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Scooped by Dr. Stefan Gruenwald!

Construction of a Full Vertebrate Embryo from Two Opposing Morphogen Gradients

Construction of a Full Vertebrate Embryo from Two Opposing Morphogen Gradients | Amazing Science |

Scientists at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have overcome one of the greatest challenges in biology and taken a major step toward being able to grow whole organs and tissues from stem cells. By manipulating the appropriate signaling, the UVA researchers have turned embryonic stem cells into a fish embryo, essentially controlling embryonic development.

The research will have dramatic impact on the future use of stem cells to better the human condition, providing a framework for future studies in the field of regenerative medicine aimed at constructing tissues and organs from populations of cultured pluripotent cells.

In accomplishing this, U.Va. scientists Bernard and Chris Thisse have overcome the most massive of biological barriers. "We have generated an animal by just instructing embryonic cells the right way," said Chris Thisse of the School of Medicine's Department of Cell Biology.

The importance of that is profound. "If we know how to instruct embryonic cells," she said, "we can pretty much do what we want." For example, scientists will be able one day to instruct stem cells to grow into organs needed for transplant.

The researchers were able to identify the signals sufficient for starting the cascade of molecular and cellular processes that lead to a fully developed fish embryo. With this study came an answer to the longstanding question of how few signals can initiate the processes of development: amazingly, only two.

The study has shed light on the important roles these two signals play for the formation of organs and full development of a zebrafish embryo. Moreover, the Thisses are now able to direct embryonic development and formation of tissues and organs by controlling signal locations and concentrations.

The embryo they generated was smaller than a normal embryo, because they instructed a small pool of embryonic stem cells, but "otherwise he has everything" in terms of appropriate development, said Bernard Thisse of the Department of Cell Biology.

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Architectural design influences which microbes surround us

Architectural design influences which microbes surround us | Amazing Science |

They have us surrounded. Even inside the spaces we build for ourselves — like homes and offices — we are a tiny minority. Invisible bacteria, fungi, and viruses outnumber us by orders of magnitude.

We will always be outnumbered, but we may have a say in which microbes we’re surrounded by, according to a new study that’s one of the first to investigate how building design influences the microbial diversity of indoor spaces. “Design choices at the level of a whole building make a really big impact on the types of invisible organisms that you see in a room,” said microbial ecologist Jessica Green, an author of the new study. The work is part of an emerging body research suggesting that design decisions — from the architect’s blueprint to the choice of ventilation system to the materials picked by the interior designer — help shape the microbes in our midst.

In three recent studies, her team at the University of Oregon dissected the microbial diversity of a single building on campus called Lillis Hall, which houses professor’s offices and classrooms. In one study, they used a modified Shop-Vac to collect 155 dust samples throughout the building. Back in the lab, they extracted bacterial DNA and sequenced a gene called 16S. All bacteria have a copy of this gene, but its sequence differs from one type of bacteria to another, making it a useful ID marker. Classifying fungi and viruses is trickier, but Green hopes to tackle them in future studies.

Restrooms and classrooms, which are visited by many people throughout the day, tended to be dominated by bacteria commonly found on human skin, including Lactobacillus and Staphylococcus. Offices, especially those with windows, tended to have higher levels of soil-dwelling Methylobacterium. Mechanically ventilated offices, on the other hand, had more Deinococcus, which may be better suited to the hot dry air pumped out by the heating system in these rooms, Green says.

In addition to dust, Green and her team have also examined air samples and surfaces in Lillis Hall. In another recent study they found that rooms with a natural ventilation system that brings in outside air at night have microbial profiles more similar to outside air, compared to rooms with mechanical ventilation system that was turned off at night to save money. “What we found is if you have this really expensive mechanical ventilation system and you turn it off at night, you’re leaving this bag of microbes that people are immersed in when they come back in the morning,” Green said.

The interactions between building design, microbial diversity, and health might be stronger in other types of buildings — such as hospitals. Green is part of a consortium studying how microbial communities develop in two newly constructed hospitals, one in Chicago and one in Germany.

But she thinks those interactions will turn out to exist in other types of buildings too. She notes that scientists are only just beginning to discover how the microbiome, the collection of microbes that live inside our guts, can impact our health by interacting with everything from the immune system to the brain. And where do those microbes come from? ”We pick them up from the built environment,” Green said. For a species that spends nearly 90% of its time indoors, that’s something to think about.

Eli Levine's curator insight, April 6, 2014 7:11 PM

Makes a lot of sense.


Imagine if we factored this into our architectural designs, as well as a host of other factors which influence our well being, health and survival.


Think about it.


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We are close to eating bait fish and jelly fish as big fish numbers in oceans plummet

We are close to eating bait fish and jelly fish as big fish numbers in oceans plummet | Amazing Science |

"When you're young, you look at the world and think what you see has been that way for a long time. When you're 5, everything feels "normal." When things change in your lifetime, you may regret what has changed, but for your children, born 30 years later into a more diminished world, what they see at 5 becomes their new "normal," and so, over time, "normal" is constantly being redefined to mean "less." And people who don't believe that the past was so different from the present might have what could be called "change blindness blindness." Because these changes happen slowly, over a human lifetime, they never startle. They just tiptoe silently along, helping us all adjust to a smaller, shrunken world."

Since 1950, one in four of the world’s fisheries has collapsed due to overfishing. 77 percent of the world's marine fish stocks are fully exploited, over-exploited, depleted or slowly recovering. The cod fishery off Newfoundland, Canada collapsed in 1992, leading to the loss of some 40,000 jobs in the industry. Twenty years later, the fishery has yet to recover.

Scientists estimate that 90% of the world’s large fish have been removed from our oceans, including many tuna, sharks, halibut, grouper, and other top level predators which help maintain an ecological balance. Of the 3.5 million fishing vessels worldwide, only 1.7 percent are classified as large-scale, industrial vessels, yet these vessels take almost 60 percent of the global fish catch.

Tuna purse seine vessels using Fish Aggregating Devices entangle and kill a million sharks a year in the Indian Ocean alone. Every year, the world's fishing fleet receives roughly $30 billion in government subsidies. Most of the subsidies are given to the large-scale, industrial sector of the fishing industry.

Industrial fishing fleets kill and discard about 27 million tons of fish on average each year. That means that one-quarter of the annual marine fish catch is thrown overboard dead. For every kilo of shrimp landed, over 10 kilos of tropical marine life is caught and dies.

Bottom trawling, a fishing method which involves dragging giant nets and chains across the seafloor, damages fragile corals and sponges which provide habitat for fish and creates scars on the ocean bottom which can even be visible from space.

