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Scooped by Dr. Stefan Gruenwald!

Stem cells from teeth can make neuron-like cells and networks

Stem cells from teeth can make neuron-like cells and networks | Amazing Science |

University of Adelaide researchers have discovered that stem cells taken from teeth can grow to form complex networks of neuron-like cells, suggesting a possible therapy for stroke. Although these cells haven’t developed into fully fledged neurons, researchers believe it’s just a matter of time and the right conditions for it to happen.

“Stem cells from teeth have great potential to grow into new brain or nerve cells, and this could potentially assist with treatments of brain disorders, such as stroke,” says Kylie Ellis, PhD, Commercial Development Manager with the University’s commercial arm, Adelaide Research & Innovation (ARI).

The stem cells expressed neuronal cytoplasmic proteins, neurotransmitter-specific markers, and functional voltage-gated L-type Ca2+ channels, but not spontaneous action potentials. “The reality is, treatment options available to the thousands of stroke patients every year are limited,” Ellis says. “The primary drug treatment available must be administered within hours of a stroke and many people don’t have access within that timeframe, because they often can’t seek help for some time after the attack.

“Ultimately, we want to be able to use a patient’s own stem cells for tailor-made brain therapy that doesn’t have the host rejection issues commonly associated with cell-based therapies. Another advantage is that dental pulp stem cell therapy may provide a treatment option available months or even years after the stroke has occurred,” she says.

“We can do this by providing an environment for the cells that is as close to a normal brain environment as possible, so that instead of becoming cells for teeth they become brain cells,” Ellis says.

“What we developed wasn’t identical to normal neurons, but the new cells shared very similar properties to neurons. They also formed complex networks and communicated through simple electrical activity, like you might see between cells in the developing brain.”

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Promising solution: Bioplastic made from shrimp shells

Promising solution: Bioplastic made from shrimp shells | Amazing Science |

or many people, “plastic” is a one-word analog for environmental disaster. It is made from precious petroleum, after all, and once discarded in landfills and oceans, it takes centuries to degrade.

Then came apparent salvation: “bioplastics,” durable substances made from renewable cellulose, a plant-based polysaccharide. But problems remained. For one, the current bioplastics do not fully degrade in the environment. For another, their use is now limited to packaging material or simple containers for food and drink.

Now researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have introduced a new bioplastic isolated from shrimp shells. It’s made from chitosan, a form of chitin — the second-most abundant organic material on Earth.

Chitin, a tough polysaccharide, is the main ingredient in the hardy shells of crustaceans, the armorlike cuticles of insects, and even the flexible wings of butterflies.

The Wyss Institute makes its shrilk from chitin from shrimp shells, most which would otherwise be discarded or used in fertilizer or makeup, and a fibroin protein from silk. Researchers discussed it in a March online study in the journal Macromolecular Materials & Engineering.

Shrilk is cheaply and easily fabricated by a novel method that preserves chitosan’s strong mechanical properties. The researchers said that for the first time, this tough, transparent, and renewable material can be used to make large, 3-D objects with complex shapes using traditional casting or injection-molding techniques. That means objects made from shrilk can be mass-manufactured and will be as robust as items made with the everyday plastics used in toys and cell phones.

“There is an urgent need in many industries for sustainable materials that can be mass produced,” Wyss Director Donald E. Ingber said in March. “Our scalable manufacturing method shows that chitosan, which is readily available and inexpensive, can serve as a viable bioplastic that could potentially be used instead of conventional plastics for numerous industrial applications.” This environmentally safe alternative to plastic could also be used to make trash bags, packaging, and diapers.

Marco Bertolini's curator insight, May 6, 2014 11:28 AM

Des plastiques bio fabriqués à partir de la chitine des crevettes...

satish's curator insight, May 7, 2014 2:03 AM

टिकाऊपण, लवचिकता आणि सक्षमता यामुळे प्लॅस्टिकचा वापर विविध क्षेत्रामध्ये मोठ्या प्रमाणात वाढला आहे. मात्र, त्याच वेळी त्याच्या अविघटनशीलतेमुळे प्लॅस्टिकचे प्रदुषणही वेगाने वाढत आहे. त्यामुळे विघटनशील असे जैवप्लॅस्टिक विकसित करण्यासाठी जगभरामध्ये सातत्याने संशोधन होत आहे. मात्र, सध्या उपलब्ध असलेलेजैव प्लॅस्टिकचा वापर अत्यंत मर्यादीत कारणांसाठी होऊ शकतो. त्यातही खाद्यपदार्थांचे पॅकेजिंग आणि पेयपात्रासाठी सामान्यतः केला जातो. तसेच हे जैव प्लॅस्टिकही अत्यंत कमी वेगाने विघटीत होते. या साऱ्या समस्यावर मात करण्यासाठी हार्वर्ड विद्यापीठातील वायस इन्स्टिट्यूट फॉर बायोलॉजिकल इन्स्पायर्ड येथील संशोधकांनी कोळंबीच्या कवचापासून जैव प्लॅस्टिक वेगळे केले आहे.


प्लॅस्टिकच्या अविघटनशीलतेमुळे होणारे प्रदुषण रोखण्यासाठी हे जैव प्लॅस्टिक अत्यंत उपयुक्त ठरेल.

Adam Johnson's curator insight, June 24, 11:10 PM
Bioplastic from shrimp (prawn) shells. Old(ish) news but very interesting all the same.
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Bacteria from Earth can easily colonize Mars according to research on the International Space Station

Bacteria from Earth can easily colonize Mars according to research on the International Space Station | Amazing Science |
Bacteria could hitch a ride to Mars or future space colonies aboard spacecraft launched from Earth. Here is what happened when three teams subjected bacteria to real-life space conditions.

Bacteria from Earth could quickly colonize the surface of Mars, according to new research conducted aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Research into bacterial colonization on the red planet was not part of the plan to terraform the alien world ahead of human occupation. Instead, three teams investigated how to prevent microbes from Earth from hitching a ride to the red planet aboard spacecraft.

