Threatened forest icon may be a hybrid of two extinct species.
The European bison (Bison bonasus) may be the continent’s largest land mammal, but its origins have long been a mystery. Hunted for millennia and pushed into the wild corners of Europe as agriculture expanded, the bison — also known as wisent — were reduced to just a few zoo specimens by the late 1920s. Today, a semi-wild population roams Białowieża Forest, near the Poland–Belarus border, where they slip between hornbeams and mighty oaks, their curly coats and horns lending an aura of the Pleistocene to the ancient forest. It took a reach into the past using ancient DNA and cave art to unveil the wisent’s origin story. Researchers published the species’ family tree on 19 October in Nature Communications1.
The team took almost a decade to complete their work. Much of the analysis used ancient mitochondrial DNA derived from 65 bison specimens ranging from 14,000 to more than 50,000 years ago. But it wasn’t until technological advances made it possible to examine nuclear DNA that researchers were able to produce a coherent family tree.
According to the team’s analysis, the wisent is a hybrid of two extinct animals: the steppe bison (Bison priscus), the Eurasian ancestor of the American bison, and the aurochs (Bos primigenius), the ancestor of modern cattle. The steppe bison went extinct more than 11,000 years ago and the last aurochs was shot in 1627. From the DNA evidence researchers estimate that hybridization took place 120,000 or more years ago. In most cases, hybrid animals are less fertile and fit than their parents. But in this case, a whole new species seems to have taken flight.
"Mount Everest is usually said to be the highest mountain on Earth. Reaching 29,035 feet at its summit, Everest is indeed the highest point above global mean sea level—the average level for the ocean surface from which elevations are measured. But the summit of Mt. Everest is not the farthest point from Earth’s center.
Earth is not a perfect sphere, but is a bit thicker at the Equator due to the centrifugal force created by the planet’s constant rotation. Because of this, the highest point above Earth’s center is the peak of Ecuador’s Mount Chimborazo, located just one degree south of the Equator where Earth’s bulge is greatest. The summit of Chimborazo is 20,564 feet above sea level. However, due to the Earth’s bulge, the summit of Chimborazo is over 6,560 feet farther from the center of the Earth than Everest’s peak. That makes Chimborazo the closest point on Earth to the stars.
You may be surprised to learn that Everest is not the tallest mountain on Earth, either. That honor belongs to Mauna Kea, a volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. Mauna Kea originates deep beneath the Pacific Ocean, and rises more than 32,800 feet from base to peak."
Viruses that infected our ancestors provided the genetic foundations for many traits that define us.
The rise of the mammals may be feel like a familiar tale, but there’s a twist you likely don’t know about: If it wasn’t for a virus, it might not have happened at all.
One of the few survivors of the asteroid impact 65 million years ago was a small, furry, shrew-like creature that lived in underground burrows and only ventured out at night, when predators weren’t active. The critter—already the product of some 100 million years of evolution—looked like a modern mammal, with body hair and mammary glands, except for one tiny detail: according to a recent genetic study, it didn’t have a placenta. And its kind might never have evolved one if not for a chance encounter with a retrovirus.
Unlike most viruses, which infect, replicate, and then leave their host, retroviruses elbow their way into their host’s genome where they are copied and passed on to daughter cells for the life of the host. This retrovirus, however, managed to sneak its way into one of our ancestor’s sperm or egg cells, able to be passed on to every cell in every subsequent generation. Virus and host had become one.
"The area below the red line includes most of Nova Scotia, in Canada's east, but most of the population comes from the area a little farther west, in a sliver of Quebec and a densely populated stretch of Ontario near the Great Lakes."
Sharing genetic information from millions of cancer patients around the world could revolutionize cancer prevention and care, according to a paper in Nature Medicine by the Cancer Task Team of the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health (GA4GH). Hospitals, laboratories and research facilities around the world hold huge amounts of this data from cancer patients, but it’s currently held in isolated “silos” that don’t talk to each other, according to GA4GH, a partnership between scientists, clinicians, patients, and the IT and Life Sciences industry, involving more than 400 organizations in over 40 countries. GA4GH intends to provide a common framework for the responsible, voluntary and secure sharing of patients’ clinical and genomic data.