Globally more than US$20 billion is lost to pirate fishing each year, much of which involves European or Asian vessels. The United Nations estimates that Somalia loses US $300 million a year to the pirates; Guinea loses US $100 million.

The Patagonian toothfish (often sold as Chilean sea bass) fisheries around Crozet, Prince Edward and Marion Islands were fished to commercial extinction in just two years.

Commercial fishing boats also kill tens of thousands of albatrosses and hundreds of thousands of other seabirds, mostly by longline fishing.  Considering that albatrosses can live 50+ years, and take over 5 years to reach breeding age, this is an unsustainable loss of a truly impressive species.

Eli Levine's curator insight, April 6, 2014 1:05 PM

Indeed, there are likely to be big consequences for this mass die off that we haven't even begun to realize.


Animals have an effect on the environment, very much like us.  They play a role in sustaining and shaping the environment.  When we kill off a species, we break a piece of the delicate web of the environment in which we evolved and adapted to, such that our lives could be put at risk as a result of the extinction or die off of a species.  It's the tiny changes which have the largest impact on our world, yet we are having a tremendously large impact on the world for the sake of economic activity and money that, ideally, should come second or third to our collective health.  Goodness knows what this is going to yield for us as we wipe out top predators and prey alike, whose natural cycles of birth and death lead to the sustenance of .the environment in which we evolved and adapted into.


Why do we care about money, if we're not able  to spend it in our lifetime?  Why do we care about it if its accumulation leads to our death on the individual and collective levels?


Think about it.


Because this could very well be the final curtain for humanity, because of humanity.  And yet, will anyone listen or care to listen about these things?

Silly maladjusted and dysfunctional brains.


Think about it.

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Caltech: New Method Could Improve Ultrasound Imaging

Caltech: New Method Could Improve Ultrasound Imaging | Amazing Science |

Ultrasound is among the most widely used non-invasive imaging modalities in biomedicine1, but plays a surprisingly small role in molecular imaging due to a lack of suitable molecular reporters on the nanoscale. A recent experiment from Caltech scientists introduces a new class of reporters for ultrasound based on genetically encoded gas nanostructures from microorganisms, including bacteria and archaea.

Gas vesicles are gas-filled protein-shelled compartments with typical widths of 45–250 nm and lengths of 100–600 nm that exclude water and are permeable to gas23. The scientists show that gas vesicles produce stable ultrasound contrast that is readily detected in vitro and in vivo, that their genetically encoded physical properties enable multiple modes of imaging, and that contrast enhancement through aggregation permits their use as molecular biosensors.

The researchers first isolated gas vesicles from the bacterium Anabaena flos-aquae (Ana) and the archaeon Halobacterium NRC-1 (Halo), put them in an agarose gel, and used a home-built ultrasound system to image them. Vesicles from both sources produced clear ultrasound signals. Next, they injected the gas vesicles into mice and were able to follow the vesicles from the initial injection site to the liver, where blood flows to be detoxified. Shapiro and his colleagues were also able to easily attach biomolecules to the surface of the gas vesicles, suggesting that the gas vesicles could be used to label targets outside the bloodstream.

In their work, the researchers found differences in the gas vesicles produced by Ana and Halo. These variations could provide insight into how the vesicle design could be optimized for other purposes. For example, unlike the Ana vesicles, the Halo vesicles produced harmonic signals—meaning that they caused the original ultrasound wave to come back, as well as waves with doubled and tripled frequencies. Harmonics can be helpful in imaging because most tissue does not produce such signals; so when they show up, researchers know that they are more likely to be coming from the imaging agent than from the tissue.

Also, the gas vesicles from the two species collapsed, and thereby became invisible to ultrasound, with the application of different levels of pressure. Halo gas vesicles, which evolved in unpressurized cells, collapsed more easily than the vesicles from Ana, which maintain a pressurized cytoplasm. The researchers used this fact to distinguish the two different populations in a mixed sample. By applying a pressure pulse sufficient to collapse only the Halo vesicles, they were able to identify the remaining gas vesicles as having come from Ana.

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Scientists unveil first wiring diagram of mouse's brain

Scientists unveil first wiring diagram of mouse's brain | Amazing Science |

A year to the day after President Barack Obama announced a $100 million “BRAIN Initiative” to accelerate discoveries in how gray matter thinks, feels, remembers and sometimes succumbs to devastating diseases, scientists stated they had achieved a key milestone toward that goal.

Writing in the journal Nature, they unveiled the mouse “connectome,” a map showing the sinuous connections that neurons make throughout the mouse brain as they form functional circuits.

The mouse connectome “provides the most detailed analysis of brain circuitry currently available for any mammalian brain,” said neuroscientist David Van Essen of Washington University in St. Louis, co-leader of the human connectome project, which aims to do that for Homo sapiens. “It is truly a landmark study.”

A connectome is essentially a wiring diagram. It shows how each of the millions or billions of neurons (gray matter) in a brain each connect to thousands of other neurons through projections called axons, the white matter, and thereby allow brain regions to communicate to produce behavior, intelligence and personality.

Such a diagram could reveal, say, how neurons that register the taste of a cookie fan out to circuits that store memories and unleash a torrent of remembrances of things past. And it could reveal what causes those circuits to malfunction in diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Before the mouse, the only species for which scientists had created an essentially complete connectome was the roundworm C. elegans. It has 302 neurons. The human brain has some 86 billion, each making as many as 10,000 connections.

A large-scale map is the goal of the Human Connectome Project, which the National Institutes of Health announced in 2010 and which Van Essen calls "one of the great scientific challenges of the 21st century." It is being produced using special technique called diffusion tensor imaging in living brains.

For the mouse connectome, scientists led by Hongkui Zeng of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington, used some of the 21st-century techniques that are required to create a human connectome. For the mouse, the key was to make neuronal connections literally shine.

The map revealed several surprises about brain wiring. Connections that stay on one side of the brain "seem to be always stronger" than those that cross hemispheres, Zeng said. The mouse's neuronal connections also vary widely in strength. That "must be contributing to brain network computation," she said. "We think a small number of strong connections and a large number of weak connections may be a fundamental network organization property to allow greater capacity of information processing."

The human connectome will resemble the Human Genome Project in a key way. Just as the genome project discovered the precise sequence of three billion molecules common to the vast majority of humans' DNA, serving as a reference book against which to measure individual genetic differences, so the connectome will first reveal neuro-commonalities and, eventually, the uniqueness of each individual brain.