It is nearly impossible to remove all biological contaminants from equipment headed to other planets. By better understanding what organisms can survive in space or on the surfaces of other worlds, mission planners can learn which forms of microscopic life to concentrate on during the sanitation process.

"If you are able to reduce the numbers to acceptable levels, a proxy for cleanliness, the assumption is that the life forms will not survive under harsh space conditions," Kasthuri Venkateswaran of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and co-author of all three papers, said.

Researchers investigated the problem using independent experiments. The first used the EXPOSE-E facility aboard the ISS. The team then proceeded to expose organisms known to be hardy on Earth to 18 months in space.

"It was found that some... are also partially resistant to the even more hostile environment of outer space, including high vacuum, temperature fluctuation, the full spectrum of extraterrestrial solar electromagnetic radiation, and cosmic ionizing radiation," a group of international researchers wrote.

A second team, composed of researchers from the German Aerospace Center, California Institute of Technology and Jet Propulsion Laboratory exposed bacteria to space conditions, also for a year and a half. They used the European Technology Exposure Facility (EuTEF) on the space station to conduct their experiment.

"After 18 months of exposure... under dark space conditions... spores showed 10-40% survivability, whereas a survival rate of 85-100% was observed when these spores were kept aboard the ISS under dark simulated martian atmospheric conditions," the team reported.

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GDF11 reverses signs of aging in mice and could be in clinical trials as early as 3 to 5 years

GDF11 reverses signs of aging in mice and could be in clinical trials as early as 3 to 5 years | Amazing Science |

Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) researchers have shown that a protein they previously demonstrated can make the failing hearts in aging mice appear more like those of young health mice, similarly improves brain and skeletal muscle function in aging mice.

In two separate papers given early online release today by the journal Science—which is publishing the papers this coming Friday, Professors Amy Wagers, PhD, and Lee Rubin, PhD, of Harvard’s Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology (HSCRB), report that injections of a protein known as GDF11, which is found in humans as well as mice, improved the exercise capability of mice equivalent in age to that of about a 70-year-old human, and also improved the function of the olfactory region of the brains of the older mice—they could detect smell as younger mice do.

Rubin, and Wagers, who also has a laboratory at the Joslin Diabetes Center, each said that, baring unexpected developments, they expect to have GDF11 in initial human clinical trials within three to five years.

Postdoctoral fellow Lida Katsimpardi, PhD, is the lead author on the Rubin group’s paper, and postdocs Manisha Sinha, PhD, and Young Jang, PhD, are the lead authors on the paper from the Wagers group.

Both studies examined the effect of GDF11 in two ways. First, by using what is called a parabiotic system, in which two mice are surgically joined and the blood of the younger mouse circulates through the older mouse. And second, by injecting the older mice with GDF11, which in an earlier study by Wagers and Richard Lee, MD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital who is also an author on the two papers released today, was shown to be sufficient to reverse characteristics of aging in the heart.

Doug Melton, PhD, co-chair of HSCRB and co-director of HSCI, reacted to the two papers by saying that he couldn’t “recall a more exciting finding to come from stem cell science and clever experiments. This should give us all hope for a healthier future. We all wonder why we were stronger and mentally more agile when young, and these two unusually exciting papers actually point to a possible answer: the higher levels of the protein GDF11 we have when young. There seems to be little question that, at least in animals, GDF11 has an amazing capacity to restore aging muscle and brain function,” he said.

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Gecko-inspired Geckskin almost sticks on everything and can be used repeatedly

Demonstration of Geckskin, a gecko inspired adhesive which can adhere to a wide range of surfaces, can support high loads, and can be used repeatedly.

Geckskin, which is being developed at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has solved many of these problems by moving away from direct biomimicry of the gecko toe material and using a "draping adhesion" based on wider fibers instead of the smaller hairs that geckos have. Geckskin is able to stick to anything that's vaguely smooth, including glass, metal, drywall, and wood, and it even works on surfaces that are slightly curved.

The big advantage of Geckskin (besides the loads that it can bear) is that it's very easy to remove from surfaces. Like gecko toes, Geckskin has to be loaded in one specific direction to stick: while there's weight on it pulling down, it'll adhere, but removing the weight and pulling up will peel it right off. To work best, it looks like you have to force the Geckskin very tightly against the surface with a tool, but that doesn't diminish its convenience or usefulness by much.

Watch the video below for seven minutes worth of clips demonstrating that Geckskin really can stick to different surfaces over and over and over; the UMass team has just published a paper on Geckskin, and we're hoping that some kind of commercial development is coming next. And maybe this.

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Brain Gate: A brain implant to restore memory

Brain Gate: A brain implant to restore memory | Amazing Science |
In the next few months, highly secretive US military researchers say they will unveil new advances toward developing a brain implant that could one day restore a wounded soldier's memory.

BrainGate™ Company’s unique technology is able to simultaneously sense the electrical activity of many individual neurons. The sensor consists of a silicon array about the size of a baby aspirin that contains one hundred electrodes, each thinner than a human hair. The array is implanted on the surface of the brain. In the BrainGate™ Neural Interface System, the array is implanted in the area of the brain responsible for limb movement. While not currently approved for use, in other future applications, the array may be implanted in areas of the brain responsible for other body processes.  While our company is focused on technology innovation and intellectual property, a number of leading academic, governmental, and health organizations are offering our BrainGate technology and related neural interfaces through clinical trials.

The human brain is a parallel processing supercomputer with the ability to instantaneously process vast amounts of information. BrainGate's™ technology allows for an extensive amount of electrical activity data to be transmitted from neurons in the brain to computers for analysis. In the current BrainGate™ system, a bundle consisting of one hundred gold wires connects the array to a pedestal which extends through the scalp. The pedestal is connected by an external cable to a set of computers in which the data can be stored for off-line analysis or analyzed in real-time. Signal processing software algorithms analyze the electrical activity of neurons and translate it into control signals for use in various computer-based applications. Intellectual property has been developed and research is underway for a wireless device as well.

