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Reconstruction of 1918-like avian influenza virus stirs concern over gain of function experiments

Reconstruction of 1918-like avian influenza virus stirs concern over gain of function experiments | Amazing Science |

The gain of function experiments in which avian influenza H5N1 virus was provided the ability to transmit by aerosol among ferrets were met with substantial outrage from both the press and even some scientists; scenarios of lethal viruses escaping from the laboratory and killing millions proliferated (see examples here and here). The recent publication of new influenza virus gain of function studies from the laboratories of Kawaoka and Perez have unleashed another barrage of criticism.

The work by Kawaoka and colleagues attempts to answer the question of whether an influenza virus similar to that which killed 50 million people in 1918 could emerge today. First they identified in the avian influenza virus sequence database individual RNA segments that encode proteins that are very similar to the 1918 viral proteins.

Next, an infectious influenza virus was produced with 8 RNA segments that encode proteins highly related to those of the 1918 virus. Each RNA segment originates from a different avian influenza virus, and differs by 8 (PB2), 6 (PB1), 20 (PB1-F2), 9 (PA), 7 (NP), 33 (HA), 31 (NA), 1 (M1), 5 (M2), 4 (NS1), and 0 (NS2) amino acids from the 1918 virus.

The 1918-like avian influenza virus was less pathogenic in mice and ferrets compared with the 1918 virus, and more pathogenic than a duck influenza virus isolated in 1976. Virulence in ferrets increased when the HA or PB2 genes of the 1918-like avian influenza virus were substituted with those from the 1918 virus.

Aerosol transmission among ferrets was determined for the 1918-like avian influenza virus, and reassortants containing 1918 viral genes (these experiments are done by housing infected and uninfected ferrets in neighboring cages). The 1918 influenza virus was transmitted to 2 of 3 ferrets. Neither the 1918-like avian influenza virus, nor the 1976 duck influenza virus transmitted among ferrets. Aerosol transmission among ferrets was observed after infection with two different reassortant viruses of the 1918-avian like influenza virus: one which possesses the 1918 virus PB2, HA, and NA RNAs (1918 PB2:HA:NA/Avian), and one which possesses the 1918 virus PA, PB1, PB2, NP, and HA genes (1918(3P+NP):HA/Avian).

It is known from previous work that amino acid changes in the viral HA and PB2 proteins are important in allowing avian influenza viruses to infect humans. Changes in the viral HA glycoprotein (HA190D/225D) shift receptor specificity from avian to human sialic acids, while a change at amino acid 627 of the PB2 protein to a lysine (627K) allows avian influenza viruses to efficiently replicate in mammalian cells, and at the lower temperatures of the human upper respiratory tract.

These changes were introduced into the genome of the 1918-like avian influenza virus. One of three contact ferrets was infected with 1918-like avian PB2-627K:HA-89ED/190D/225D virus (a mixture of glutamic acid and aspartic acid at amino acid 89 was introduced during propagation of the virus in cell culture). Virus recovered from this animal had three additional mutations: its genotype is 1918-like avian PB2-627K/684D : HA-89ED/113SN/ 190D/225D/265DV : PA-253M (there are mixtures of amino acids at HA89, 113, and 265). This virus was more virulent in ferrets and transmitted by aerosol more efficiently than the 1918-like avian influenza virus. The virus recovered from contact ferrets contained yet another amino acid change, a T-to-I mutation at position 232 of NP. Therefore ten amino acid changes are associated with allowing the 1918-like avian influenza virus to transmit by aerosol among ferrets. Aerosol transmission of these viruses is not associated with lethal disease in ferrets.

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Amazing Science Infographics on Pinterest

Amazing Science Infographics on Pinterest | Amazing Science |

Over 675 infographics about science and related topics.


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Computer spots rare diseases in family photos

Computer spots rare diseases in family photos | Amazing Science |

Could software reveal whether Abraham Lincoln had Marfan syndrome? Doctors faced with the tricky task of spotting rare genetic diseases in children may soon be asking parents to email their family photos. A computer program can now learn to identify rare conditions by analysing a face from an ordinary digital photograph. It should even be able to identify unknown genetic disorders if groups of photos in its database share specific facial features.

Rare genetic disorders are thought to affect 6 per cent of people. Genetic tests exist for the more common conditions such as Down's syndrome, but many people with the rarer disorders never get a proper clinical diagnosis. Genetic tests aren't available for many conditions because the gene variants that cause them haven't been identified. This means doctors often have to rely on the pronounced facial features that occur in between 30 and 40 per cent of rare disorders to make a diagnosis, but few people are trained to recognise them.

"Clinicians skilled in the use of facial features to support diagnosis are few and far between," says Alastair Kent, director of the charity Genetic Alliance UK. "As a result, families frequently experience long delays – years rather than months – before they receive a diagnosis for their child."

The software developed by Christoffer Nellåker and Andrew Zisserman of the University of Oxford and their colleagues should help family doctors or general paediatricians make a preliminary diagnosis. "The idea is to offer it to health systems right across the world because all you need is a computer and a digital photo," says Nellåker.

To train the system, Nellåker's team fed a computer vision algorithm 1363 publicly available pictures of people with eight genetic disorders, including Down's syndrome, fragile X syndrome and progeria (fourth, fifth and sixth in the graphic below). The computer learned to identify each condition from a pattern of 36 facial features in each shot, such as the shapes of eyes, brows, lips and noses.

"It automatically analyses the picture and annotates key feature points, producing from that a description of the face which expands the features that are important for distinctiveness," Nellåker says. These features are then compared with those from pictures of patients with confirmed disorders, allowing the system to suggest and rank predictions for new patients.