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Where The Milky Way Stands In The 'Council Of Giants' of Neighboring Galaxies

Where The Milky Way Stands In The 'Council Of Giants' of Neighboring Galaxies | Amazing Science |

What is in the vast unknown remains a mystery but a recent paper shed light on our immediate neighborhood - bright galaxies within 35-million light years of the Earth. 

"All bright galaxies within 20 million light years, including us, are organized in a 'Local Sheet' 34-million light years across and only 1.5-million light years thick" said Professor Marshall McCall of York University, Canada. "The Milky Way and Andromeda are encircled by twelve large galaxies arranged in a ring about 24-million light years across – this 'Council of Giants' stands in gravitational judgment of the Local Group by restricting its range of influence."

McCall says twelve of the fourteen giants in the Local Sheet, including the Milky Way and Andromeda, are "spiral galaxies" which have highly flattened disks in which stars are forming. The remaining two are more puffy "elliptical galaxies", whose stellar bulks were laid down long ago. Intriguingly, the two ellipticals sit on opposite sides of the Council. Winds expelled in the earliest phases of their development might have shepherded gas towards the Local Group, thereby helping to build the disks of the Milky Way and Andromeda.

McCall also examined how galaxies in the Council are spinning. He comments: "Thinking of a galaxy as a screw in a piece of wood, the direction of spin can be described as the direction the screw would move (in or out) if it were turned the same way as the galaxy rotates. Unexpectedly, the spin directions of Council giants are arranged around a small circle on the sky. This unusual alignment might have been set up by gravitational torques imposed by the Milky Way and Andromeda when the universe was smaller."

The boundary defined by the Council has led to insights about the conditions which led to the formation of the Milky Way. Most importantly, only a very small enhancement in the density of matter in the universe appears to have been required to produce the Local Group. To arrive at such an orderly arrangement as the Local Sheet and its Council, it seems that nearby galaxies must have developed within a pre-existing sheet-like foundation comprised primarily of dark matter.

Reference: Marshall L. McCall, 'A Council of Giants', MNRAS May 01, 2014 440 (1): 405-426. doi:10.1093/mnras/stu199

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How 3D Printing Creates On-Demand Swarms of Disposable Drones

How 3D Printing Creates On-Demand Swarms of Disposable Drones | Amazing Science |

New advances in 3D printing are making it not only possible but also viable to manufacture cheap, print-on-demand, disposable drones designed simply to soar off over the horizon and never come back. Some British engineers did just that, and this is only the beginning. The team hails from the Advanced Manufacturing Research Center (AMRC) at the University of Sheffield, where they're exploring innovative ways to 3D-print complex designs. They built their disposable drone, a five-foot-wide guy made of just nine parts that looks like a tiny stealth bomber, using a technique called fused deposition modeling. This additive manufacturing technique has been around since the 1980s but has recently become faster and cheaper thanks to improved design processes.

The ultimate vision, as sUAS describes it, is for "cheap and potentially disposable UAVs that could be built and deployed in remote situations potentially within as little as 24 hours." Forward-operating teams equipped with 3D printers could thus generate their own semi-autonomous micro air force squadrons or airborne surveillance swarms, a kind of first-strike desktop printing team hurling disposable drones into the sky.

For now, the AMRC team's drone works well as a glider, and they're working on a twin ducted fan propulsion system. It will eventually get an autonomous operation system powered by GPS as well as on-board data logging of flight parameters. Presumably, someone will want to stick a camera on there, too. If they're successful at building these things cheaply enough, it will be a green flag for the rest of the industry to take a hard look at their designs and see if they can make a disposable drone, too.

Eli Levine's curator insight, April 4, 2014 10:36 PM

This is going to get ugly.


The arms race between the people and the government is just beginning. 


Cause, I can think of all sorts of mayhem that can be raised with this technology, all of it spontaneously generated from the conditions in which people are living, caused primarily by our elite factions, public and private alike.


You SURE you want to be holding those reigns of "power" when they come for you?


Think about it.

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FDA OKs Naloxone Pen to Rapidly Reverse an Opioid Overdose

FDA OKs Naloxone Pen to Rapidly Reverse an Opioid Overdose | Amazing Science |

 The FDA has okayed anauto-injector formulation of naloxone (Evzio), intended to expand the use of an agent that can rapidly reverse an opioid overdose. In a call with stakeholders Thursday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called the auto-injector a "more user-friendly version" of naloxone, which is only currently available in syringe form, although an off-label nasal version has been used in first-responder programs in several cities.

Anyone at risk for overdose can obtain a prescription for the drug, as can family members or caregivers of those at risk, Douglas Throckmorton, MD, deputy directory for regulatory programs at the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said during a separate telephone briefing with reporters.

The device itself gives verbal instructions on how to use it, similar to instructions relayed by automated external defibrillators found in public facilities, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, MD, said during that call.

Officials emphasized that the final direction is to seek medical care: "We don't want people to have the sense that this is the last thing they need to do," Throckmorton said. "They need to get help."

Since many prescription opioids on the market are long-acting drugs, the naloxone may not work as long as those opioids, so repeat doses may be needed, the agency said.

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Solar energy used to create solar energy materials

Solar energy used to create solar energy materials | Amazing Science |

In a recent advance in solar energy, researchers have discovered a way to tap the sun not only as a source of power, but also to directly produce the solar energy materials that make this possible.

This breakthrough by chemical engineers at Oregon State University could soon reduce the cost of solar energy, speed production processes, use environmentally benign materials, and make the sun almost a “one-stop shop” that produces both the materials for solar devices and the eternal energy to power them.

The findings were just published in RSC Advances, a journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry, in work supported by the National Science Foundation.

“This approach should work and is very environmentally conscious,” said Chih-Hung Chang, a professor of chemical engineering at Oregon State University, and lead author on the study.

“Several aspects of this system should continue to reduce the cost of solar energy, and when widely used, our carbon footprint,” Chang said. “It could produce solar energy materials anywhere there’s an adequate solar resource, and in this chemical manufacturing process, there would be zero energy impact.”

The work is based on the use of a “continuous flow” microreactor to produce nanoparticle inks that make solar cells by printing. Existing approaches based mostly on batch operations are more time-consuming and costly.

In this process, simulated sunlight is focused on the solar microreactor to rapidly heat it, while allowing precise control of temperature to aid the quality of the finished product. The light in these experiments was produced artificially, but the process could be done with direct sunlight, and at a fraction of the cost of current approaches.