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Antibiotic Resistance Has Now Spread Across The Entire Globe

Antibiotic Resistance Has Now Spread Across The Entire Globe | Amazing Science |

A first-ever World Health Organization assessment of the growing problem calls for rapid changes to avoid the misery and deaths of a potential "post-antibiotic era".

Dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria and other pathogens have now emerged in every part of the world and threaten to roll back a century of medical advances. That’s the message from the World Health Organization in its first global report on this growing problem, which draws on drug-resistance data in 114 countries.
“A post antibiotic-era—in which common infections and minor injuries can kill—far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century,” wrote Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s assistant director general for Health Security, in an introduction to the report. The crisis is the fruit of several decades of over-reliance on the drugs and careless prescribing practices as well as routine use of the medicines in the rearing of livestock, the report noted.
Antibiotic resistance is putting patients in peril in both developing and developed countries, as bacteria responsible for an array of dangerous infections evolve resistance to the drugs that once vanquished them.
Gonorrhea, once well treated by antibiotics, is once again a major public health threat due to the emergence of new, resistant strains. Drugs that were once a last resort treatment for the sexually transmitted disease—which can lead to infertility, blindness and increased odds of HIV transmission if left untreated—are now the first-line treatment and are sometimes ineffective among patients in countries such as the U.K., Canada, Australia, France, Japan, Norway, South Africa, Slovenia and Sweden.
Drugs to treat Klebsiella pneumoniae—a common intestinal bacteria that can cause life-threatening infections in intensive care unit patients and newborns—no longer work in more than half of patients in some countries. And fluoroquinolones, drugs used to treat urinary tract infections, are also ineffective in more than half of sufferers in many parts of the world. Efforts to limit the spread of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, malaria and HIV are also all under threat due to increasing bacterial resistance.

The assessment, collected information on nine particularly troublesome bacteria from 114 countries that track data on at least one of the microorganisms and the antibiotics used to treat them.
Although limited by significant data gaps, the report noted that in the case of many of these bacteria, resistance levels to first-line drugs have reached 50 percent or more in at least half of the countries analyzed. As a result, health care providers must frequently rely on last-resort drugs. “It is terrifying in scope. This is a massive public health problem that is just starting to bubble to the surface,” says Brad Spellberg, associate professor of medicine at the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute at Harbor–U.C.L.A. Medical Center. As the global usage of last-resort drugs grows, resistance to these drugs also accelerates, compounding the crisis. With fewer drug options, the WHO report points out, patients who live in poverty or lack health insurance have nowhere to turn for effective treatments.

THE *OFFICIAL ANDREASCY*'s curator insight, May 2, 2014 8:21 PM

Resistance to antibiotics poses a "major global threat" to public health, says a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO).

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Carbon dioxide levels in atmosphere reach terrifying new milestone

Carbon dioxide levels in atmosphere reach terrifying new milestone | Amazing Science |

It’s official: Earth’s atmosphere is now in uncharted territory, at least since human beings evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago. Measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations taken continuously at Mauna Loa in Hawaii since 1958 have shown a steady upward climb related to fossil fuel burning worldwide. The Mauna Loa measurements are considered to be some of the clearest evidence of human impact on the global climate.

Every single daily carbon dioxide measurement in April 2014 was above 400 parts per million. That hasn’t happened in nearly a million years, and perhaps much longer. Climate scientists have proven that the rise in human-produced greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are “extremely likely” to be the dominant cause of global climate change. The likelihood of dangerous impacts—like sea level rise, hotter heat waves, and certain types of extreme weather—increases with each incremental annual rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

The data are even more striking when you take the long view (see figure). 

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Nanoelectronic circuits reach speeds of 245 THz, 10,000 times faster than a normal microprocessors

Nanoelectronic circuits reach speeds of 245 THz, 10,000 times faster than a normal microprocessors | Amazing Science |

Researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have designed and manufactured circuits that can reach speeds of up to 245 THz, tens of thousands of times faster than contemporary microprocessors. The results open up possible new design routes for plasmonic-electronics, that combine nano-electronics with the fast operating speed of optics.

When light interacts with some metals, it can be captured in the form of collective, extremely fast oscillations of electrons called plasmons. If harnessed, the interaction of photons and electrons could be used to build ultra-fast computers (among other things). But these phenomena occur at a scale so small that we don't yet have the tools to investigate them, let alone harness them.

Assistant Professor Christian A. Nijhuis and his team have now found a way to harness quantum-plasmonic effects even with the current generation of electronics, using a process called "quantum plasmonic tunneling."

The team built a molecular-scale circuit consisting of two plasmonic resonators (structures that can convert photons into plasmons) separated by a single layer of molecules only 0.5 nanometers in size.

Using electron microscopy, Nijhuis and colleagues saw that the layer of molecules allowed the quantum plasmonic tunneling effects to take place, allowing the circuit to operate at frequencies of up to 24 THz. What's more, the frequency of the circuit could be adjusted by changing the material of the molecular layer.

This marks the first time that scientists have observed the quantum plasmonic tunneling effects directly, and is a convincing demonstration that molecular electronics can indeed handle speeds that are miles beyond that of contemporary electronics.

Future applications include plasmonic-electronics hybrids that combine nanoelectronics with the fast operating speed of optics, and single-molecule photon detectors. The researchers will now focus their efforts on trying to integrate these devices into actual electronic circuits.

The results were published in the latest issue of the journal Science.

Eli Levine's curator insight, May 1, 2014 7:15 PM

And this is just the beginning.

Bottom floor on this?  I think I'd like.

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Astrophysicists Examine Orbit Flips in Exoplanet Systems

Astrophysicists Examine Orbit Flips in Exoplanet Systems | Amazing Science |

Astrophysicists from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics examine orbit flips in exoplanet systems, presenting a previously unidentified mechanism whereby such interactions can completely flip the planet from normal to counter-rotating.

The orbits of the planets in our solar system are almost circular (Kepler made the case for their actually being ellipses). This nearly circular, concentric property helps keep the solar system stable, since highly elliptical orbits could occasionally bring planets close enough together for their gravitational interactions to disrupt their paths. Orbital shapes are quantified by their eccentricity, a measure of the closest distance of a planet from the Sun compared to its largest distance (thus helping determine the annual variations in stellar illumination); the Earth’s eccentricity is small, 0.0167, and in December the Earth is only about 3% closer to the Sun than in June.