To show that it works, the team analysed photos of people with known genetic disorders. The accuracy of the software increases with the number of photos of a specific disorder it learns from. For the eight training diseases, for example, each disorder was represented by between 100 and 283 images. On average, this resulted in 93 per cent of the predictions being correct.

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Not as random as thought: Modeling how neurons work together to perform complex movements

Not as random as thought: Modeling how neurons work together to perform complex movements | Amazing Science |

In a bid to better understand the brain and also to create robotics limbs that behave more realistically, a team of three European universities has developed a highly accurate new model of how neurons behave when performing complex movements.

The results from the University of CambridgeUniversity of Oxford, and the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) are published in the June 18 edition of the journal Neuron.

The new theory was inspired by recent experiments carried out at Stanford University, which had uncovered some key aspects of the signals that neurons emit before, during, and after a movement. “There is a remarkable synergy in the activity recorded simultaneously in hundreds of neurons,” said Guillaume Hennequin, PhD, of EPFL’s Department of Engineering, who led the research. “In contrast, previous models of cortical circuit dynamics predict a lot of redundancy, and therefore poorly explain what happens in the motor cortex during movements.”

I addition to helping us better understand the brain, better models of how neurons behave will aid in designing prosthetic limbs controlled via electrodes implanted in the brain. “Our theory could provide a more accurate guess of how neurons would want to signal both movement intention and execution to the robotic limb,” said Hennequin.

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Diet restriction suspends development in nematode worms and doubles lifespan

Diet restriction suspends development in nematode worms and doubles lifespan | Amazing Science |

Researchers at Duke University have found that taking food away from the C. elegans nematode worm triggers a state of arrested development: while the organism continues to wriggle about, foraging for food, its cells and organs are suspended in an ageless, quiescent state. When food becomes plentiful again, the worm develops as planned, but can live twice as long as normal.

The study found that C. elegans could be starved for at least two weeks and still develop normally once feeding resumed. Because the meter isn’t running while the worm is in its arrested state, this starvation essentially doubles the two-week lifespan of the worm. “It is possible that low-nutrient diets set off the same pathways in us to put our cells in a quiescent state,” said David R. Sherwood, an associate professor of biology at Duke University. “The trick is to find a way to pharmacologically manipulate this process so that we can get the anti-aging benefits without the pain of diet restriction.”

Over the last 80 years, researchers have put a menagerie of model organisms on a diet, and they’ve seen that nutrient deprivation can extend the lifespan of rats, mice, yeast, flies, spiders, fish, monkeys and worms anywhere from 30 percent to 200 percent longer than their free-fed counterparts.

Outside the laboratory and in the real world, organisms like C. elegans can experience bouts of feast or famine that no doubt affect their development and longevity. Sherwood’s colleague Ryan Baugh, an assistant professor of medicine at Duke, showed that hatching C. elegans eggs in a nutrient-free environment shut down their development completely. He asked Sherwood to investigate whether restricting diet to the point of starvation later in life would have the same effect.

Sherwood and his postdoctoral fellow Adam Schindler decided to focus on the last two stages of C. elegans larval development — known as L3 and L4 — when critical tissues and organs like the vulva are still developing. During these stages, the worm vulva develops from a speck of three cells to a slightly larger ball of 22 cells. The researchers found that when they took away food at various times throughout L3 and L4, development paused when the vulva was either at the three-cell stage or the 22-cell stage, but not in between.

When they investigated further, the researchers found that not just the vulva, but all the tissues and cells in the organism seemed to get stuck at two main checkpoints. These checkpoints are like toll booths along the developmental interstate. If the organism has enough nutrients, its development can pass through to the next toll booth. If it doesn’t have enough, it stays at the toll booth until it has built up the nutrients necessary to get it the rest of the way.

“Development isn’t a continuous nonstop process,” said Schindler, who is lead author of the study. “Organisms have to monitor their environment and decide whether or not it is amenable to their development. If it isn’t, they stop, if it is, they go. Those checkpoints seem to exist to allow the animal to make that decision. And the decision has implications, because the resources either go to development or to survival.”

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If the World Began Again, Would Life as We Know It Exist?

If the World Began Again, Would Life as We Know It Exist? | Amazing Science |

The Long-Term Evolution Experiment, as the E. coli project is known, has surpassed 60,000 generations now, giving Lenski a deep data set from which to draw inferences about the interplay of contingency and convergence in evolution. Subtle changes in the bacteria’s DNA that make them larger and better able to proliferate in the flask have been relatively common across the groups. At the same time, Lenski has witnessed “striking” cases of contingency, in which one population did something completely different than the others. But as in convergence, he adds, these transformations weren’t entirely random.

Via Complexity Digest, Ashish Umre
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Sad statistics: 25 Alarming Global Warming Facts

Sad statistics: 25 Alarming Global Warming Facts | Amazing Science |

Global warming is among the most alarming environmental issues that the world faces today. This phenomenon does not simply involve the significant rise in the earth’s temperature but a lot more. The adverse effects of global warming have become more and more apparent since the dawn of the 20th century, with more hurricanes and tropical storms causing massive destruction in different areas around the world, more animal species losing their habitats and becoming extinct, and more people dying because of too much heat. Here are 25 alarming global warming statistics.

Marc Kneepkens's curator insight, June 20, 2014 8:12 PM

Alarming numbers.

Jim Doyle's curator insight, June 23, 2014 8:51 AM

Sad statistics: 25 Alarming Global Warming Facts

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2014 Cancer Survivorship Statistics – 10 Key Facts

2014 Cancer Survivorship Statistics – 10 Key Facts | Amazing Science |

The number of Americans with a history of cancer is growing due to the aging and growth of the population, as well as improving survival rates. Nearly 14.5 million Americans with a history of cancer were alive on January 1, 2014, not including carcinoma in situ (non-invasive cancer) of any site except urinary bladder, and not including basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers. It is estimated that by January 1, 2024, the population of cancer survivors will increase to almost 19 million: 9.3 million males and 9.6 million females.