“Imagine if we could create a searchable cancer database that allowed doctors to match patients from different parts of the world with suitable clinical trials,” said GA4GH co-chair professor Mark Lawler, a leading cancer expert fromQueen’s University Belfast. “This genetic matchmaking approach would allow us to develop personalized treatments for each individual’s cancer, precisely targeting rogue cells and improving outcomes for patients.
“This data sharing presents logistical, technical, and ethical challenges. Our paper highlights these challenges and proposes potential solutions to allow the sharing of data in a timely, responsible and effective manner. We hope this blueprint will be adopted by researchers around the world and enable a unified global approach to unlocking the value of data for enhanced patient care.”
GA4GH acknowledges that there are security issues, and has created a Security Working Group and a policy paper that documents the standards and implementation practices for protecting the privacy and security of shared genomic and clinical data.
Examples of current initiatives for clinico-genomic data-sharing include the U.S.-based Precision Medicine Initiative and the UK’s 100,000 Genomes Project, both of which have cancer as a major focus.
"New research confirms that the next mass extinction is in progress, and we’re the cause. There’s been little doubt that humans have been severely altering the planet and reducing biodiversity, but it has been unclear how many species go extinct under normal circumstances, without human influence.
This new research clarifies the rate of 'background extinction' (the rate of extinction during the point before humans became a primary contributor to extinction). The research confirms that human activity is driving species extinct at a rate far higher than the background rate. A look at previous events suggests cause for concern. Geologists recognize five previous mass extinction events— the end of the Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Triassic, and Cretaceous periods, meaning that we’re now in the 6th."
How much do you know about the world? Hans Rosling, with his famous charts of global population, health and income data (and an extra-extra-long pointer), demonstrates that you have a high statistical chance of being quite wrong about what you think you know. Play along with his audience quiz — then, from Hans’ son Ola, learn 4 ways to quickly get less ignorant.
“For most of the world, the Armenian Genocide is the slaughter you know next to nothing about. But every year on April 24, Genocide Remembrance Day, we Armenians remember the injustice of a crime that is rarely acknowledged and often flatly denied. It was April 24, 1915, when the Armenian intellectuals, professionals, editors and religious leaders in Constantinople were rounded up by the Ottoman authorities — and almost all of them executed. During World War I, the Ottoman Empire killed three of every four of its Armenian citizens. The majority of Armenians alive today are descendants of the few survivors.”
Research underway at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory may one day answer those questions — and perhaps even help pave the way for future colonization of the Red Planet. By analyzing the chemical clues locked inside an ancient Martian meteorite known as Black Beauty, Florida State University Professor Munir Humayun and an international research team are revealing the story of Mars’ ancient, and sometimes startling, climate history.
The team’s most recent finding of a dramatic climate change appeared in Nature Geoscience, in the paper “Record of the ancient Martian hydrosphere and atmosphere preserved in zircon from a Martian meteorite.”
The scientists found evidence for the climate shift in minerals called zircons embedded inside the dark, glossy meteorite. Zircons, which are also abundant in the Earth’s crust, form when lava cools. Among their intriguing properties, Humayun says, is that “they stick around forever.”
“When you find a zircon, it’s like finding a watch,” Humayun said. “A zircon begins keeping track of time from the moment it’s born.”
Last year, Humayun’s team correctly determined that the zircons in its Black Beauty sample were an astonishing 4.4 billion years old. That means, Humayun says, it formed during the Red Planet’s infancy and during a time when the planet might have been able to sustain life.
“First we learned that, about 4.5 billion years ago, water was more abundant on Mars, and now we’ve learned that something dramatically changed that,” said Humayun, a professor of geochemistry. “Now we can conclude that the conditions that we see today on Mars, this dry Martian desert, must have persisted for at least the past 1.7 billion years. We know now that Mars has been dry for a very long time.”
Every summer solstice, tens of thousands of people throng to Stonehenge, creating a festival-like atmosphere at the 4,400-year-old stone monument. For the 2015 solstice, they will have a bit more room to spread out. A just-completed four-year project to map the vicinity of Stonehenge reveals a sprawling complex that includes 17 newly discovered monuments and signs of 1.5 kilometre-round “super henge”.