The northern hemisphere is cooler in December (not June) because the Earth’s axis of rotation is tilted with respect to its orbital motion, and in December the north pole is pointed slightly away from the Sun. The size of this tilt (called the obliquity) is 23.4 degrees, and it was likely produced in a cataclysmic impact between the Earth and another large body about 4.5 billion years ago. The impact is also thought to have formed the moon, whose presence plays the important role of stabilizing the value of the tilt which otherwise might wobble. Mars, for example, has no large moon, and its obliquity – currently 25 degrees – wobbles by up to tens of degrees on time scales of only hundreds of thousands of years, driving profound climate changes on the planet as detected in the structure of its polar ice caps. Eccentricity and obliquity are thus key planetary parameters, and they are not necessarily constant but can evolve in time.

There are currently about 1783 confirmed exoplanets and of this group, forty-one are estimated to have eccentricities like the Earth’s or smaller. The others have larger values – sometimes much larger, with a few known exoplanets varying their distances from their star periodically by ten or more times. CfA astronomers Gongjie Li, Smadar Naoz, Bence Kocsis, and Avi Loeb have examined what happens to a system of three or more bodies (for example a star with two planets), when the orbits are elliptical (and/or when some other conditions pertain). They were prompted in part by the fact that in some unusual exoplanetary systems a planet orbits in a sense opposite to the star’s spin (a counter-orbit); in other systems the orbit is in the same direction, but the planet’s spin (its obliquity) is 180 degrees so that its north pole points “down.”

The astronomers show that the gravitational perturbations that can result from close encounters in systems with elliptical orbits can induce complex processes that result in such odd behaviors. They present a previously unidentified mechanism whereby such interactions can, in a relatively short time period (just a few thousand years!), completely flip the planet from normal to counter-rotating. The new paper not only helps to explain why some exoplanet systems are weird, it provides new insights into the planet-making processes while helping us appreciate our own planetary system.

Publication: Gongjie Li, et al., “Eccentricity Growth and Orbit Flip in Near-Coplanar Hierarchical Three-Body Systems,” 2014, ApJ, 785, 116; doi:10.1088/0004-637X/785/2/116

PDF Copy of the StudyEccentricity growth and orbit flip in coplanar hierarchical three body systems

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We are all star stuff: How elements get made

We are all star stuff: How elements get made | Amazing Science |

The production of elements in supernova explosions is something we take for granted these days. But exactly where and when this nucleosynthesis takes place is still unclear – and attempts to computer model core collapse scenarios still pushes current computing power to its limits.

Stellar fusion in main sequence stars can build some elements up to, and including, iron. Further production of heavier elements can also take place by certain seed elements capturing neutrons to form isotopes. Those captured neutrons may then undergo beta decay leaving behind one or more protons which essentially means you have a new element with a higher atomic number (number of protons in the atomic nucleus).

This ‘slow’ process or s-process of building heavier elements from, say, iron (26 protons) takes place most commonly in red giants (making elements like copper with 29 protons and even thallium with 81 protons).

But there’s also the rapid or r-process, which takes place in a matter of seconds in core collapse supernovae (being supernova types 1b, 1c and 2). Rather than the steady, step-wise building over thousands of years seen in the s-process – seed elements in a supernova explosion have multiple neutrons jammed in to them, while at the same time being exposed to disintegrating gamma rays. This combination of forces can build a wide range of light and heavy elements, notably very heavy elements from lead (82 protons) up to plutonium (94 protons), which cannot be produced by the s-process.

Further reading: 

Arcones A. and Janka H. Nucleosynthesis-relevant conditions in neutrino-driven supernova outflows. II. The reverse shock in two-dimensional simulations.

And, for historical context, the seminal paper on the subject (also known as the B2FH paper) E. M. Burbidge, G. R. Burbidge, W. A. Fowler, and F. Hoyle. (1957). Synthesis of the Elements in Stars. Rev Mod Phy 29 (4): 547.

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How Much Garbage is On the Ocean Floors? Marine Litter Distribution and Density Mapped

How Much Garbage is On the Ocean Floors? Marine Litter Distribution and Density Mapped | Amazing Science |

Anthropogenic litter is present in all marine habitats, from beaches to the most remote points in the oceans. On the seafloor, marine litter, particularly plastic, can accumulate in high densities with deleterious consequences for its inhabitants. Yet, because of the high cost involved with sampling the seafloor, no large-scale assessment of distribution patterns was available to date. A recent study presents data on litter distribution and density collected during 588 video and trawl surveys across 32 sites in European waters. The researchers found litter to be present in the deepest areas and at locations as remote from land as the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone across the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The highest litter density occurs in submarine canyons, whilst the lowest density can be found on continental shelves and on ocean ridges. Plastic was the most prevalent litter item found on the seafloor. Litter from fishing activities (derelict fishing lines and nets) was particularly common on seamounts, banks, mounds and ocean ridges. These results highlight the extent of the problem and the need for action to prevent increasing accumulation of litter in marine environments.

With an estimated 6.4 million tonnes of litter entering the oceans each year [1], the adverse impacts of litter on the marine environment are not negligible. Besides the unquestionable aesthetic issue, litter can be mistaken for food items and be ingested by a wide variety of marine organisms [3][8]. Entanglement in derelict fishing gear is also a serious threat, particularly for mammals [9][11], turtles [12] and birds [13] but also for benthic biota such as corals [14][15]. High mortality of fish through “ghost fishing” is another consequence of derelict fishing gear in the marine environment [16]. Moreover, floating litter facilitates the transfer of non-native marine species (e.g. bryozoans, barnacles) to new habitats [17][18]. Barnes et al. [19] estimated that the dispersal of alien species through marine litter more than doubles the rate of natural dispersal processes, especially during an era of global change.