The three most common cancers among male survivors are prostate (43%), colon and rectum (9%), and melanoma (8%). Among female survivors, the most common cancers are breast (41%), uterine corpus (8%), and colon and rectum (8%).

The majority of cancer survivors (64%) were diagnosed 5 or more years ago, and 15% were diagnosed 20 or more years ago. Almost half (45%) of cancer survivors are 70 years of age or older, while only 5% are younger than 40 years.

This newest title in the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Facts and Figures series, a collaboration with the National Cancer Institute, provides current and projected cancer prevalence estimates for the United States, as well as data from the National Cancer Data Base on treatment patterns, and information on the common effects of cancer and its treatment. This publication contains information about treatment, survival, and other related concerns for the most common cancer types, as well as information on the side effects of cancer treatment.

Picture link: Cancer Statistics Map (click to magnify)

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Crossing the Interspecies Barrier: Opening the Door to Zoonotic Pathogens

Crossing the Interspecies Barrier: Opening the Door to Zoonotic Pathogens | Amazing Science |

The number of pathogens known to infect humans is ever increasing. Whether such increase reflects improved surveillance and detection or actual emergence of novel pathogens is unclear. Nonetheless, infectious diseases are the second leading cause of human mortality and disability-adjusted life years lost worldwide [1-2]. On average, three to four new pathogen species are detected in the human population every year [3]. Most of these emerging pathogens originate from nonhuman animal species.

Zoonotic pathogens represent approximately 60% of all known pathogens able to infect humans [4]. Their occurrence in humans relies on the human-animal interface, defined as the continuum of contacts between humans and animals, their environments, or their products. The human-animal interface has existed since the first footsteps of the human species and its hominin ancestors 6–7 million years ago, promoting the prehistoric emergence of now well-established human pathogens [5]. These presumably include pathogens with roles in the origin of chronic diseases, such as human T-lymphotropic viruses and Helicobacter pylori, as well as pathogens causing major crowd diseases, such as the smallpox and measles viruses and Bordetella pertussis [6]. Since prehistory, the human-animal interface has continued to evolve and expand, ever allowing new pathogens to access the human host and cross species barriers [5].

Species Barriers:

The suitability of any species to act as a host to a particular pathogen varies due to both host species– and pathogen-dependent factors, which define the species barriers. The species barriers separating nonhuman animal species from humans and thus of concern for zoonotic pathogens are the focus of this paper. However, the proposed conceptual framework is applicable to any host-pathogen system.

The species barriers separating nonhuman animal species from humans represent a major hurdle for effective exposure to, infection by, and subsequent spread of zoonotic pathogens among humans [7]. Accordingly, these species barriers can be divided into three largely complementary sets. First, the interspecies barrier determines the nature and level of human exposure to zoonotic pathogens. Second, the intrahuman barrier determines the ability of zoonotic pathogens to productively infect a human host and effectively cope with the immune response. Third, the interhuman barrier determines the ability of zoonotic pathogens to efficiently transmit among humans, causing outbreaks, epidemics, or pandemics. Zoonotic pathogens may cross, more or less efficiently, one or more of these sets of barriers. Only pathogens that cross all barriers have the potential to sustainably establish in the human population.

Via Mel Melendrez-Vallard
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NASA sees Titan's potential for studying prebiotic chemistry

NASA sees Titan's potential for studying prebiotic chemistry | Amazing Science |

NASA is proposing a mission study to open up the mysteries of Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. The reason is compelling enough. Titan would serve as a vast reservoir of information about one of the most earth-like worlds ever discovered. With its thick atmosphere and organic-rich chemistry, said NASA, Titan resembles a frozen version of Earth, several billion years ago, before life began pumping oxygen into our atmosphere. NASA's Larry Matthies, senior research scientist at the Pasadena, California, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, authored Titan Aerial Daughtercraft on the NASA website earlier this month. The proposed mission study involves a vehicle for Titan exploration, a rotorcraft, which would weigh less than 22 pounds. "We propose a mission study of a small (< 10 kg) (<22 pounds) rotorcraft that can deploy from a balloon or lander to acquire close-up, high resolution imagery and mapping data of the surface, land at multiple locations to acquire microscopic imagery and samples of solid and liquid material, return the samples to the mothership for analysis, and recharge from an RTG on the mothership to enable multiple sorties."

In a workshop paper presented by Matthies and his team, titled Titan Aerial Daughtercraft (TAD) for Surface Studies from a Lander or Balloon, wrote, "Recent rapid progress on autonomous navigation of micro air vehicles (MAVs) for terrestrial applications opens new possibilities for a small (approximately < 10 kg), highly autonomous aerial vehicle that could deploy from a lander or balloon to perform close-up surface studies over large areas."

Interest has been keen to explore Titan but various methods of doing so had to be shelved for practical reasons. Mission concepts to date, he said, included landers, but with no mobility; balloons and airplanes, but with no surface access; and large helicopters, posing greater development costs. He said, recent advances in autonomous navigation and miniaturization of sensors, processors, and sampling change previous mission concepts. Study activity goals include to develop mission concepts of operations for deployment from a lander or balloon to acquire context imaging and mapping data, sample from solid surfaces and/or lakes, and return to a mothership to deposit samples and/or recharge; develop a parametric sizing model of the daughtercraft; identify components for the hardware and software system for autonomous mobility; and develop a preliminary CAD model for a science payload on the daughtercraft.