“Our system can synthesize solar energy materials in minutes compared to other processes that might take 30 minutes to two hours,” Chang said. “This gain in operation speed can lower cost.”

In these experiments, the solar materials were made with copper indium diselenide, but to lower material costs it might also be possible to use a compound such as copper zinc tin sulfide, Chang said. And to make the process something that could work 24 hours a day, sunlight might initially be used to create molten salts that could later be used as an energy source for the manufacturing. This could provide more precise control of the processing temperature needed to create the solar energy materials.

State-of-the-art chalcogenide-based, thin film solar cells have already reached a fairly high solar energy conversion efficiency of about 20 percent in the laboratory, researchers said, while costing less than silicon technology. Further improvements in efficiency should be possible, they said.

Another advantage of these thin-film approaches to solar energy is that the solar absorbing layers are, in fact, very thin - about 1-2 microns, instead of the 50-100 microns of more conventional silicon cells. This could ease the incorporation of solar energy into structures, by coating thin films onto windows, roof shingles or other possibilities.

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Accurate for 300 Million Years: NIST Launches a New U.S. Time Standard:

Accurate for 300 Million Years: NIST Launches a New U.S. Time Standard: | Amazing Science |

The U.S. Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has officially launched a new atomic clock, called NIST-F2, to serve as a new U.S. civilian time and frequency standard, along with the current NIST-F1 standard.

NIST-F2 would neither gain nor lose one second in about 300 million years, making it about three times as accurate as NIST-F1, which has served as the standard since 1999. Both clocks use a "fountain" of cesium atoms to determine the exact length of a second.

NIST scientists recently reported the first official performance data for NIST-F2, which has been under development for a decade, to the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM), located near Paris, France. That agency collates data from atomic clocks around the world to produce Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), the international standard of time. According to BIPM data, NIST-F2 is now the world's most accurate time standard.

NIST-F2 is the latest in a series of cesium-based atomic clocks developed by NIST since the 1950s. In its role as the U.S. measurement authority, NIST strives to advance atomic timekeeping, which is part of the basic infrastructure of modern society. Many everyday technologies, such as cellular telephones, Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite receivers, and the electric power grid, rely on the high accuracy of atomic clocks. Historically, improved timekeeping has consistently led to technology improvements and innovation.

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Is there life on Saturn’s moon Enceladus? Looks like there’s plenty of liquid water

Is there life on Saturn’s moon Enceladus? Looks like there’s plenty of liquid water | Amazing Science |
Liquid water mixing with rock on this distant moon could create chemistry necessary for life, scientists report.

For years, the motto among astrobiologists — people who look for life in distant worlds, and try to understand what life is, exactly — has been “follow the water.” You have to start the search somewhere, and scientists have started with liquid water because it’s the essential agent for all biochemistry on Earth.

Now they’ve followed the water to a small, icy moon orbiting Saturn. Scientists reported Thursday that Enceladus, a shiny world about 300 miles in diameter, has a subsurface “regional sea” with a rocky bottom.

The moon’s liquid reservoir had already been inferred from the presence of plumes of water vapor emerging from the south pole. The plumes stunned scientists when they were detected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft in 2005. This latest report adds the detail of the rocky sea floor, which is significant because the contact between liquid water and rock creates the potential for the kind of interesting chemistry that gets astrobiologists excited.

This bulletin from the outer solar system could boost Enceladus as a possible target of a future robotic space mission. A spacecraft could fly through the plumes and study whatever’s coming out of the moon — something Cassini has done, but with instruments from the previous century that were not designed to look for signs of life.

To become a target for a new mission, however, Enceladus would probably need to outshine Jupiter’s moon Europa, which also appears to have subsurface ocean and also has plumes shooting water vapor into space.

NASA is putting together preliminary designs for a possible Europa mission, though budgetary pressures for now make any new major, costly venture in the outer solar system problematic.

“I love Mars, but I think the two of them” — Enceladus and Europa — “provide the highest probability of finding extant life,” said Mary Voytek, senior scientist for NASA’s astrobiology program. She said she is “torn” about which moon would be the better destination for a robotic probe.

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Advanced Space Propulsion VASIMR Rocket Engine Could Tackle Mars Trips, Space Junk and More

Advanced Space Propulsion VASIMR Rocket Engine Could Tackle Mars Trips, Space Junk and More | Amazing Science |

Led by former NASA astronaut Franklin Chang-Díaz, Ad Astra Rocket Co. is developing the versatile, high-tech engine, which is known as the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket, orVASIMR for short.

Engine work has been underway for more than 25 years, and is based on NASA and U.S. Department of Energy research and development in plasma physics and space propulsion technology. Commercializing the VASIMR electric propulsion engine is the flagship project of Ad Astra, which has been in business for nine years and has invested $30 million to date to mature the concept.

Ad Astra's Texas headquarters and the company's subsidiary research lab in Costa Rica are full of researchers who are attracted by game-changing, disruptive technology, Chang-Díaz said.

VASIMR heats plasma — an electrically charged gas — to extreme temperatures using radio waves. Strong magnetic fields then funnel this plasma out the back of the engine, creating thrust.

The most advanced VASIMR engine is Ad Astra's 200-kilowatt VX-200. The pathway to the VX-200 was discussed at the 33rd International Electric Propulsion Conference, held at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., last month. Company officials gave details about a plan to flight-validate another VASIMR variant, the VF-200, on the International Space Station (ISS) in the next few years.

The major purpose of Aurora is to flight-qualify and test the performance of the 200-kilowatt VF-200 VASIMR engine in the space environment. A battery storage module on the platform stores the energy needed to fire VASIMR at 200 kilowatts for about 15 minutes before needing to be recharged.

Chang-Díaz also outlined a range of applications envisioned for the VF-200-class engine, including the following:

  • A commercial low-Earth orbit, high-powered, solar-electric space tug for space-junk cleanup;
  • Service and support to satellites — such as refueling, repair and repositioning operations — could be enabled by a high-powered VASIMR solar-electric tug;
  • Reboost/orbit maintenance for orbiting space stations could be provided by Ad Astra's autonomous commercial solar-electric power and propulsion module, at a fraction of the cost of present-day chemical rockets;
  • A reusable, high-powered, commercial deep-space catapult that could send fast robotic packages to the outer reaches of the solar system more economically than conventional rockets can; and
  • VASIMR engine-enabled deflection of potentially dangerous asteroids, as well as capture and repositioning of space rocks for mining and resource recovery.

