teasing out the hidden subtleties of a type of hybrid vigor involving just one gene has provided the scientists with means to tweak the length of time that bushy tomato varieties can produce flowers. In these plants, longer flowering time substantially raises fruit yield.

First identified at CSHL by George Shull in 1908, hybrid vigor – or heterosis, as biologists call it – involves interbreeding genetically distinct plants to generate offspring more robust than either inbred parent. It has been used for decades to improve agricultural productivity, but scientists have long debated how and why it works.

They found that bushy plants with a mutation in one of the two copies of the florigen gene, producing half as much florigen as plants without the mutation do, postpone the moment when they stop producing flowers.

This, in turn, leads to many more fruits overall. "This is because," Lippman explains, "bushy tomato varieties are highly sensitive to the amount, or dosage, of the florigen hormone, which alters plant architecture – that is, how many flowers can form before growth ends. These discoveries lead to an exciting prediction: that it may be possible to tweak florigen levels to increase yields even further."

Lippman's team also studied florigen mutants in another plant, the crucifer weed known as Arabidopsis that is a cousin of crops like broccoli and cauliflower. Although they did not see the same increase in yield, they did observe similar changes in plant architecture because of florigen dosage sensitivities. These results suggest that it may be possible to manipulate florigen in a wide variety of flowering species to increase yields.


"Tomato Yield Heterosis is Triggered by a Dosage Sensitivity of the Florigen Pathway that Fine-Tunes Shoot Architecture" appears online in PLOS Genetics on December 26, 2013. The authors are: Ke Jiang, Katie Liberatore, Soon Ju Park, John Alvarez, and Zach Lippman. []

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Engineer designs self-powered nanoscale devices that never need new batteries

Engineer designs self-powered nanoscale devices that never need new batteries | Amazing Science |

It's relatively simple to build a device capable of detecting wireless signals if you don't mind making one that consumes lots of power.

That's what Peter Kinget, a professor of electrical engineering, works on. He and his colleagues at the Engineering School are attempting to build self-powered systems using nanoscale devices that can transmit and receive wireless signals using so little power that their batteries never need replacing.

Rather, they rely on tiny bits of ambient solar energy to recharge themselves. Such energy efficiencies could dramatically cut down on the cost to operate a variety of these devices at once, while eliminating the need for maintenance. These sensors would only need to be installed once, and could remain in place functioning autonomously—practically until they wear out or disintegrate on their own.

Kinget's work is made possible by recent advances in nanotechnology—in general, he explains, the smaller the components of the tiny devices, the less energy is required to allow them to operate.

"We are using and exploiting the fact that power consumption—and the energy you need to do things—becomes very, very low as you pack more and more functionality into smaller and smaller spaces," he says.

"The bad news," he adds, "is that as the transistors become smaller, there are also clear disadvantages—nanoscale transistors are not as reliable, they cannot sustain large signal levels. The only way to deal with them is to come up with new design concepts."

Kinget's chips—some of them 100 times more energy efficient than most standard technologies—could be deployed for many different uses in future. Embedded in clothing, they could transmit the location of victims during disasters. They could be affixed to the walls of apartments across New York City and monitor heating or energy consumption patterns, which could then be analyzed to manage the heating systems or the power grid better. They could even collect and transmit data about humidity and temperature to computers designed to recognize and predict weather patterns.

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