JPL would proceed with the study with support from California-based AeroVironment, utilizing the latter's rotorcraft expertise and developing the sizing model. AeroVironment is a manufacturer of unmanned aircraft systems and unmanned aerial vehicles.

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3D-printed material can carry 160,000 times its own weight

3D-printed material can carry 160,000 times its own weight | Amazing Science |

Researchers from MIT and Lawrence Livermore have created a new class of materials with the same density as aerogels (aka frozen smoke) but 10,000 times stiffer. Called micro-architected metamaterials, they can withstand 160,000 times their own weight, making them ideal for load-bearing, weight-sensitive applications. To do it, the team created microscopic lattice molds using a 3D printer and photosensitive feedstock (see the video below), then coated them with a metal 200 to 500 nanometers thick. Once the lattice material was removed, it left an ultralight metal material with a very high strength-to-weight ratio. The process also works with polymers and ceramics -- with the latter, they created a material as light as aerogel, but four orders of magnitude stiffer. In fact, it was 100 times stronger than any known aerogel, making it ideal for use in the aerospace industry. Given that it was funded by DARPA, it could also end up on robotsdrones or soldiers.

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Electrons' magnetic interactions isolated at long last

Electrons' magnetic interactions isolated at long last | Amazing Science |

Electrons have an intrinsic, indivisible, magnetic dipole aligned with their internal angular momentum, also called spin. The magnetic interaction between two electronic spins can therefore impose a change in their orientation. Similar dipolar magnetic interactions exist between other spin systems and have been studied experimentally. Examples include the interaction between an electron and its nucleus and the interaction between several multi-electron spin complexes1-5. The challenge in observing such interactions for two electrons is twofold: (i) at the atomic scale, where the coupling is relatively large, it is often dominated by the much larger Coulomb exchange counterpart1, and (ii), on scales that are substantially larger than the atomic, the magnetic coupling is very weak and can be well below the ambient magnetic noise. A group of scientists recently reports the measurement of the magnetic interaction between the two ground-state spin-1/2 valence electrons of two 88Sr+ ions, co-trapped in an electric Paul trap. They varied the ion separation, d, between 2.18 and 2.76 micrometers and measured the electrons’ weak, millihertz-scale, magnetic interaction as a function of distance, in the presence of magnetic noise that was six orders of magnitude larger than the magnetic fields the electrons apply on each other. The cooperative spin dynamics was kept coherent for 15 seconds, during which spin entanglement was generated, as verified by a negative measured value of −0.16 for the swap entanglement witness. The sensitivity necessary for this measurement was provided by restricting the spin evolution to a decoherence-free subspace that is immune to collective magnetic field noise. Our measurements show a d−3.0(4) distance dependence for the coupling, consistent with the inverse-cube law.

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New species of ancient water bear (tardigrade) found in Antarctica

New species of ancient water bear (tardigrade) found in Antarctica | Amazing Science |
Scientists have announced the discovery of a tiny new animal in Antarctica's Victoria Land.

It's a member of the tardigrade family. Also known as water bears or moss piglets, these are widespread and ancient microscopic animals, around half a millimetre long at most and generally found in moss and lichen, where they eat plant cells or small invertebrates.

Members of the group are found everywhere from high mountains and hot deserts to the deep ocean. Their success stems partly from the fact they're among the toughest creatures we know of, able to deal with extremes of cold, heat, pressure, dehydration, poison and radioactivity that would kill almost anything else – indeed, they are the only kind of animal that we know can survive in the vacuum of space.

Dr Sandra McInnes, a tardigrade specialist at the British Antarctic Survey, was enlisted to help classify the find. Examination under an electron microscope revealed various unusual features – for instance the red-orange creature has tiny pads or cushions behind its claws, and a distinctive pattern of hairs on its body – suggesting the scientists were dealing with a new species. We don't yet know what these features are for, or how they benefit the animal.

The researchers combined this traditional approach to taxonomy by examining the organism's physical form with modern molecular methods, sequencing its DNA and using the results to work out the tardigrade's evolutionary lineage. The genetic analysis confirmed that it's a new species within the genusMopsechiniscus – the researchers named in Mopsechiniscus franciscae.

The discovery of the genus in Antarctica adds to the evidence that it's an old lineage descended from forebears that were present on the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana, and that it has changed relatively little since then compared to other tardigrade genera.

'Mopsechiniscus is unique among tardigrades, as our molecular analysis shows,' McInnes says. 'The genus has a lot of more primitive characteristics that suggest it is closer to the group's more distant ancestors.'

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Acid oceans threaten creatures that supply half the world's oxygen

Acid oceans threaten creatures that supply half the world's oxygen | Amazing Science |
Ocean acidification is turning phytoplankton toxic. Bad news for the many species - us, included - that rely on them as a principal source of food and oxygen.

What happens when phytoplankton, the (mostly) single-celled organisms that constitute the very foundation of the marine food web, turn toxic? Their toxins often concentrate in the shellfish and many other marine species (from zooplankton to baleen whales) that feed on phytoplankton. Recent trailblazing research by a team of scientists aboard the RV Melville shows that ocean acidification will dangerously alter these microscopic plants, which nourish a menagerie of sea creatures and produce up to 60 percent of the earth's oxygen.

The researchers worked in carbon saturated waters off the West Coast, a living laboratory to study the effects of chemical changes in the ocean brought on by increased atmospheric carbon dioxide. A team of scientists from NOAA's Fisheries Science Center and Pacific Marine Environmental Lab, along with teams from universities in Maine, Hawaii and Canada focused on the unique "upwelled" zones of California, Oregon and Washington. In these zones, strong winds encourage mixing, which pushes deep, centuries-old CO2 to the ocean surface. Their findings could reveal what oceans of the future will look like. The picture is not rosy.