Although the type of litter found in the world's oceans is highly diverse, plastics are by far the most abundant material recorded [20][22]. Because of their persistence and hydrophobic nature, their impact on marine ecosystems is of great concern. Plastics are a source of toxic chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins that can be lethal to marine fauna [23]. Furthermore, the degradation of plastics generates microplastics which, when ingested by organisms, can deliver contaminants across trophic levels [24][27].

Litter type, composition and density vary greatly among locations and litter has been found in all marine habitats, from surface water convergence in the pelagic realm (fronts) down to the deep sea where litter degradation is a much slower process [21]. The spatial distribution and accumulation of litter in the ocean is influenced by hydrography, geomorphological factors [21],[28], prevailing winds and anthropogenic activities [29]. Hotspots of litter accumulation include shores close to populated areas, particularly beaches [30], but also submarine canyons, where litter originating from land accumulates in large quantities [28][31].

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Genome Data Could Lead to Cancer Cures

Genome Data Could Lead to Cancer Cures | Amazing Science |

Scientists are cataloging the DNA of exceptional survivors for study,

Jan Crisitello, a 70-year-old grandmother of four, was diagnosed in 2002 with stage 4 melanoma, which kills the vast majority of its victims within five years. Although chemotherapy helped her make it past the five-year mark, by 2007 the cancer was growing again. Desperate, she joined a 29-patient trial of a drug being developed by Pfizer (PFE). The drug was a failure for almost all of the patients, and Pfizer spokeswoman Sally Beatty says it has been “deprioritized for further development.” For Crisitello, the drug worked, and her cancer is in full remission. Now oncologists are studying her DNA to determine how her genome may have made her unusually responsive to the drug. “I feel very fortunate,” she says. “It would make me feel good if they found out why and could replicate that for other people.”

So far, about 100 exceptional responders have been identified by researchers poring through roughly a decade’s worth of clinical trials, says Barbara Conley, associate director of the NCI’s cancer diagnosis program. Starting in June, she says, the institute will urge researchers and doctors nationwide to send in clinical data on these patients. “We want to cast a broad net,” Conley says. “The key is, can you find another patient with the same kind of abnormality, and will they respond?”

In a study presented in early April at the American Association for Cancer Research meeting in San Diego, researchers analyzed the case of a 57-year-old woman with advanced thyroid cancer whose tumor “melted away” during a drug trial and didn’t start growing again for 18 months, according to the study’s lead author, Dana-Farber instructor Nikhil Wagle. Although the rare, aggressive disease kills most victims within five months, an analysis of the patient’s genes showed that a mutation made her tumor responsive to Novartis’s (NVS) Afinitor, a drug typically used to treat kidney or breast cancer. Researchers plan to conduct further trials with thyroid cancer patients who have similar genetic mutations, Wagle says.

One of the first exceptional responders to have her genome sequenced has a similar mutation and saw her bladder cancer go into complete remission after she took Afinitor, says David Solit, director of the Center for Molecular Oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering. He’s been seeking out surprising cases of cancer recovery ever since, trying to identify drugs that would be effective against diseases for which they weren’t intended. “I meet with clinical teams and often see these patients who have dramatic results to compounds not moving forward because they failed in a population,” Solit says. “These are mysteries we’ve always tried to solve, but we didn’t have the tools until now to figure out the variation of responses in patients.”

The challenge is to find a drug that even an ideal patient won’t develop a resistance to, says Lecia Sequist, an oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. People with advanced melanoma such as Crisitello are usually prescribed ipilimumab, a drug sold by Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY) under the name Yervoy, but only 1 in 5 patients benefits from it, says Crisitello’s doctor, Lynn Schuchter. “While we’ve made huge advances in immunotherapy in recent years,” says Schuchter, the chief of hematology-oncology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, “we are still in the dark ages as to who should get the drug and why they are benefiting.”

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Motion Detector: Computer Game Reveals 'Space-Time' Neurons in the Eye

Motion Detector: Computer Game Reveals 'Space-Time' Neurons in the Eye | Amazing Science |

You open the overstuffed kitchen cabinet and a drinking glass tumbles out. With a ninjalike reflex, you snatch it before it shatters on the floor, as if the movement of the object were being tracked before the information even reached your brain. According to one idea of how the circuitry of the eye processes visual data, that is literally what happens. Now, a deep anatomical study of a mouse retina—carried out by 120,000 members of the public—is bringing scientists a step closer to confirming the hypothesis.

Researchers have known for decades that the eye does much more than just detect light. The dense patch of neurons in the retina also processes basic features of a scene before sending the information to the brain. For example, in 1964, scientists showed that some neurons in the retina fire up only in response to motion. What's more, these “space-time” detectors have so-called direction selectivity, each one sensitive to objects moving in different directions. But exactly how that processing happens in the retina has remained a mystery.

The stumbling block is a lack of fine-grained anatomical detail about how the neurons in the retina are wired up to each other. Although researchers have imaged the retina microscopically in ultrathin sections, no computer algorithm has been able to accurately trace out the borders of all the neurons to map the circuitry. At this point, only humans have good enough spatial reasoning to figure out what is part of a branching cell and what is just background noise in the images.

Enter the EyeWire project, an online game that recruits volunteers to map out those cellular contours within a mouse’s retina. The game was created and launched in December 2012 by a team led by H. Sebastian Seung, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Players navigate their way through the retina one 4.5-micrometer tissue block at a time, coloring the branches of neurons along the way. Most of the effort gets done in massive online competitions between players vying to map out the most volume. (Watch a video of a player walking through a tissue block here.) By last week, the 120,000 EyeWire players had completed 2.3 million blocks. That may sound like a lot, but it is less than 2% of the retina.

The sample is already enough to reveal new features, however. The EyeWire map shows two types of retinal cells with unprecedented resolution. The first, called starburst amacrine cells (SACs), have branches spread out in a flat, plate-shaped array perpendicular to the incoming light. The second, called bipolar cells (BPs), are smaller and bushy. The BPs come in two varieties, one of which reacts to light more slowly than the other—a time delay of about 50 milliseconds. The SACs and BPs are known to be related to direction sensitivity, but exactly how they sense direction remains to be discovered.