The digital map — made from high-resolution radar and magnetic and laser scans that accumulated several terabytes of data — shatters the picture of Stonehenge as a desolate and exclusive site that was visited by few, says Vincent Gaffney, an archaeologist at the University of Birmingham, UK, who co-led the effort.
Take the cursus, a 3-kilometer-long, 100-meter-wide ditch north of Stonehenge that was thought to act as barrier. The team’s mapping uncovered gaps in the cursus leading to Stonehenge, as well as several large pits, one of which would have been perfectly aligned with the setting solstice Sun. New magnetic and radar surveys of the Durrington Walls (which had been excavated before) uncovered more than 60 now-buried holes in which stones would have sat, and a few stones still buried.
“They look as they may have been pushed over. That’s a big prehistoric monument which we never knew anything about,” says Gaffney, who calls the structure a ‘super henge.’ His team will discuss the work at the British Science Festival this week, and they plan to present it to the institutions that manage the site. “I’m sure it will guide future excavations,” Gaffney says.
For widemouthed, musical midshipman fish, melatonin is not a sleep hormone — it’s a serenade starter.
In breeding season, male plainfin midshipman fish (Porichthys notatus) spend their nights singing — if that’s the word for hours of sustained foghorn hums. Males dig trysting nests under rocks along much of North America’s Pacific coast, then await females drawn in by the crooning.
New lab tests show that melatonin, familiar to humans as a possible sleep aid, is a serenade “go” signal, says behavioral neurobiologist Ni Feng of Yale University.
From fish to folks, nighttime release of melatonin helps coordinate bodily timekeeping and orchestrate after-dark biology. The fish courtship chorus, however, is the first example of the hormone prompting a launch into song, according to Andrew Bass of Cornell University. And what remarkable vocalizing it is.
The plainfin midshipman male creates a steady “mmm” by quick-twitching specialized muscles around its air-filled swim bladder up to 100 times per second in chilly water. A fish can extend a single hum for about two hours, Feng and Bass report October 10 in Current Biology. That same kind of super-fast muscle shakes rattle-snake tails and trills vocal structures in songbirds and bats.
A subsurface ocean lies deep within Saturn’s moon Dione, according to new data from the Cassini mission to Saturn. Two other moons of Saturn, Titan and Enceladus, are already known to hide global oceans beneath their icy crusts, but a new study suggests an ocean exists on Dione as well.
In this study, researchers of the Royal Observatory of Belgium show gravity data from recent Cassini flybys can be explained if Dione’s crust floats on an ocean located 100 kilometers below the surface. The ocean is several tens of kilometers deep and surrounds a large rocky core. Seen from within, Dione is very similar to its smaller but more famous neighbor Enceladus, whose south polar region spurts huge jets of water vapor into space. Dione seems to be quiet now, but its broken surface bears witness of a more tumultuous past. The study is published in Geophysical Research Letters.
The authors modeled the icy shells of Enceladus and Dione as global icebergs immersed in water, where each surface ice peak is supported by a large underwater keel. Scientists have used this approach in the past but previous results have predicted a very thick crust for Enceladus and no ocean at all for Dione. “As an additional principle, we assumed that the icy crust can stand only the minimum amount of tension or compression necessary to maintain surface landforms,” said Mikael Beuthe, lead author of the new study. “More stress would break the crust down to pieces.”
According to the new study, Enceladus’ ocean is much closer to the surface, especially near the south pole where geysers erupt through a few kilometers of crust. These findings agree well with the discovery last year by Cassini that Enceladus undergoes large back-and-forth oscillations, called libration, during its orbit. Enceladus’ libration would be much smaller if its crust was thicker. As for Dione, the new study finds it harbors a deep ocean between its crust and core. “Like Enceladus, Dione vibrates but below the detection level of Cassini,” said Antony Trinh, co-author of the new study. “A future orbiter hopping around Saturn’s moons could test this prediction.”
A collaboration of physicists and a mathematician has made a significant step toward unifying general relativity and quantum mechanics by explaining how spacetime emerges from quantum entanglement in a more fundamental theory.
Physicists and mathematicians have long sought a Theory of Everything (ToE) that unifies general relativity and quantum mechanics. General relativity explains gravity and large-scale phenomena such as the dynamics of stars and galaxies in the universe, while quantum mechanics explains microscopic phenomena from the subatomic to molecular scales.