Scientists already know that ocean acidification, the term used to describe seas soured by high concentrations of carbon, causes problems for organisms that make shells. “What we don't know is the exact effects ocean acidification will have on marine phytoplankton communities,” says Dr. Bill Cochlan, the biological oceanographer from San Francisco State University oceanographer who was the project’s lead investigator. “Our hypothesis is that ocean acidification will affect the quantity and quality of certain metabolities within the phytoplankton, specifically lipids and essential fatty acids.”

Scott Baker's curator insight, June 25, 2014 10:00 AM

will fertilization help?

Diane Johnson's curator insight, June 25, 2014 12:12 PM

Understanding systems and interdependence is just so critical!

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A single nerve tract deep within the brain of mice influences the animal's tendency to socialize

A single nerve tract deep within the brain of mice influences the animal's tendency to socialize | Amazing Science |

A team of Stanford Universityinvestigators has linked a particular brain circuit to mammals’ tendency to interact socially. Stimulating this circuit — one among millions in the brain — instantly increases a mouse’s appetite for getting to know a strange mouse, while inhibiting it shuts down its drive to socialize with the stranger.

The new findings, published June 19 in Cell, may throw light on psychiatric disorders marked by impaired social interaction such as autism, social anxiety, schizophrenia and depression, said the study’s senior author, Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, a professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. The findings are also significant in that they highlight not merely the role of one or another brain chemical, as pharmacological studies tend to do, but rather the specific components of brain circuits involved in a complex behavior. A combination of cutting-edge techniques developed in Deisseroth’s laboratory permitted unprecedented analysis of how brain activity controls behavior.

Deisseroth, the D.H. Chen Professor and a member of the interdisciplinary Stanford Bio-X institute, is a practicing psychiatrist who sees patients with severe social deficits. “People with autism, for example, often have an outright aversion to social interaction,” he said. They can find socializing — even mere eye contact — painful.

Deisseroth pioneered a brain-exploration technique, optogenetics, that involves selectively introducing light-receptor molecules to the surfaces of particular nerve cells in a living animal’s brain and then carefully positioning, near the circuit in question, the tip of a lengthy, ultra-thin optical fiber (connected to a laser diode at the other end) so that the photosensitive cells and the circuits they compose can be remotely stimulated or inhibited at the turn of a light switch while the animal remains free to move around in its cage.

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Software Used for Facial Recognition Teases Out Secret Messages Hidden on Bird Eggs

Software Used for Facial Recognition Teases Out Secret Messages Hidden on Bird Eggs | Amazing Science |

Some bird eggs have visual signatures that help them distinguish they own clutch from impostor cuckoo .

For most honest bird species, brood parasites like the cuckoo are no joke. These sneaky free-loaders comprise about one percent of all bird species. Sniffing out false eggs is serious business for many birds. Brood parasites plant eggs in unsuspecting nests and leave the duped foster parents to care for their chicks—usually to the deadly detriment of the foster parents' own babies. 

Now, researchers from Harvard University and the University of Cambridge have discovered one way that bird parents likely keep an eye on their own eggs: with special visual signature. The researchers used the same kind of software that companies rely on for facial recognition and image stitching but applied that technology to hundreds of eggs of eight different parasitized bird species. They call the new program NaturePatternMatch.

The host birds, they found, have previously unrecognized egg "signatures"—essentially, secret visual cues that allow them to recognize their own among the imposters. The more intensely the bird species is targeted by cuckoos, the more complex and sophisticated their egg signatures. Some of the host birds, they found, produce exactly the same egg, whereas some show variation within their own clutch or between females within the same species. All of these methods, the team says, would likely be effective strategies for lessening the likelihood of being duped.

"The ability of Common Cuckoos to mimic the appearance of many of their hosts' eggs has been known for centuries," the researchers say in a statement. "The astonishing finding here is that hosts can fight back against cuckoo mimicry by evolving highly recognizable patterns on their own eggs, just like a bank might insert watermarks on its currency to deter counterfeiters."

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Is There A Remnant Ancient Earth Lodged Deep Inside Earth's Mantle?

Is There A Remnant Ancient Earth Lodged Deep Inside Earth's Mantle? | Amazing Science |

A team of scientists from Harvard University believe that have found evidence that an ancient Earth exists inside the Earth.

The team believes that a previously unexplained isotopic ratio from deep within the Earth might be a signal from material from before the Earth collided with another planet-sized body, which led to the creation of the Moon. This might be an echo of an ancient Earth that existed 4.5 billion years ago, prior to the proposed collision.

The current favored theory says that the Moon was formed 4.5 billion years ago when the Earth collided with a mass the size of Mars, dubbed “Theia.” This theory states that the heat generated by the collision would have melted the whole planet before some of the debris spun off to create the Moon.

But now, the team at Harvard, led by Associate Professor Sujoy Mukhopadhyay, believe that they’ve found evidence to support that only part of the Earth melted, and that an ancient part still exists within the Earth’s mantle.

According to Professor Mukhopadhyay: “The energy released by the impact between the Earth and Theia would have been huge, certainly enough to melt the whole planet. But we believe that the impact energy was not evenly distributed throughout the ancient Earth. This means that a major part of the impacted hemisphere would probably have been completely vaporized, but the opposite hemisphere would have been partly shielded, and would not have undergone complete melting.”