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Chernobyl's Trees Won't Decay, Increasing the Risk of Nuclear Forest Fire

Chernobyl's Trees Won't Decay, Increasing the Risk of Nuclear Forest Fire | Amazing Science |
How a new sort of wildfire threatens the Zone of Alienation and far beyond.

As if the Ukraine didn’t have enough to worry about these days with Russia invading Crimea, recent scientific research points to the very real threat of a nuclear forest fire. Great heavy metal band name aside, the forests around Chernobyl—the nuclear power plant that exploded 28 years ago—are not decaying properly and should it all catch fire, radioactive material would spread beyond Chernobyl’s Zone of Alienation, the off-limits 1000 square-miles around the decommissioned facility located 68 miles north of Kiev.

This Zone of Alienation has given environmental scientists much to study, withinsects choosing to not live there and the birds that do live there developing abnormalities like deformed beaks, odd tail feather lengths, and smaller brains. The trees too, have been shady.

Scientists who have been studying the environment inside the Zone of Alienation since 1991 noticed something about these trees, specifically what they described as “a significant accumulation of litter over time” in a study published recently in Oecologia. And by “significant,” they mean the trees are not decomposing and their leaves are just sitting there on the ground, not decomposing either. This is especially so in the Red Forest, an area of woodland around Chernobyl named thusly because the trees turned a ginger color and died due to the worst radiation poisoning in the area. In an interview with Smithsonian magazine, lead author of the study and biologist at the University of South Carolina Timothy Mousseau called all this non-decayed organic matter “striking, given that in the forests where I live, a fallen tree is mostly sawdust after a decade of lying on the ground.”

The reason for this lack of decay around Chernobyl is that microbes, bacteria, fungi, worms, insects, and other living organisms known as decomposers (because they feed on dead organisms) are just not there and not doing their jobs. Mousseau and his team discovered this after leaving 600 bags of leaves around Chernobyl in 2007. When they collected the bags in 2008, they found that the bags filled with leaves placed in areas with no radiation had decomposed by 70 to 90 percent, but the leaves in areas with radiation? They only decomposed about 40 percent. “There is growing concern that there could be a catastrophic fire in the coming years,” Mousseau told Smithsonian.

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Samsung: Growing great defect-free graphene on germanium will speed up commercialization

Samsung: Growing great defect-free graphene on germanium will speed up commercialization | Amazing Science |

Samsung Electronics announced a breakthrough synthesis method to speed the commercialization of graphene, a unique material ideally suited for electronic devices. Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (SAIT), in partnership with Sungkyunkwan University, became the first in the world to develop this new method.

"This is one of the most significant breakthroughs in graphene research in history," said the laboratory leaders at SAIT's Lab. "We expect this discovery to accelerate the commercialization of graphene, which could unlock the next era of consumer electronic technology."

Graphene has one hundred times greater electron mobility than silicon, the most widely used material in semiconductors today. It is more durable than steel and has high heat conductibility as well as flexibility, which makes it the perfect material for use in flexible displays, wearables and other next generation electronic devices.

Through its partnership with Sungkyungkwan University's School of Advanced Materials Science and Engineering, SAIT uncovered a new method of growing large area, single crystal wafer scale graphene. Engineers around the world have invested heavily in research for the commercialization of graphene, but have faced many obstacles due to the challenges associated with it. In the past, researchers have found that multi-crystal synthesis – the process of synthesizing small graphene particles to produce large-area graphene – deteriorated the electric and mechanical properties of the material, limiting its application range and making it difficult to commercialize.

The new method developed by SAIT and Sungkyunkwan University synthesizes large-area graphene into a single crystal on a semiconductor, maintaining its electric and mechanical properties. The new method repeatedly synthesizes single crystal graphene on the current semiconductor wafer scale.

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Butterfly Wings Inspire Better Sensors

Butterfly Wings Inspire Better Sensors | Amazing Science |

Researchers at GE Global Research are taking a closer look. Not at Lorenz’s question but at the wings themselves. They are using nanotechnology to mimic the iridescent sheen of butterflies from the Morpho genus and develop fast and super sensitive thermal and chemical imaging sensors. In the future, the technology could be used in night vision goggles, surveillance cameras and even medical diagnostic devices.

Imitating nature is not a new idea. Swiss engineer George de Mestro invented Velcro after his dog came home covered with thistle burrs, Speedo came up with fast sharkskin swimsuits, and every aircraft engineer since Leonardo has been aping birds.

When the GE team put Morpho wings under a powerful microscope, they saw a layer of tiny scales just tens of micrometers across. In turn, each of the scales had arrays of ridges a few hundred nanometers wide. This complex structure absorbs and bends light and gives Morfo butterflies their trademark shimmering blue and green coat.

But the GE team also observed that the color of the wings changed when they came into contact with heat, gases and chemicals. Working with DARPA, the scientists started exploring and enhancing the wing’s properties and geometry to build better sensors. 

Detectors based on their research could one day they help doctors create visual heat maps of internal organs, assess wound healing, test food and water safety and monitors power plant emissions.

The findings could also lead to new sensors for detecting warfare agents and explosives.

Radislav Potyrailo, principal scientist at GE Global Research who leads the photonics program, found that when infrared radiation hits the wing, the nanostructures on the wing heat up and expand, causing iridescence and color change.

He and his team added tiny nanotubes to the wings and were able to increase the amount of radiation the wings can absorb, improving their heat sensitivity.

“This new class of thermal imaging sensors promises significant improvements over existing detectors in their image quality, speed, sensitivity, size, power requirements and cost,” Potyrailo says.

Via Miguel Prazeres, Jocelyn Stoller
Monica S Mcfeeters's curator insight, April 6, 2014 5:50 PM

Great ideas are often taken from nature! Check this one out!

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Researchers have genetically engineered trees that will be easier to break down to produce paper and biofuel

Researchers have genetically engineered trees that will be easier to break down to produce paper and biofuel | Amazing Science |
Researchers have genetically engineered trees that will be easier to break down to produce paper and biofuel, a breakthrough that will mean using fewer chemicals, less energy and creating fewer environmental pollutants.

"One of the largest impediments for the pulp and paper industry as well as the emerging biofuel industry is a polymer found in wood known as lignin," says Shawn Mansfield, a professor of Wood Science at the University of British Columbia.

Lignin makes up a substantial portion of the cell wall of most plants and is a processing impediment for pulp, paper and biofuel. Currently the lignin must be removed, a process that requires significant chemicals and energy and causes undesirable waste.

Researchers used genetic engineering to modify the lignin to make it easier to break down without adversely affecting the tree's strength.

