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OneZoom: A Fractal Explorer for the Tree of Life

OneZoom: A Fractal Explorer for the Tree of Life | Amazing Science |

Our knowledge of the tree of life—a phylogenetic tree summarizing the evolutionary relationships among all life on Earth—is expanding rapidly. “Mega-trees” with millions of tips (species) are expected to appear imminently ( for example, see ). Unfortunately, there has so far been no practical and intuitive way to explore even the much smaller trees with thousands of tips that are now being routinely produced. Without a way to view megatrees, these wondrous objects, representing the culmination of decades of scientific effort, cannot be fully appreciated. The field really needs a solution to this problem to enable scientists to communicate important evolutionary concepts and data effectively, both to each other and to the general public. Just like Google Earth changed the way people look at geography, a sophisticated tree of life browser could really change the way we look at the life around us. Our advances in understanding evolution are moving really fast now, but the tools for looking at these big trees are lagging behind. Displaying large trees is a hard problem that has so far resisted solution. We are still waiting for the equivalent of a Google Maps. However, trees with millions of tips, richly embellished with additional data, can now be easily explored within the web browser of any modern hardware with a zooming user interface similar to that used in Google Maps.

Via Sakis Koukouvis
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20,000+ FREE Online Science and Technology Lectures from Top Universities

20,000+ FREE Online Science and Technology Lectures from Top Universities | Amazing Science |



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​Organic food is worse for the climate than conventionally farmed food

​Organic food is worse for the climate than conventionally farmed food | Amazing Science |

Organically farmed food has a bigger climate impact than conventionally farmed food, due to the greater areas of land required. This is the finding of a new international study involving Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, published in the journal Nature.


The researchers developed a new method for assessing the climate impact from land-use, and used this, along with other methods, to compare organic and conventional food production. The results show that organic food can result in much greater emissions.


“Our study shows that organic peas, farmed in Sweden, have around a 50 percent bigger climate impact than conventionally farmed peas. For some foodstuffs, there is an even bigger difference – for example, with organic Swedish winter wheat the difference is closer to 70 percent,” says Stefan Wirsenius, an associate professor from Chalmers, and one of those responsible for the study.


The reason why organic food is so much worse for the climate is that the yields per hectare are much lower, primarily because fertilizers are not used. To produce the same amount of organic food, you therefore need a much bigger area of land.

The ground-breaking aspect of the new study is the conclusion that this difference in land usage results in organic food causing a much larger climate impact.


“The greater land-use in organic farming leads indirectly to higher carbon dioxide emissions, thanks to deforestation,” explains Stefan Wirsenius. “The world’s food production is governed by international trade, so how we farm in Sweden influences deforestation in the tropics. If we use more land for the same amount of food, we contribute indirectly to bigger deforestation elsewhere in the world.”


Even organic meat and dairy products are – from a climate point of view – worse than their conventionally produced equivalents, claims Stefan Wirsenius. “Because organic meat and milk production uses organic feeds, it also requires more land than conventional production. This means that the findings on organic wheat and peas in principle also apply to meat and milk products. We have not done any specific calculations on meat and milk, however, and have no concrete examples of this in the article,” he explains.

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5,000 robots will map the universe in 3D

How do you create the largest 3-D map of the universe? It’s as easy as teaching 5,000 robots how to “dance.” DESI, the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument, is an experiment that will target millions of distant galaxies by automatically swiveling fiber-optic positioners (the robots) to point at them and gather their light.

Scientists working at Berkeley Lab are assembling this array of robots and their related electronics – together representing into a series of 10 wedge-shaped petals that will be fitted together to form a circular focal plane.

The focal plane will be mounted near the top of the Mayall Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Arizona.
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Scientists uncover massive, diverse ecosystem deep beneath Earth’s surface

Scientists uncover massive, diverse ecosystem deep beneath Earth’s surface | Amazing Science |

To survive in the hostile underworld deep beneath Earth’s surface, organisms must be hardy enough to take on extreme pressure, blistering heat, a complete absence of sunlight, and minimal food. Now, hundreds of scientists from the Deep Carbon Observatory say their 10-year study looking for life in boreholes and underwater drill sites has revealed the deep biosphere is home to billions of microorganisms, The Guardian reports. The combined weight of all the carbon in the subterranean ecosystem, which includes many species of bacteria, archaea (single cells without nuclei), and small multicelled organisms like nematodes (above), is estimated to be 245 to 385 times heavier than that of all human beings on the surface, the researchers report this week at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C.