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Princess and the Pea? Invisibility cloak prevents an object from being felt

Princess and the Pea? Invisibility cloak prevents an object from being felt | Amazing Science |

In the past years, invisibility cloaks were developed for various senses. Objects can be hidden from light, heat or sound. However, hiding of an object from being touched still remained to be accomplished. KIT scientists have now succeeded in creating a volume in which an object can be hidden from touching similar to a pea under the mattress of a princess. The results are now presented in the renowned Nature Communications journal. (DOI: 10.1038/ncomms5130)


Magicians and illusionists make things disappear by means of a skilled use of mental delusions and diversionary tactics. KIT researchers, by contrast, use invisibility cloaks based on the laws of physics. In the past years, various physical invisibility cloaks were developed. Optical invisibility cloaks, for instance, make objects appear invisible, while others appear to let heat or sound pass uninfluenced. A completely new type of invisibility cloak is the mechanical one developed by KIT scientists. It prevents an object from being touched.

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MIT ranking of 10 New Breakthrough Technologies in 2014

MIT ranking of 10 New Breakthrough Technologies in 2014 | Amazing Science |

Technology news is full of incremental developments, but few of them are true milestones. Here we’re citing 10 that are. These advances from the past year all solve thorny problems or create powerful new ways of using technology. They are breakthroughs that will matter for years to come.

Agricultural Drones

Relatively cheap drones with advanced sensors and imaging capabilities are giving farmers new ways to increase yields and reduce crop damage.

Ultraprivate Smartphones

New models built with security and privacy in mind reflect the Zeitgeist of the Snowden era.

Brain Mapping
A new map, a decade in the works, shows structures of the brain in far greater detail than ever before, providing neuroscientists with a guide to its immense complexity.

Neuromorphic Chips
Microprocessors configured more like brains than traditional chips could soon make computers far more astute about what’s going on around them.

Genome Editing
The ability to create primates with intentional mutations could provide powerful new ways to study complex and genetically baffling brain disorders.

Microscale 3-D Printing
Inks made from different types of materials, precisely applied, are greatly expanding the kinds of things that can be printed.

Mobile Collaboration
The smartphone era is finally getting the productivity software it needs.

Oculus Rift
Thirty years after virtual-reality goggles and immersive virtual worlds made their debut, the technology finally seems poised for widespread use.

Agile Robots
Computer scientists have created machines that have the balance and agility to walk and run across rough and uneven terrain, making them far more useful in navigating human environments.

Smart Wind and Solar Power
Big data and artificial intelligence are producing ultra-accurate forecasts that will make it feasible to integrate much more renewable energy into the grid.

Marc Kneepkens's curator insight, June 20, 2014 8:22 PM

Very interesting information on what is happening with cutting edge science and technologies.

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Theoretical physics: The origins of space and time

Theoretical physics: The origins of space and time | Amazing Science |

Many researchers believe that physics will not be complete until it can explain not just the behavior of space and time, but where these entities come from.

“Imagine waking up one day and realizing that you actually live inside a computer game,” says Mark Van Raamsdonk, describing what sounds like a pitch for a science-fiction film. But for Van Raamsdonk, a physicist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, this scenario is a way to think about reality. If it is true, he says, “everything around us — the whole three-dimensional physical world — is an illusion born from information encoded elsewhere, on a two-dimensional chip”. That would make our Universe, with its three spatial dimensions, a kind of hologram, projected from a substrate that exists only in lower dimensions.

This 'holographic principle' is strange even by the usual standards of theoretical physics. But Van Raamsdonk is one of a small band of researchers who think that the usual ideas are not yet strange enough. If nothing else, they say, neither of the two great pillars of modern physics — general relativity, which describes gravity as a curvature of space and time, and quantum mechanics, which governs the atomic realm — gives any account for the existence of space and time. Neither does string theory, which describes elementary threads of energy.

Van Raamsdonk and his colleagues are convinced that physics will not be complete until it can explain how space and time emerge from something more fundamental — a project that will require concepts at least as audacious as holography. They argue that such a radical reconceptualization of reality is the only way to explain what happens when the infinitely dense 'singularity' at the core of a black hole distorts the fabric of space-time beyond all recognition, or how researchers can unify atomic-level quantum theory and planet-level general relativity — a project that has resisted theorists' efforts for generations.

“All our experiences tell us we shouldn't have two dramatically different conceptions of reality — there must be one huge overarching theory,” says Abhay Ashtekar, a physicist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. Finding that one huge theory is a daunting challenge.

Nature explores some promising lines of attack — as well as some of the emerging ideas about how to test these concepts (see 'The fabric of reality').

Guillaume Decugis's curator insight, June 24, 2014 10:52 AM

A recap on the unifying theories that could explain the fabric of our universe.

Tekrighter's curator insight, June 25, 2014 9:36 AM

Gravity as thermodynamics reinforces the idea of gravity as an emergent property of space-time...

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'Superfluid spacetime' points to unification of physics

'Superfluid spacetime' points to unification of physics | Amazing Science |
Thinking of space and time as a liquid might help reconcile quantum mechanics and relativity.

If spacetime is like a liquid — a concept some physicists say could help resolve a confounding disagreement between two dominant theories in physics — it must be a very special liquid indeed. A recent study compared astrophysical observations with predictions based on the notion of fluid spacetime, and found the idea only works if spacetime is incredibly smooth and freely flowing — in other words, a superfluid.

Thinking of spacetime as a liquid may be a helpful analogy. We often picture space and time as fundamental backdrops to the universe. But what if they are not fundamental, and built instead of smaller ingredients that exist on a deeper layer of reality that we cannot sense? If that were the case, spacetime’s properties would “emerge” from the underlying physics of its constituents, just as water’s properties emerge from the particles that comprise it. “Water is made of discrete, individual molecules, which interact with each other according to the laws of quantum mechanics, but liquid water appears continuous and flowing and transparent and refracting,” explains Ted Jacobson, a physicist at the University of Maryland, College Park. “These are all ‘emergent’ properties that cannot be found in the individual molecules, even though they ultimately derive from the properties of those molecules.”