The holographic principle is widely regarded as an essential feature of a successful Theory of Everything. The holographic principle states that gravity in a three-dimensional volume can be described by quantum mechanics on a two-dimensional surface surrounding the volume. In particular, the three dimensions of the volume should emerge from the two dimensions of the surface. However, understanding the precise mechanics for the emergence of the volume from the surface has been elusive.
The paper announcing the discovery by Hirosi Ooguri, a Principal Investigator at the University of Tokyo's Kavli IPMU, with Caltech mathematician Matilde Marcolli and graduate students Jennifer Lin and Bogdan Stoica, will be published in Physical Review Letters as an Editors' Suggestion "for the potential interest in the results presented and on the success of the paper in communicating its message, in particular to readers from other fields."
Now, Ooguri and his collaborators have found that quantum entanglement is the key to solving this question. Using a quantum theory (that does not include gravity), they showed how to compute energy density, which is a source of gravitational interactions in three dimensions, using quantum entanglement data on the surface. This is analogous to diagnosing conditions inside of your body by looking at X-ray images on two-dimensional sheets. This allowed them to interpret universal properties of quantum entanglement as conditions on the energy density that should be satisfied by any consistent quantum theory of gravity, without actually explicitly including gravity in the theory. The importance of quantum entanglement has been suggested before, but its precise role in emergence of spacetime was not clear until the new paper by Ooguri and collaborators.
Quantum entanglement is a phenomenon whereby quantum states such as spin or polarization of particles at different locations cannot be described independently. Measuring (and hence acting on) one particle must also act on the other, something that Einstein called "spooky action at distance." The work of Ooguri and collaborators shows that this quantum entanglement generates the extra dimensions of the gravitational theory.
"If you're heading out on the road for your vacation this year, you'll probably get directions from a GPS or navigational system. Does that mean that the traditional map is a relic of the past? Mark Albert hits the road to find out."
Is dark energy the reason time moves forward? BRENDAN COLE 20 MAY 2016
For years, physicists have attempted to explain dark energy - a mysterious influence that pushes space apart faster than gravity can pull the things in it together. But physics isn’t always about figuring out what things are. A lot of it is figuring out what things cause.
And in a recent paper, a group of physicists asked this very question about dark energy, and found that in some cases, it might cause time to go forward.
When you throw a ball into the air, it starts with some initial speed-up, but then it slows as Earth’s gravity pulls it down. If you throw it fast enough (about 11 km per second, for those who want to try), it’ll never slow down enough to turn around and start falling back towards you, but it’ll still move more slowly as it moves away from you, because of Earth’s gravity.
Physicists and astronomers in the 1990s expected something similar to have occured after the big bang - an event that threw matter out in all directions. The collective gravity from all that matter should have slowed it all down, just like the Earth slows down the ball. But that’s not what they found.
Instead, everything seems to have sped up. There’s something pervading the Universe that physically spreads space apart faster than gravity can pull things together. The effect is small - it’s only noticeable when you look at far-away galaxies - but it’s there. It’s become known as dark energy - "dark", because no one knows what it is.
Science is nothing if not the process of humans looking for things they can’t explain, so this isn’t the first time the Universe has stumped us. For centuries, one of those stumpers has been time itself: Why does time have an arrow pointing from the past to the present to the future?
It might seem like a silly question - I mean, if time didn’t go forward, then effects would precede causes, and that seems like it should be impossible - but it’s less of one than you might think.
The Universe, as far as we can tell, only operates according to laws of physics. And just about all of the laws of physics that we know are completely time-reversible, meaning that the things they cause look exactly the same whether time runs forward or backward.
One example is the path of a planet going around a star, which is governed by gravity. Whether time runs forward or backward, planetary orbits follow the exact same paths. The only difference is the direction of the orbit.
But one important piece of physics isn’t time-reversible, and that’s the second law of thermodynamics. It states that as time moves forward, the amount of disorder in the Universe will always increase. Just like dark energy, it’s something we’ve noticed about the Universe, and it’s something that we still don’t totally understand - though admittedly we have a better idea of it than we do of dark energy.
Physicists have, for this reason, reluctantly settled on the second law as the source of time’s arrow: disorder always has to increase after something happens, which requires that time can only move in one direction.