"We're designing trees to be processed with less energy and fewer chemicals, and ultimately recovering more wood carbohydrate than is currently possible," says Mansfield.

Researchers had previously tried to tackle this problem by reducing the quantity of lignin in trees by suppressing genes, which often resulted in trees that are stunted in growth or were susceptible to wind, snow, pests and pathogens.

"It is truly a unique achievement to design trees for deconstruction while maintaining their growth potential and strength." The genetic modification strategy employed in this study could also be used on other plants like grasses to be used as a new kind of fuel to replace petroleum.

Genetic modification can be a contentious issue, but there are ways to ensure that the genes do not spread to the forest. These techniques include growing crops away from native stands so cross-pollination isn't possible; introducing genes to make both the male and female trees or plants sterile; and harvesting trees before they reach reproductive maturity.

In the future, genetically modified trees could be planted like an agricultural crop, not in our native forests. Poplar is a potential energy crop for the biofuel industry because the tree grows quickly and on marginal farmland. Lignin makes up 20 to 25 per cent of the tree.

"We're a petroleum reliant society," says Mansfield. "We rely on the same resource for everything from smartphones to gasoline. We need to diversify and take the pressure off of fossil fuels. Trees and plants have enormous potential to contribute carbon to our society."

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After 22 million years, hummingbird evolution is still soaring

After 22 million years, hummingbird evolution is still soaring | Amazing Science |

Hummingbirds are the smallest birds and the smallest warm-blooded animals on Earth. They have the fastest heart and the fastest metabolism of any vertebrate. They are the only birds that can fly backward. And according to a new report they also have a complicated evolutionary history.

Researchers constructed the family tree of these nectar-eating birds using genetic information from most of the world's 338 hummingbird species and their closest relatives. They say hummingbirds can be divided into nine groups, with differences in size, habitat, feeding strategy and body shape.

The common ancestor to all species in existence today lived about 22 million years ago in South America, several million years after hummingbirds were known to be flourishing in Europe, they write. Today's hummingbirds are found only in the Americas.

They boast a unique set of capabilities, says University of New Mexico ornithologist Christopher Witt, one of the scientists in the study published in the journal Current Biology.

They can hover stationarily or move in any direction with precision, even in a strong wind. They also have the highest rate of energy consumption per gram of any animal. Hummingbirds come in a spectacular range of colours, with males more colourful than females. They often have green feathers on the body, with the head coming in "virtually every colour you can imagine: gold, red, blue, purple, magenta, often iridescent," says biologist Jimmy McGuire of the University of California, Berkeley, who led the study.

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World's largest nests are made by socialist bird collectives

World's largest nests are made by socialist bird collectives | Amazing Science |

NO, IT'S not a giant haystack - it's an example of one of the largest structures constructed by birds. Sociable weavers (Philetairus socius) build huge communal nests - multistorey apartment complexes - from sticks and grass. The structures last for decades, sometimes over 100 years. Multiple families live together and even help raise each other's young; you could call them socialist weavers, though that might bring to mind a collective of 19th-century Lancashire textile workers.

The birds - anything up to 100 pairs per nest - live in the harsh Kalahari desert in southern Africa. The thick thatched roof protects them from the sweltering sun, and retains heat during the chill desert night. Photographer Dillon Marsh is interested in how humans and other animals interact, and the weaver's habit of building their nests on telegraph poles attracted him as a subject. "I then became intrigued by the way the nests, although inanimate, almost seemed to be living organisms as they are in a continual state of collapse and repair," he says.

Food is not super-abundant in the desert, so the birds, pictured below, delay breeding until they are 2 years old. It's one of the reasons that it makes evolutionary sense to live communally. In the past the birds had to nest in trees, something else not commonly available in the desert. Telephone poles have allowed the weavers to expand their range.

Leonard Howard's curator insight, February 7, 2015 1:04 PM




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NASA set to release online software catalog

NASA set to release online software catalog | Amazing Science |

Get ready for a stimulating software catalog. You may want to write NASA CAT. next to Thursday, April 10, on your calendar. That is the day that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is to make available to the public, at no cost, more than 1,000 codes with its release of a new online software catalog. The catalog, a master list organized into 15 categories, is intended for industry, academia, other government agencies, and general public. The catalog covers technology topics ranging from project management systems, design tools, data handling, image processing, solutions for life support functions, aeronautics, structural analysis, and robotic and autonomous systems. NASA said the codes represent NASA's best solutions to an array of complex mission requirements.

"Software is an increasingly important element of the agency's intellectual asset portfolio," said Jim Adams, deputy chief technologist with NASA. "It makes up about one-third of its reported inventions each year." With this month's release of the software catalog, he said, the software becomes widely available to the public. Each NASA code was evaluated, however, for access restrictions and designated for a specific type of release, ranging from codes open to all U.S. citizens to codes restricted to use by other federal agencies.

The catalog nonetheless fits into NASA's ongoing efforts to transfer more NASA technologies to American industry and U.S. consumers As Wired's Robert McMillan wrote on Friday, "This NASA software catalog will list more than 1,000 projects, and it will show you how to actually obtain the code you want. The idea to help hackers and entrepreneurs push these ideas in new directions—and help them dream up new ideas."

Adams said, "By making NASA resources more accessible and usable by the public, we are encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship. Our technology transfer program is an important part of bringing the benefit of space exploration back to Earth for the benefit of all people."

Daniel Lockney, technology transfer program executive with NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist, underscored this down-to-earth mission side of NASA in 2012 in an article in Innovation in 2012. "NASA really is the gold standard for technology transfer," he then said. "The money spent on research and development doesn't just go up into space; it comes down to earth in the form of some very practical and tangible results."

Lockney said they know the investment in technology creates jobs, boosts the economy and provides benefits in addition to the mission focus. "Our technologies have done everything from make hospitals more efficient to making transportation safer and greener. The technology reaches into all aspects about our lives."

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Samsung’s Galaxy S5 is the first smartphone that can use a fingerprint to authorize payments in stores and online

Samsung’s Galaxy S5 is the first smartphone that can use a fingerprint to authorize payments in stores and online | Amazing Science |

Anyone with an iPhone 5 can use its fingerprint reader to unlock the device and pay for apps or music in Apple’s iTunes store. Owners of Samsung’s latest flagship device, the Galaxy S5 smartphone, which launches on April 11, will be able to make much broader use of their fingerprints to pay for things. If they visit a website or app that accepts PayPal using the device, they can authorize payments by swiping a finger across the phone’s home button. And PayPal’s own mobile app can be used to pay for goods in some physical stores in the U.S.