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Finding signatures of life on exoplanets may be harder than thought

Finding signatures of life on exoplanets may be harder than thought | Amazing Science |

Hopes of finding evidence of life on far off alien worlds by studying their atmospheric chemistry have been dashed by a new study that concludes it's almost impossible. The research, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found atmospheric spectral readings from distant exo-planets will never be good enough to be useful in the search for life. The findings support an underlying view among astronomers that it was always going to be difficult to take the spectrum of an Earth like exoplanet, according to the study's lead author Dr Hanno Rein of the University of Toronto.

"I was a bit pessimistic when I calculated these numbers for the first time, they were not what I was expecting," says Rein. "We're not going to get any useful spectra at all."

Astronomers determine the chemical composition of a gas, by looking for specific signatures in light from a star shining through the atmosphere of a planet passing in front of it.

The strongest indicators of life on another planet would be chemical signatures for molecules of methane and oxygen in that planet's atmosphere.

"We think these two molecules are likely to be produced by life on Earth and also on other planets," says Rein.

"There are few geological mechanisms which produce molecules of methane and oxygen in large quantities. To be really sure, we want both molecules together at the same time, then we can be more certain that there's life on that planet."

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Harvard scientists created quantum switch that can be turned on and off using a single photon

Harvard scientists created quantum switch that can be turned on and off using a single photon | Amazing Science |

Harvard researchers have succeeded in creating quantum switches that can be turned on and off using a single photon, a technological achievement that could pave the way for creating highly secure quantum networks.

Built from single atoms, the first-of-their-kind switches could one day be networked via fiber-optic cables to form the backbone of a “quantum Internet” that allows for perfectly secure communications, said Professor of Physics Mikhail Lukin, who, together with Professor Vladan Vuletic of MIT, led a team consisting of graduate students Jeff Thompson and Lee Liu and postdoctoral fellows Tobias Tiecke and Nathalie de Leon to construct the new system. Their research is detailed in a recently published paper in the journal Nature.

“From a technical standpoint, it’s a remarkable accomplishment,” Lukin said of the advance. “Conceptually, the idea is very simple: Push the conventional light switch to its ultimate limit. What we’ve done here is to use a single atom as a switch that, depending on its state, can open or close the flow of photons … and it can be turned on and off using a single photon.”

Though the switches could be used to build a quantum computer, Lukin said it’s unlikely the technology will show up in the average desktop computer. Where it will be used, he said, is in creating fiber-optical networks that use quantum cryptography, a method for encrypting communications using the laws of quantum mechanics to allow for perfectly secure information exchanges. Such systems make it impossible to intercept and read messages sent over a network, because the very act of measuring a quantum object changes it, leaving behind telltale signs of the spying.

“It’s unlikely everyone would need this type of technology,” he said. “But there are some realistic applications that could someday have transformative impact on our society. At present, we are limited to using quantum cryptography over relatively short distances — tens of kilometers. Based on the new advance, we may eventually be able to extend the range of quantum cryptography to thousands of kilometers.”

Importantly, Tiecke said, their system is highly scalable, and could one day allow for the fabrication of thousands of such switches in a single device.

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Tour the Vegetation on Our Planet (provided by NASA/NOAA)

Although 75% of the planet is a relatively unchanging ocean of blue, the remaining 25% of Earth's surface is a dynamic green. Data from the NASA/NOAA Suomi NPP satellite is able to detect these subtle differences in greenness. The resources on this page highlight our ever-changing planet, using highly detailed vegetation index data from the satellite, developed by scientists at NOAA. The darkest green areas are the lushest in vegetation, while the pale colors are sparse in vegetation cover either due to snow, drought, rock, or urban areas. Satellite data from April 2012 to April 2013 was used to generate these animations and images.

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Undersea warfare: Viruses hijack deep-sea bacteria at hydrothermal vents

Undersea warfare: Viruses hijack deep-sea bacteria at hydrothermal vents | Amazing Science |

More than a mile beneath the ocean's surface, as dark clouds of mineral-rich water billow from seafloor hot springs called hydrothermal vents, unseen armies of viruses and bacteria wage war.

Like pirates boarding a treasure-laden ship, the viruses infect bacterial cells to get the loot: tiny globules of elemental sulfur stored inside the bacterial cells.

Instead of absconding with their prize, the viruses force the bacteria to burn their valuable sulfur reserves, then use the unleashed energy to replicate.

"Our findings suggest that viruses in the dark oceans indirectly access vast energy sources in the form of elemental sulfur," said University of Michigan marine microbiologist and oceanographer Gregory Dick, whose team collected DNA from deep-sea microbes in seawater samples from hydrothermal vents in the Western Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California.

"We suspect that these viruses are essentially hijacking bacterial cells and getting them to consume elemental sulfur so the viruses can propagate themselves," said Karthik Anantharaman of the University of Michigan, first author of a paper on the findings published this week in the journal Science Express.

Similar microbial interactions have been observed in shallow ocean waters between photosynthetic bacteria and the viruses that prey upon them. But this is the first time such a relationship has been seen in a chemosynthetic system, one in which the microbes rely solely on inorganic compounds, rather than sunlight, as their energy source.

"Viruses play a cardinal role in biogeochemical processes in ocean shallows," said David Garrison, a program director in the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Ocean Sciences, which funded the research. "They may have similar importance in deep-sea thermal vent environments." 

The results suggest that viruses are an important component of the thriving ecosystems--which include exotic six-foot tube worms--huddled around the vents.

"The results hint that the viruses act as agents of evolution in these chemosynthetic systems by exchanging genes with the bacteria," Dick said. "They may serve as a reservoir of genetic diversity that helps shape bacterial evolution."

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Experimental Drug TM5441 Prolongs Life Span in a Strain of Rapidly Aging Mice 4-fold

Experimental Drug TM5441 Prolongs Life Span in a Strain of Rapidly Aging Mice 4-fold | Amazing Science |

Rapidly aging mice fed an experimental drug lived more than four times longer than a control group, and their lungs and vascular system were protected from accelerated aging, according to a new study.