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Parrot Genome Analysis Reveals Insights Into Longevity and Cognition

Parrot Genome Analysis Reveals Insights Into Longevity and Cognition | Amazing Science |

Parrots are famously talkative, and a blue-fronted Amazon parrot named Moises -- or at least its genome -- is telling scientists volumes about the longevity and highly developed cognitive abilities that give parrots so much in common with humans. Perhaps someday, it will also provide clues about how parrots learn to vocalize so well.


Morgan Wirthlin, a BrainHub post-doctoral fellow in Carnegie Mellon University's Computational Biology Department and first author of a report to appear in the Dec. 17, 2018 issue of the journal Current Biology, said she and her colleagues sequenced the genome of the blue-fronted Amazon and used it to perform the first comparative study of parrot genomes.


By comparing the blue-fronted Amazon with 30 other long- and short-lived birds -- including four additional parrot species -- she and colleagues at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and other entities identified a suite of genes previously not known to play a role in longevity that deserve further study. They also identified genes associated with longevity in fruit flies and worms.


"In many cases, this is the first time we've connected those genes to longevity in vertebrates," she said. Wirthlin, who began the study while a Ph.D. student in behavioral neuroscience at OHSU, said parrots are known to live up to 90 years in captivity -- a lifespan that would be equivalent to hundreds of years for humans. The genes associated with longevity include telomerase, responsible for DNA repair of telomeres (the ends of chromosomes), which are known to shorten with age. Changes in these DNA repair genes can potentially turn cells malignant. The researchers have found evidence that changes in the DNA repair genes of long-lived birds appear to be balanced with changes in genes that control cell proliferation and cancer.


The researchers also discovered changes in gene-regulating regions of the genome -- which seem to be parrot-specific -- that were situated near genes associated with neural development. Those same genes are also linked with cognitive abilities in humans, suggesting that both humans and parrots evolved similar methods for developing higher cognitive abilities.


"Unfortunately, we didn't find as many speech-related changes as we had all hoped," said Wirthlin, whose research is focused on the evolution of vocal behaviors, including speech. Animals that learn songs or speech are relatively rare -- parrots, hummingbirds, songbirds, whales, dolphins, seals and bats -- which makes them particularly interesting to scientists, such as Wirthlin, who hope to gain a better understanding of how humans evolved this capacity.


"If you're just analyzing genes, you hit the end of the road pretty quickly," she said. That's because learned speech behaviors are thought be more of a function of gene regulation than of changes in genes themselves. Doing comparative studies of these "non-coding" regulatory regions, she added, is difficult, but she and Andreas Pfenning, assistant professor of computational biology, are working on the computational and experimental techniques that may someday reveal more of their secrets.

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COSINE-100 Dark Matter WIMP Experiment

COSINE-100 Dark Matter WIMP Experiment | Amazing Science |

Astrophysical evidence suggests that the universe contains a large amount of non-luminous dark matter, yet no definite signal of it has been observed despite concerted efforts by many experimental groups. One exception to this is the long-debated claim by the DArk MAtter (DAMA) collaboration, which has reported positive observations of dark matter in its sodium-iodide detector array.


The new COSINE-100 experiment, based at an underground, dark-matter detector at the Yangyang Underground Laboratory in South Korea, has begun to explore DAMA's claim. It is the first experiment sensitive enough to test DAMA and use the same target material of sodium iodide.


COSINE-100 has been recording data since 2016 and now has initial results that challenge the DAMA findings. Those findings are published online this week in the journal Nature." For the first time in 20 years, we have a chance to resolve the DAMA conundrum," said Yale physics professor Reina Maruyama, who is co-spokesperson for COSINE-100 and co-author of the new study.


The first phase of COSINE-100's work searches for dark matter by looking for an excess of signal over the expected background in the detector, with the right energy and characteristics. In this initial study, the researchers found no excess of signal in its data, putting DAMA's annual modulation signal at odds with with results from other experiments. COSINE-100 scientists noted that it will take several years of data to fully confirm or refute DAMA's results.


The COSINE-100 experiment uses eight low-background, thallium-doped sodium iodide crystals arranged in a 4-by-2 array, giving a total target mass of 106 kg. Each crystal is coupled by two photo sensors to measure the amount of energy deposited in the crystal.