Fingerprint payments are likely to be offered on many more smartphones in the near future. The Galaxy S5’s payments system is the first commercial deployment of a new protocol developed by the FIDO Alliance, a group founded by tech companies to end our reliance on insecure passwords (see “PayPal, Lenovo Launch Campaign to Kill the Password”). Indeed, fingerprint readers are expected to become commonplace on mobile devices over the next year or so (see “A Technological Assault on the Password”).

“Today people are having to type in nine-digit passwords everywhere, including one-handed on the subway,” says Joel Yarbrough, senior director of global product solutions at PayPal. This leads many people to use simple passwords and to reuse them across multiple services. This, in turn, makes it easier for criminals to take control of accounts. “Building a smart biometric experience solves both usability and dramatically increases the security level,” says Yarbrough.

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Nanomaterials Improve Both the Anode and Cathode of Li-ion Batteries

Nanomaterials Improve Both the Anode and Cathode of Li-ion Batteries | Amazing Science |

Researchers develop production methods that strike balance between performance and cost-effectiveness.

Lithium-ion batteries are a popular type of rechargeable battery commonly found in portable electronics and electric or hybrid cars. Traditionally, lithium-ion batteries contain a graphite anode, but silicon has recently emerged as a promising anode substitute because it is the second most abundant element on earth and has a theoretical capacity of 3600 milliamp hours per gram (mAh/g), almost 10 times the capacity of graphite. The capacity of a lithium-ion battery is determined by how many lithium ions can be stored in the cathode and anode. Using silicon in the anode increases the battery's capacity dramatically because one silicon atom can bond up to 3.75 lithium ions, whereas with a graphite anode six carbon atoms are needed for every lithium atom.

The USC Viterbi team developed a cost-effective (and therefore commercially viable) silicon anode with a stable capacity above 1100 mAh/g for extended 600 cycles, making their anode nearly three times more powerful and longer lasting than a typical commercial anode.

Up until recently, the successful implementation of silicon anodes in lithium-ion batteries faced one big hurdle: the severe pulverization of the electrode due to the volume expansion and retraction that occurs with the use of silicon. Last year, the same team led by USC Viterbi electrical engineering professor Chongwu Zhou developed a successful anode design using porous silicon nanowires that allowed the material to expand and contract without breaking, effectively solving the pulverization problem.

This solution yielded a new problem, however: the method of producing nanostructured silicon was prohibitively expensive for commercial adoption.

Undeterred, graduate student Mingyuan Ge and other members of Zhou's team built on their previous work to develop a cost-efficient method of producing porous silicon particles through the simple and inexpensive methods of ball-milling and stain-etching. "Our method of producing nanoporous silicon anodes is low-cost and scalable for mass production in industrial manufacturing, which makes silicon a promising anode material for the next generation of lithium-ion batteries," said Zhou. "We believe it is the most promising approach to applying silicon anodes in lithium-ion batteries to improve capacity and performance."

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PCAF gives new hope to patients with spinal cord injury

PCAF gives new hope to patients with spinal cord injury | Amazing Science |

Curious as to why nerves of the peripheral nervous system (PNS) show some capacity for regrowth and repair, whereas nerves of the central nervous system (CNS) do not, scientists undertook a study of the PNS’ regenerative mechanisms, the chemical and genetic events that help peripheral nerves recover from injury. These scientists were already aware that damaged peripheral nerves emit “retrograde” signals, which activate an epigenetic program, which in turn initiates nerve growth. But the scientists were dissatisfied with how little was known about how, exactly, retrograde signaling could trigger the epigenetic mechanism.

The scientists hoped that if more were understood about the trigger, which works in the PNS, they might learn how it could be made to work in the CNS. Then CNS damage, which is currently irreparable, might become amenable to treatment, and people suffering spinal cord injury, stroke, or brain trauma might avoid loss of sensation or permanent paralysis.

Scientists representing Imperial College London and the Hertie Institute, University of Tuebingen compared the responses to PNS damage and CNS damage in a type of neuron called a dorsal root ganglion, which connects to both the PNS and the CNS. (The researchers considered cells in culture as well as mouse models.) Then, through systematic epigenetic studies, they discovered a protein that appears to be essential for a series of chemical and genetic events that allow nerves to regenerate.

The details of this work appeared April 1, 2014 in Nature Communications, in an article entitled “PCAF-dependent epigenetic changes promote axonal regeneration in the central nervous system.” As the title indicates, the crucial protein is called PCAF, for the histone acetyltransferase p300/CBP-associated factor. PCAF, the researchers found, “promotes acetylation of histone 3 Lys 9 at the promoters of established key regeneration-associated genes following a peripheral but not a central axonal injury.”

When researchers injected PCAF into mice with damage to their central nervous system, this significantly increased the number of nerve fibers that grew back, indicating that it may be possible to chemically control the regeneration of nerves in the CNS.

The researchers also found that extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK)-mediated retrograde signaling is required for PCAF-dependent regenerative gene reprogramming. “PCAF,” the authors wrote, “is necessary for conditioning-dependent axonal regeneration and also singularly promotes regeneration after spinal cord injury.”

One of the study’s authors, Radhika Puttagunta, Ph.D., from the University of Tuebingen, said, “With this work we add another level of understanding into the specific mechanisms of how the body is able to regenerate in the PNS and have used this knowledge to drive regeneration where it is lacking in the CNS. We believe this will help further our understanding of mechanisms that could enhance regeneration and physical recovery after CNS injury.”

“The results suggest that we may be able to target specific chemical changes to enhance the growth of nerves after injury to the central nervous system,” said lead study author Simone Di Giovanni, M.D., Ph.D., from Imperial College London’s Department of Medicine. "The ultimate goal could be to develop a pharmaceutical method to trigger the nerves to grow and repair and to see some level of recovery in patients.”

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Human evolution: The Neanderthal in every family

Human evolution: The Neanderthal in every family | Amazing Science |

Before ancient DNA exposed the sexual proclivities of Neanderthals or the ancestry of the first Americans, there was the quagga. An equine oddity with the head of a zebra and the rump of a donkey, the last quagga (Equus quagga quagga) died in 1883. A century later, researchers published1 around 200 nucleotides sequenced from a 140-year-old piece of quagga muscle. Those scraps of DNA — the first genetic secrets pulled from a long-dead organism — revealed that the quagga was distinct from the mountain zebra (Equus zebra).