The reason is a protein's key role in cell and physiological aging. The experimental drug inhibits the protein's effect and prolonged the lifespan in a mouse model of accelerated aging. 

This is a completely different target and different drug than anything else being investigated for potential effects in prolonging life and the experimental drug is in the early stages of testing, they note in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The experimental drug, TM5441, is one of only several chosen each year by the National Institute on Aging to be tested in its Interventions Testing Program, which investigates treatments with the potential to extend lifespan and delay disease in mice.

When cells or tissue age -- senescence -- they lose the ability to regenerate and secrete certain proteins, like a distinctive fingerprint. One of those proteins, PAI-1 (plasminogen activator inhibitor) has been the focus for Northwestern University's Douglas Vaughan, M.D., senior author of the study, originally as it relates to cardiovascular disease. 

"We made the intellectual leap between a marker of senescence and physiological aging," Vaughan said. "We asked is this marker for cell aging one of the drivers or mechanisms of rapid physiological aging?"

For the study, he and colleagues used mice bred to be deficient in a gene (Klotho) that suppresses aging. These mice exhibit accelerated aging in the form of arteriosclerosis, neurodegeneration, osteoporosis and emphysema and have much shorter life spans than regular mice. Vaughan determined that these rapidly aging mice produce increased levels of PAI-1 in their blood and tissue.

Then scientists fed the rapidly aging mice TM5441 -- the experimental drug -- in their food every day. The result was a decrease in PAI-1 activity (the aging protein Vaughan's team had identified), which quadrupled the mice's life span and kept their organs healthy and functioning.

Northwestern scientists also genetically produced the same life prolonging results when they crossed the mice deficient in the age-suppressing gene with mice deficient in PAI-1. Importantly, partial genetic deficiency of PAI-1 and the experimental PAI-1 antagonist produced provided similar benefits in the mice, Vaughan noted.

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‘Solar’ jet fuel made from water, carbon dioxide and concentrated sunlight

‘Solar’ jet fuel made from water, carbon dioxide and concentrated sunlight | Amazing Science |

European scientists produce kerosene from water and carbon dioxide using concentrated sunlight.

The dream of producing hydrocarbon fuels from carbon dioxide and sunlight is one step closer thanks to chemists in Europe who have made jet fuel from scratch in a solar reactor for the first time. Although the chemists only produced enough kerosene to fill a glass jar, they believe a full-scale solar concentrator could produce 20,000 litres of jet fuel a day.

‘This technology means we might one day produce cleaner and plentiful fuel for planes, cars and other forms of transport,’ said Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, European commissioner for research, innovation and science. ‘This could greatly increase energy security and turn one of the main greenhouse gases responsible for global warming into a useful resource.’

So far the Solar-Jet group have only managed to produce a glassful of kerosene using the artificial sunlight, and carbon dioxide from a gas cylinder, with an average efficiency of 1.73%. Nonetheless, Sizmann believes it is a demonstration that will pave the way for renewable hydrocarbon fuels. ‘This is an extremely important milestone in the long-term process of developing a truly sustainable alternative fuel future,’ he says. ‘The process [draws] from virtually unlimited resources with no prohibitive cost “show stopper” in sight.’

Solar energy engineer Jane Davidson at the University of Minnesota in the US says the production of syngas using concentrated sunlight is still in the early stages of development. ‘Many groups around the world are working on the same process using different reactors, but [have] the same goal of reaching commercially viable solar-to-fuel efficiency,’ she adds. ‘It’s an exciting approach to synthetic fuels that also stores solar energy in chemical form.’

Sizmann says that in the next four years the Solar-Jet group is planning to demonstrate syngas production in a 50kW reactor, powered by real sunlight, which will be big enough ‘to do extensive chemical analysis and tests on the product’. But he believes the real challenge will be to demonstrate that the production chain is economically viable, which would require efficiencies in the region of 15%. Higher efficiencies could be reached through improvements in materials, reactor geometry, heat management, gas management and reactor size, he says. ‘Sunlight, carbon dioxide and water are basically an unlimited feedstock,’ he adds. ‘When the long term goal of 15% overall energy efficiency is reached, 20,000 litres of kerosene per day could be produced in a solar tower system of one square kilometre.’

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Towards and island of stability: Superheavy elements

Towards and island of stability: Superheavy elements | Amazing Science |

It's now more or less official: element 117 will have a seat at the periodic table. Earlier this month an international team of scientists that included researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab's Nuclear Science Division found two atoms of superheavy element 117. The experiment, conducted at a particle accelerator at the GSI Helmholtz Center for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt, Germany, builds on the previous 117 experiment by a different team working in Dubna, Russia in 2010 that identified six atoms of the superheavy element.

Elements beyond atomic number 104 are referred to as superheavy elements. The most long-lived ones are expected to be situated on a so-called 'island of stability', where nuclei with extremely long half-lives should be found. Although superheavy elements have not been found in nature, they can be produced by accelerating beams of nuclei and shooting them at the heaviest possible target nuclei. Fusion of two nuclei – a very rare event – occasionally produces a superheavy element. Those currently accessible generally only exist for a short time. Initial reports about the discovery of an element with atomic number 117 were released in 2010 from a Russia-U.S. collaboration working at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia.

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Tree rings reveal nightmare droughts in the West

Tree rings reveal nightmare droughts in the West | Amazing Science |
If you think the 1930s drought that caused The Dust Bowl was rough, new research looking at tree rings in the Rocky Mountains has news for you: Things can get much worse in the West.

In fact the worst drought of this century barely makes the top 10 of a study that extended Utah’s climate record back to the year 1429. With sandpaper and microscopes, Brigham Young University professor Matthew Bekker analyzed rings from drought-sensitive tree species. He found several types of scenarios that could make life uncomfortable in what is now the nation’s third-fastest-growing state: 

Long droughts: The year 1703 kicked off 16 years in a row with below average stream flow.

Intense droughts: The Weber River flowed at just 13 percent of normal in 1580 and dropped below 20 percent in three other periods.