The sodium iodide crystal assemblies are immersed in 2,200 L of light-emitting liquid, which allows for the identification and subsequent reduction of radioactive backgrounds observed by the crystals. The detector is contained within a nested arrangement of copper, lead, and plastic shielding components to reduce the background contribution from external radiation, as well as cosmic ray muons.


The COSINE-100 collaboration includes 50 scientists from the U.S., South Korea, the United Kingdom, Brazil, and Indonesia. The Yangyang Underground Laboratory, where the experiment is based, is operated by the Center for Underground Physics of the Institute for Basic Science (IBS) in South Korea.


"The initial results carve out a fair portion of the possible dark matter search region drawn by the DAMA signal. In other words, there is little room left for this claim to be from the dark matter interaction unless the dark matter model is significantly modified," said Hyun Su Lee, the other co-spokesperson for COSINE-100, and an associate director of the Center for Underground Physics at IBS.

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Learning to fly: This colorful web is the most complete look yet at a fruit fly’s brain cells

Learning to fly: This colorful web is the most complete look yet at a fruit fly’s brain cells | Amazing Science |
Scientists compiled 21 million images to craft the highest-resolution view yet of the fruit fly brain.


If the secret to getting the perfect photo is taking a lot of shots, then one lucky fruit fly is the subject of a masterpiece.

Using high-speed electron microscopy, scientists took 21 million nanoscale-resolution images of the brain of Drosophila melanogaster to capture every one of the 100,000 nerve cells that it contains. It’s the first time the entire fruit fly brain has been imaged in this much detail, researchers report online July 19 in Cell.


Experimental neurobiologists can now use the rich dataset as a road map to figure out which neurons talk to each other in the fly’s brain, says study coauthor Davi Bock, a neurobiologist at Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, VA.


The rainbow image shown at top and in the video below captures the progress on that mapping so far. Despite the complex tangle of neural connections pictured, the mapping is far from complete, Bock says. Neurons with cell bodies close to each other are colored the same hue, to demonstrate how neurons born in the same place in the poppy seed–sized brain tend to send their spidery tendrils out in the same direction, too.


The dataset is already enabling new discoveries about the fruit fly brain. For instance, Bock and colleagues are interested in the neurons that help flies make memories. He and his team traced neurons that send messages to and from a structure in the fly’s brain called the mushroom body, which is involved in learning and memory. In the process, the researchers discovered a new type of neuron that talks to cells in the mushroom body. The brain has two such neurons, one on each side, Bock says. Each has a broad crown of dendrites that receive signals from neurons in many different places in the brain. Because of their far-reaching influence, the cells might be involved in integrating different kinds of sensory information, he suggests.

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Neutrino found in Antarctica provides astronomy breakthrough by tracing its origin to a blazar

Neutrino found in Antarctica provides astronomy breakthrough by tracing its origin to a blazar | Amazing Science |
For the first time, scientists traced the origins of a neutrino that traveled 3.7 billion light-years to Earth and was found in the Antarctic ice by the IceCube detector.


Scientists and observatories around the world were able to trace the neutrino to a galaxy with a supermassive, rapidly spinning black hole at its center, known as a blazar. The galaxy sits to the left of Orion's shoulder in his constellation and is about 4 billion light-years from Earth.
Scientists say the discovery heralds a new era of space research, allowing the use of these particles to study and observe the universe in an unprecedented way. And the finding suggests that scientists will be able to track the origin of mysterious cosmic rays for the first time.
"This identification launches the new field of high-energy neutrino astronomy, which we expect will yield exciting breakthroughs in our understanding of the universe and fundamental physics, including how and where these ultra-high-energy particles are produced," Doug Cowen, a founding member of the IceCube collaboration and Penn State University professor of physics and astronomy and astrophysics, said in a statement. "For 20 years, one of our dreams as a collaboration was to identify the sources of high-energy cosmic neutrinos, and it looks like we've finally done it!"
Blazars are a type of active galaxy with one of its jets pointing toward us. In this artistic rendering, a blazar emits both neutrinos and gamma rays could be detected by the IceCube Neutrino Observatory as well as by other telescopes on Earth and in space.
The findings were published in two studies in the journal Science on Thursday. One study includes the detection of the neutrino, and the follow-up study determined that this blazar had produced neutrinos in multiple bursts before in 2014 and 2015.
A combination of observations and data across the electromagnetic spectrum, provided by observatories on Earth and in space, makes this a prime example of how "multi-messenger" astronomy is helping make discoveries possible. Multi-messenger astronomy also contributed to the discovery of the neutron star collision that created light, gravitational waves and gold in October.
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The Arctic Ocean has lost 95 percent of its oldest ice — a startling sign of what’s to come

The Arctic Ocean has lost 95 percent of its oldest ice — a startling sign of what’s to come | Amazing Science |

Over the past three decades of global warming, the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic has declined by a stunning 95 percent, according the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual Arctic Report Card.