A few years ago, David Reich discovered a ghost. Reich, a population geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, and his team were reconstructing the history of Europe using genomes from modern people, when they found a connection between northern Europeans and Native Americans. They proposed that a now-extinct population in northern Eurasia had interbred with both the ancestors of Europeans and a Siberian group that later migrated to the Americas6.

Reich calls such groups ghost populations, because they are identified by the echoes that they leave in genomes — not by bones or ancient DNA.

Ghost populations are the product of statistical models, and as such should be handled with care when genetic data from fossils are lacking, says Carlos Bustamante, a population geneticist at Stanford University in California. “When are we reifying something that's a statistical artefact, versus when are we understanding something that's a true biological event?”

An international team had sequenced the genome of Ötzi, a 5,300-year-old frozen corpse found in the Tyrolean Alps of Italy in 1991. The researchers wondered if Bustamante could help them to make sense of the ice-man's ancestry. Together, they showed that Ötzi was more closely related to humans who now live in Sardinia and Corsica than those in central Europe, evidence that the population of Europe when he was alive looked very different to how it does today9.

Bustamante has since plunged into the world of ancient DNA. His team is sequencing samples that chart the arrival of farming in Bulgaria, the transatlantic slave trade in the Americas and dog domestication. The group is developing tools to make sequencing ancient DNA cheaper and easier. “We want to democratize the field,” says Bustamante.

These discoveries are only the beginning. The Akey and Reich teams found that the genomes of east Asians possess, on average, slightly more Neanderthal DNA than do people of European ancestry. Akey sees this as possible evidence that Neanderthals interbred with ancient humans on at least two separate occasions: once with the ancestors of all Eurasians, and later with a population ancestral only to east Asians. And Akey believes that humans are likely to bear genetic scraps from other extinct species, including some that interbred with the ancestors of humans in sub-Saharan Africa.

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Gas from another galaxy is hitting our own, triggering the birth of bright new stars in the Milky Way

Gas from another galaxy is hitting our own, triggering the birth of bright new stars in the Milky Way | Amazing Science |

For the first time astronomers have detected stars in an enormous stream of gas shed by the Magellanic Clouds, the two brightest galaxies that orbit our own.

Sought for decades, the newfound stars are young, which means they formed recently, while the Magellanic gas collided with gas in the Milky Way. The newborn stars offer insight into processes that occurred in the ancient universe, when small, gas-rich galaxies smashed together to give rise to giants like the Milky Way. "This is the one and only galaxy interaction we can model in very much detail," says Dana Casetti-Dinescu, an astronomer at Southern Connecticut State University, who notes that other collisions of gas clouds between galaxies are farther away and thus harder to observe. "For more distant systems that interact, we don't have the wealth of information."

Some two dozen galaxies revolve around our own but only the Magellanic Clouds shine so brightly that stargazers can see the pair with the naked eye. What really sets these two apart is their vigor: Unlike all other Milky Way satellites, the Magellanic Clouds abound with gas, the raw material galaxies use to create new stars.

The Magellanic Clouds are certainly nearby: The Large Magellanic Cloud is just 160,000 light-years from Earth, whereas the Small Magellanic Cloud  is 200,000 light-years distant and 75,000 light-years away from its partner. As the two galaxies orbit the Milky Way, they probably orbit each another, too.

A closer look at the Magellanic Clouds reveals more details. In the early 1970s radio astronomers discovered a long stream of gas that trails behind the two galaxies in their orbit around us. This gas, named the Magellanic Stream, consists mostly of neutral hydrogen atoms, which broadcast radio waves that are 21 centimeters long. A shorter gaseous component leads the Magellanic Clouds and is therefore called the Leading Arm. From the tip of the Leading aArm to the far end of the Magellanic Stream, this gaseous strand is at least 200 degrees long and stretches across more than half a million light-years of space.

Just as the moon lifts the terrestrial seas, the Large Magellanic Cloud's gravitational pull has torn most of this gas out of the Small Magelleanic Cloud, whose grasp on its contents is less secure. Stars should also have spilled out of the Magellanic Clouds. Although both stars and gas exist between the Magellanic Clouds, no one has ever found any stars in either the Magellanic Stream or the Leading Arm.

Until now. Casetti-Dinescu and her colleagues used the 6.5-meter Walter Baade telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile to uncover six luminous blue stars in the Leading Arm. "They are formed in situ," she says. "They have to be, because they're too young—they don't have enough time to travel from the Clouds to their current location in their lifetime." Five of the six stars are about 60,000 light-years from the Milky Way's center, near the periphery of our galaxy's disk of stars.

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Mini robot serves as space surgeon and climbs inside astronauts

Mini robot serves as space surgeon and climbs inside astronauts | Amazing Science |

The fist-sized robot would slide into your abdomen to perform emergency surgery in deep space. Its first zero-gravity test is slated for later this year.

It could one day answer the prayers of astronauts who need surgery in deep space. The miniature surgeon slides into the body through an incision in the belly button. Once inside the abdominal cavity – which has been filled with inert gas to make room for it to work – the robot can remove an ailing appendix, cut pieces from a diseased colon or perforate a gastric ulcer.

The fist-sized robot, a product of Virtual Incision in Lincoln, Nebraska, will have its first zero-gravity test – in an aircraft flying in parabolic arcs – in the next few months. While aloft, the surgery bot will perform a set of exercises to demonstrate its dexterity, such as manipulating rubber bands and other inanimate objects. The hope is that such robots will accompany future astronauts on long deep-space missions, when the chances are higher that someone will experience physical trauma. "It must be an emergency if you would consider surgery in space," says team member Shane Farritor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

For now, the only humans in space venture no further than the International Space Station. Astronauts are carefully screened for health issues before leaving Earth, and the ISS has an escape capsule standing by in case of emergencies, so home is just hours away. Many worrisome health issues that can occur in space return to normal back on Earth (see "Space travel squashes hearts", below). But NASA has plans for human missions to an asteroid and eventually Mars, and getting home quickly won't be an option.

Surgery in space would be extremely difficult. Without gravity, it is easy for bodily fluids like blood to float free and contaminate the cabin. And space capsules can only carry a certain amount of weight, so medical tools need to be relatively light but capable of handling many kinds of situations. "Everything that we take for granted, even something as simple as putting a Band Aid down on a table, is difficult in space," says Dmitry Oleynikov at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. "That difficulty increases logarithmically when you're trying to do complex procedures such as an operation."

Virtual Incision has been working on its design for a few years. The latest version weighs 0.4 kilograms. It has two arms loaded with tools to grab, cauterise and suture tissue, and its head is a small video camera. The feed relays to a control station, where a human surgeon operates it using joysticks.

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