Physicists have been considering this possibility since the 1990s in an attempt to reconcile the dominant theory of gravity on a large scale — general relativity — with the theory governing the very smallest bits of the universe—quantum mechanics. Both theories appear to work perfectly within their respective domains, but conflict with one another in situations that combine the large and small, such as black holes (extremely large mass, extremely small volume). Many physicists have tried to solve the problem by 'quantizing' gravity — dividing it into smaller bits, just as quantum mechanics breaks down many quantities, such as particles’ energy levels, into discrete packets. “There are many attempts to quantize gravity—string theory and loop quantum gravity are alternative approaches that can both claim to have gone a good leg forward,” says Stefano Liberati, a physicist at the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Trieste, Italy. “But maybe you don’t need to quantize gravity; you need to quantize this fundamental object that makes spacetime.”

Liberati, along with his colleague Luca Maccione of Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, recently explored how that idea would affect light traveling through the universe. An emergent spacetime, one that acted like a fluid, would not be immediately distinguishable from the spacetime of any other theory. But in extreme situations, such as for very energetic light particles, Liberati and Maccione found that some differences would be noticeable. In fact, by examining observations of high-energy photons flying across the universe from the Crab Nebula, the physicists were able to rule out certain versions of emergent spacetime, finding that if it is a fluid at all, it must be a superfluid. The researchers published their results in Physical Review Letters1 in April.

In this analogy particles would travel through spacetime like waves in an ocean, and the laws of fluid mechanics — condensed-matter physics — would apply. Previously physicists considered how particles of different energies would disperse in spacetime, just as waves of different wavelengths disperse, or travel at different speeds, in water. In the latest study Liberati and Maccione took into account another fluid effect: dissipation. As waves travel through a medium, they lose energy over time. This dampening effect would also happen to photons traveling through spacetime, the researchers found. Although the effect is small, high-energy photons traveling very long distances should lose a noticeable amount of energy, the researchers say.

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‘Superradiant’ discovery opens new path to superfast quantum computing

‘Superradiant’ discovery opens new path to superfast quantum computing | Amazing Science |

Washington State University researchers have used a super-cold cloud of atoms that behaves like a single atom, opening a new experimental path to potentially powerful quantum computing.

Physicist Peter Engels and his colleagues cooled about one million atoms of rubidium to 100 billionths of a degree above absolute zero. There was no colder place in the universe, said Engels, unless someone was doing a similar experiment elsewhere on Earth or on another planet.

At that point, the cluster of atoms formed a Bose-Einstein condensate — a rare physical state predicted by Albert Einstein and Indian theorist Satyendra Nath Bose — after undergoing a phase change (similar to a gas becoming a liquid or a liquid becoming a solid).

Spin-orbit-coupled Bose–Einstein condensates (BECs) provide a powerful tool to investigate interesting gauge field-related phenomena. The research team studied the ground state properties of such a system and showed that it can be mapped to the well-known Dicke model in quantum optics, which describes the interactions between an ensemble of atoms and an optical field. A central prediction of the Dicke model is a quantum phase transition between a superradiant phase and a normal phase. They detected this transition in a spin-orbit-coupled BEC by measuring various physical quantities across the phase transition. These quantities include the spin polarization, the relative occupation of the nearly degenerate single-particle states, the quantity analogous to the photon field occupation and the period of a collective oscillation (quadrupole mode). The applicability of the Dicke model to spin-orbit-coupled BECs may lead to interesting applications in quantum optics and quantum information science.

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Leptin reverses diabetes (type I and II) by suppression of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis

Leptin reverses diabetes (type I and II) by suppression of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis | Amazing Science |

Treatment with leptin, the hormone associated with fullness or satiety, reverses hyperglycemia in animals models of poorly controlled type 1 (T1D) and type 2 (T2D) diabetes by suppressing the neuroendocrine pathways that cause blood glucose levels to soar, a Yale-led team of researchers has found.

The leptin hormone regulates metabolism, appetite, and body weight. The researchers discovered that, in a fasting state, rats with poorly controlled T1D and T2D diabetes had lower plasma insulin and leptin concentrations and large increases in concentrations of plasma corticosterone—a stress hormone made in the adrenal glands that raises levels of blood glucose.

The researchers then found that normalizing plasma leptin concentrations in the T1D rats with a leptin infusion resulted in marked reductions in plasma glucose concentrations, which could mostly be attributed to reduction in rates of liver conversion of lactate and amino acids into glucose.

The question was why this happened. The team's data revealed that leptin normalized plasma corticosterone and plasma glucose concentrations by inhibiting the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, a critical neuroendocrine pathway consisting of three major glands that regulate many body processes, including reactions to stress, energy storage, and energy utilization.

Researchers believe their finding about leptin may lead to development of new types of therapies to reduce and reverse uncontrolled hyperglycemia in patients with type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

"Previous studies by our group found that leptin replacement therapy reverseddiabetes and insulin resistance in patients with severe lipodystophy—a loss of fatty tissue that leads to those disorders—by reducing fat deposits in the liver and skeletal muscle," said senior author Dr. Gerald Shulman, the George Cowgill Professor of Medicine (Endocrinology), and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

"These new data provide an additional mechanism by which leptin therapy reverses hepatic insulin resistance and hyperglycemia in animal models of poorly controlled type 1 and type 2 diabetes."

Reference: Nature Medicine 


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The Billion Cell Construct: Will Three-Dimensional Printing Get Us There?