Consecutive worst-case scenarios: The most severe drought in the record began in 1492, and four of the five worst droughts all happened during Christopher Columbus’ lifetime. 

“We’re conservatively estimating the severity of these droughts that hit before the modern record, and we still see some that are kind of scary if they were to happen again,” said Bekker, a geography professor at BYU. “We would really have to change the way we do things here.” 

Modern climate and stream flow records only go back about 100 years in this part of the country, so scientists like Bekker turn to Mother Nature’s own record-keeping to see the bigger picture. For this study, the BYU geographer took sample cores from Douglas fir and pinyon pine trees. The thickness of annual growth rings for these species is especially sensitive to water supply. 

Using samples from both living and dead trees in the Weber River basin, the researchers built a tree-ring chronology that extends back 585 years into Utah’s natural history. Modern stream flow measurements helped them calibrate the correlation between ring thickness and drought severity.

As Bekker and his co-authors report in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association, the west’s climate usually fluctuates far more than it did in the 1900s. The five previous centuries each saw more years of extremely dry and extremely wet climate conditions. 

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Color-changing polymer maps fingerprints

Color-changing polymer maps fingerprints | Amazing Science |
Tiny beads of sweat may offer new way to identify people’s fingerprints.

Sweaty fingers make tidy prints. Beads of perspiration seeping from a person’s pores can leave detailed maps of the fingertips, and a new technique can detect the sweat.

Human finger pores ooze salty drops of water about the size of pinpricks, says materials scientist Jong-Man Kim of Hanyang University in Seoul, South Korea.

He and colleagues created color-changing polymers that snap from blue to red when they touch the tiny droplets. Individual polymer units look like teeny tadpoles, with bulbous heads and skinny tails. When packed tightly together, they form stacked sheets that appear blue. But when water swells the polymers’ heads, the crowded sheets twist apart and absorb shorter wavelengths of light, making the sheets look red.

Pressing a finger to a polymer-coated film instantly colored it with red dots, Kim’s team reports April 29 in Nature Communications. Kim thinks the polymers could improve existing fingerprinting technologies, which analyze impressions left by finger ridges’ loops, arches and whorls. Pores speckle these ridges, creating unique dot patterns that match up with traditional fingerprints.

Forensics teams can pick up 10-year-old dots of sweat left on a piece of paper even in the absence of fingerprints, Kim says, but the dot data are often tossed because no one had a simple way to map people’s pores.

References: J. Lee et al. Hydrochromic conjugated polymers for human sweat pore mappingNature Communications. Published online April 29, 2014. doi:10.1038/ncomms4726. 

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Marine algae can sense a wide range of light

Marine algae can sense a wide range of light | Amazing Science |

Aquatic algae can sense an unexpectedly wide range of color, allowing them to sense and adapt to changing light conditions in lakes and oceans. The study by researchers at UC Davis was published earlier this year in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Phytochromes are the eyes of a plant, allowing it to detect changes in the color, intensity, and quality of light so that the plant can react and adapt. "They control all aspects of a plant's life," said Professor Clark Lagarias, senior author on the study. Typically about 20 percent of a plant's genes are regulated by phytochromes, he said. Phytochromes use bilin pigments that are structurally related to chlorophyll, the molecule that plants use to harvest light and use it to turn carbon dioxide and water into food.

Lagarias' laboratory in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at UC Davis studies these phytochromes and their properties. Phytochromes from land plants, Lagarias said, respond to red light—plants absorb red and reflect green light, which is why they look green. Red light does not penetrate far into water, and some marine and shore-dwelling algae lack phytochrome genes. But others do not, so Lagarias and colleagues looked at the properties of phytochromes from a variety of algae. They found that phytochromes from algae, unlike those of land plants, are able to perceive light across the visible spectrum—blue, green, yellow, orange, red and far-red.

This broad spectral coverage likely helps algae make use of whatever light they can in the ocean, Lagarias said—whether adjusting their light-harvesting chemistry for changing conditions, or rising and sinking in the water column as light levels at the surface change. Because different colors of light penetrate to different depths in water, algae face challenges in light harvesting that land plants do not. This work from the Lagarias lab shows one way that algae can rise to the occasion.

Plant phytochromes have a long evolutionary history and likely arose from the interaction between oxygen and bilins, pigment molecules closely tied to chlorophyll and the oxygen-carrying heme pigment in hemoglobin, Lagarias said. The ancestral form appears to be sensitive to red light, similar to phytochromes of modern land plants. But between the origin and today, phytochromes went through a stage of massive diversity when they could detect a much wider range of wavelengths.

Joy Kinley's curator insight, May 1, 2014 3:18 PM

Visible light is a very small part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

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The Mystery of Real 3D Mandelbrot Fractals

The Mystery of Real 3D Mandelbrot Fractals | Amazing Science |

It's been around 30 years since we all first saw pictures of the famous Mandelbrot set; thirty years of exploring its unending beauty and variety. Only the advent of computers made this possible, since hundreds of thousands of (actually quite simple) calculations need to be made before we can begin to see what the thing even looks like.

When Mandelbrot first saw the shape's outline - that was in itself a curiosity - but nothing could have prepared him for what he saw when he zoomed in. The edge of the basic Mandelbrot shape gave way to millions of intricate details, which after further zooming, unveiled elaborate shapes of every type and description.

The procedure for generating and rendering 3D fractals involves a number of complex steps. First, a fractal generation application must be used to calculate the mesh object. Most of these were generated using Mystic Fractal's QuasZ and Julia 4D. This process can take anywhere from minutes to hours, depending on the complexity of the fractal set. Once the object has been calculated, the mesh must then be exported for use in a traditional 3D rendering application. Polygon optimization methods must be applied since the generated meshes tend to be extremely dense and it is not uncommon for many of these objects to be in excess of 1-3 million polygons.

3D fractal meshes are always calculated by using a step value. This can be visualized as the 3d resolution of the mesh. Mesh step size limitations are usually visible as jagged or pixilated curves but are unfortunately often unavoidable which is why exporting geometry is never as ideal as generating and shading the object within the same software.

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