So physicists A. E. Allahverdyan from the Yerevan Physics Institute and V. G. Gurzadyan from Yerevan State University, both in Armenia, decided to see if - at least in a limited situation - dark energy and the second law might be related. To test it, they looked at the simple case of something like a planet orbiting a star with a changing mass.
They found that if dark energy either doesn’t exist or if it pulls space together, the planet just dully orbits the star without anything interesting happening. There’s no way to tell an orbit going forward in time from one going backward in time.
But if dark energy pushes space apart, like it does in our Universe, the planet eventually gets thrown away from the star on a path of no return. This gives us a distinction between the past and the future: run time one way, and the planet is flung off, run it the other way, and the planet comes in and gets captured by the star.
Dark energy naturally leads to an arrow of time.
The authors stress that this is a really limited situation, and they’re certainly not claiming dark energy is the reason time only ever moves forward. But they’ve shown a possible link between thermodynamics and dark energy that could help us to understand either - or maybe both - better than we ever have.
The research has been published in Physical Review E.
Human activity is playing a role in the dwindling size of Utah's Great Salt Lake, according to new research.While the research group acknowledged the role that climate fluctuations, such as droughts and floods, have played in the shift of the lake's water levels over time, the decrease in the lake's size is predominantly due to human causes. According to the report, the heavy reliance on consumptive water uses has reduced the lake level by 11 feet and its volume by 48 percent.
"Globalisation was supposed to tear down barriers, but security fears and a widespread refusal to help migrants and refugees have fuelled a new spate of wall-building across the world, even if experts doubt their long-term effectiveness. When the Berlin Wall was torn down a quarter-century ago, there were 16 border fences around the world. Today, there are 65 either completed or under construction, according to Quebec University expert Elisabeth Vallet."
"This video is from the BBC documentary film Earth: The Power Of The Planet. The clip is also embedded in this story map that tells the tale of Earth’s tectonic plates, their secret conspiracies, awe-inspiring exhibitions and subtle impacts on the maps and geospatial information we so often take for granted as unambiguous."
"Defensive architecture is revealing on a number of levels, because it is not the product of accident or thoughtlessness, but a thought process. It is a sort of unkindness that is considered, designed, approved, funded and made real with the explicit motive to exclude and harass. It reveals how corporate hygiene has overridden human considerations…"
Australia may be known for its unique plants and animals, but how many do we actually know about? Jo Harding is the manager of Bush Blitz, a program supported by federal and state government agencies and research institutions, which documents plants and animals around Australia, leading to the discovery of hundreds of new species.
Ms. Harding states: "There's estimated to be about 75 per cent of Australia's biodiversity that's largely unknown. So there's certainly a lot out there still to find. We've discovered 700 new species so far, that's over the last approximately four years, and we're still counting."
The word 'biodiversity' has a complex scientific definition, but generally speaking, it is used as a catch-all phrase for all plants, animals and other living organisms in a particular area, a spokeswoman for Bush Blitz said.
It covers all types of plants (including algae) and fungi as well as vertebrates (such as mammals, reptiles, fish and birds) and invertebrates (such as insects and octopuses) in both marine and land environments.
A recent CSIRO publication on biodiversity says the scientific definition "includes more than just organisms themselves". "Its definition includes the diversity of the genetic material within each species and the diversity of ecosystems that those species make up, as well as the ecological and evolutionary processes that keep them functioning and adapting," the publication said.
"Biodiversity is not simply a list of species, therefore. It includes the genetic and functional operations that keep the living world working, so emphasizing inter-dependence of the elements of nature."
Undescribed species are species that may have been found before, maybe in different areas or by different people, but which haven't been formally identified. It is then up to an expert to examine the specimen to ensure it really is an undescribed species. The expert will then write a description for the species. Once the description of the new species has been established and published, it is called a described specimen.
Ms Harding's claim that about 75 per cent of Australia's biodiversity is unknown is based on a 2009 report published by the federal environment department. It aggregates information from a large number of sources and previous studies to calculate the number of species already discovered and estimate the number of species yet to be discovered both around the world and in Australia.
It determined that Australia had 147,579 "accepted described species", 26 per cent of its estimated total Australian species.
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