The Billion Cell Construct: Will Three-Dimensional Printing Get Us There? | Amazing Science |

In the 1960s field known as Bionics, many human tissue functions were considered analogous to basic mechanical and electrical systems, such as servomechanisms [1]. Researchers made rapid progress recapitulating components of systems found in the body, and forecasts were made as to when human–machine interfaces would become so completely integrated with our anatomy as to be essentially undetectable. This conceptual framework has proven useful in practice, with contemporary work applied to human patients through surgical implants such as knee, hip, and limb prostheses [2]; pacemakers; and cochlear and retinal devices [3]. Although these medical devices significantly improve the quality of life for patients today, there are many functions in living tissues which cannot be addressed with electromechanical systems. Shrewd utilization of our best materials simply cannot replace tissues in the body whose functions are intimately tied to their biochemistry. For example, we don't know how to make a plastic or a metal that can metabolize acetaminophen and alcohol like the liver can.

Since cells are the major functional unit responsible for biochemistry in the body, efforts to separate cells from their native environment in vivo and apply them therapeutically in extracorporeal devices have remained steadfast. In extracorporeal liver-assist devices, live cells can be loaded into bioreactor chambers outside the body and then connected in a closed loop with host blood circulation so that the biochemical benefit from cells in the device will positively affect the patient [4],[5]. But these strategies that are external to the body, including dialysis of blood during kidney failure, lead to their own morbidities and are not suitable long-term therapies [6].

Cells loaded into extracorporeal devices or growing at the bottom of a Petri dish bear little resemblance to the exquisite anatomical complexity found in the human body. Organs like the lung, heart, brain, kidney, and liver are pervaded by incredibly elegant yet frighteningly complex vascular networks (carrying air, lymph, blood, urine, and bile), leaving us without a clear path toward physical recapitulation of these tissues in the laboratory (Figure 1). However, we don't need to fully understand tissue organization or all of developmental biology (e.g., spatiotemporal growth factor release) before we can improve the quality of life for patients suffering from damaged or diseased organs. Transplanting whole organs from a human donor into a recipient can provide lifelong benefit when accompanied with immunosuppressive therapy [7],[8]. Moreover, isolated cells have been shown to be able to provide biochemical benefit to the host, even when injected or placed at ectopic sites inside the recipient [9][11].

As we look toward the future, the prospect of using a patient's own cells to develop living models of their active biochemistry as well as functional, life-lasting cellular implants offers potentially revolutionary changes to research and healthcare. Stem cell biologists are uncovering exciting new ways to induce pluripotency [12] and direct lineage commitment [13]. But simple questions about cell number and cell types, their spatial arrangement, and local extracellular and microenvironmental considerations remain largely intractable because of difficulties in placing and culturing cells in three-dimensional (3D) space. For example, embryoid body aggregates containing thousands of cells change differentiation trajectory as a function of cell population and microenvironmental characteristics [14], while larger cell populations packed at physiologic densities rapidly die because of lack of adequate oxygen and nutrient transport.

Recent advances in 3D printing, a suite of technologies originally developed for plastic and metal manufacturing, are now being adapted to operate within the soft, wet environments where cells function best. Because 3D printing excels at producing heterogeneous physical objects of high complexity, biologists and bioengineers are gaining unprecedented access to a rich landscape of tissue architecture we've always wanted to explore.

Reference: Miller JS (2014) The Billion Cell Construct: Will Three-Dimensional Printing Get Us There? PLoS Biol 12(6): e1001882.

Via Complexity Digest
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The direction of evolution of life on Earth: The rise of cooperative organization

The direction of evolution of life on Earth: The rise of cooperative organization | Amazing Science |

Two great trends are evident in the evolution of life on Earth: towards increasing diversification and towards increasing integration. Diversification has spread living processes across the planet, progressively increasing the range of environments and free energy sources exploited by life. Integration has proceeded through a stepwise process in which living entities at one level are integrated into cooperative groups that become larger-scale entities at the next level, and so on, producing cooperative organizations of increasing scale. For example, cooperative groups of simple cells gave rise to the more complex eukaryote cells, groups of these gave rise to multi-cellular organisms, and cooperative groups of these organisms produced animal societies. The trend towards increasing integration has continued during human evolution with the progressive increase in the scale of human groups and societies. The trends towards increasing diversification and integration are both driven by selection. An understanding of the trajectory and causal drivers of the trends suggests that they are likely to culminate in the emergence of a global entity. This entity would emerge from the integration of the living processes, matter, energy and technology of the planet into a global cooperative organization. Such an integration of the results of previous diversifications would enable the global entity to exploit the widest possible range of resources across the varied circumstances of the planet. 

Via Complexity Digest
Eli Levine's curator insight, June 15, 2014 10:06 PM

Cooperation is the best way to improve, sustain, maintain, and repair.  Competition is what drives everyone and everything towards something different, be it competition for resources or competition against the elements around us.


I don't get what the point of competition amongst the species is for.  Part of cooperation, after all, is knowing what works, learning about what could work better or doesn't work, and then letting the negative or sub-optimal slip back beneath the waves of ignorance, such that the new ways can rise to prominence.


Change is the only constant in this universe of universes.


Yet cooperation, I think, yields the higher and stronger of the universal structures that are out there, even if it means that there are still losers and winners.  The only difference is the level of consent and consensus that's reached within the social, ecological, economical, and/or political landscape.  One way works towards what is best.  The other way simply yields what is best at competing, which is not the same as being the actual best solution to a given problem or condition.


Think about it.

Luciano Lampi's curator insight, June 16, 2014 9:51 AM

is this the end of stove pipes?

Ra's curator insight, June 22, 2014 6:02 AM

Have I been reading too much science fiction?