The finding suggests that the sea at the top of the world has already morphed into a new and very different state, with major implications not only for creatures such as walruses and polar bears but, in the long term, perhaps for the pace of global warming itself.


The oldest ice can be thought of as a kind of glue that holds the Arctic together and, through its relative permanence, helps keep the Arctic cold even in long summers. “The younger the ice, the thinner the ice, the easier it is to go away,” said Don Perovich, a scientist at Dartmouth who coordinated the sea ice section of the yearly report.


If the Arctic begins to experience entirely ice-free summers, scientists say, the planet will warm even more, as the dark ocean water absorbs large amounts of solar heating that used to be deflected by the cover of ice. The new findings were published as climate negotiators in Poland are trying to reach a global consensus on how to address climate change.


In March 2018, NASA scientists with the Operation IceBridge mission, which surveys the polar regions using research aircraft, witnessed a dramatic instance of the ongoing changes. Flying over the seas north of Greenland, in a region that usually features some of the oldest, thickest ice in the Arctic, they instead saw smooth, thin strips binding together the thicker, ridged pieces.


“I was just shocked by how different it was,” said NASA’s Nathan Kurtz, who has flown over the area multiple times. The floating sea ice had broken up entirely the previous month — very unusual for this location — and now was feebly freezing back together again.

Scientists think a strange wind event caused the breakup in this region just a few hundred miles south of the North Pole — so it’s unclear whether it is directly linked to climate change. Still, the breakup could be just one more sign of the growing fragility of the oldest ice.

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Thousands of Unstudied Plants May Be at Risk of Extinction

Thousands of Unstudied Plants May Be at Risk of Extinction | Amazing Science |
Plants often get short shrift in conservation circles, but machine learning could help botanists save tens of thousands of species.


Pleurothallis portillae is one odd-looking orchid. Sporting a small nub of a flower nestled in a long, bulbous leaf that droops like a pair of string beans, it’s considered fashionably drab by collectors. But its true home is in the remote cloud forest of the Ecuadorian Andes—a region where, according to an algorithm, it’s most likely under threat of extinction.


Plants have long gotten short shrift in conservation circles. Although perhaps a fifth of the kingdom’s species are at risk, according to the UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, identifying which ones are on the brink is a somewhat anecdotal business. Less than 10 percent of plant species have been assessed by the IUCN Red List, considered the preeminent global directory of extinction threat. Comprehensive evaluations, which take time and money, end up favoring so-called “charismatic” species, the lions and polar bears that grace glossy donation mailers. That, and the sheer number of known plant species—almost 400,000 of them, spread far across the globe in hard-to-reach places, with thousands more being discovered every year—makes the whole affair a massive, underfunded game of catch-up.


But botanists are drowning in data that could potentially help, says Anahí Espíndola, a professor of evolutionary ecology at the University of Maryland. “We wanted to find a way to speed up the process.” In a study appearing Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, she and her co-authors use reams of data to predict the status of 150,000 plant species whose vulnerability is currently unknown.


Professors, curators, and citizen scientists have long gone out into the field in search of plants common and rare, returning with meticulous records of their observations that pile up in public databases. Data is available, to varying degrees, for hundreds of thousands of plants. In recent years, all that rough-and-tumble exploring has also generated millions of GPS points referring to locations where individual plants were observed.


Espíndola’s team found that if they crunched the numbers available for plants already listed on the IUCN Red List—data on the species’ range, location, and traits, as well as regional climate and geographic indicators—they could build a machine learning model that could predict the status of other species.


As of September 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists 116 extinct species, 132 possibly extinct species, 35 extinct in the wild species, 13 possibly extinct in the wild species, five extinct subspecies, one extinct in the wild subspecies, and four extinct varieties of plants.

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A Neuromorphic Star Is Born: The World’s Most Powerful Supercomputer

A Neuromorphic Star Is Born: The World’s Most Powerful Supercomputer | Amazing Science |

The human brain is a complex, organic machine comprised of electrochemical signals pulsing rapidly through a neural network highway. Its functions and mechanics have enthralled and puzzled scientists and thinkers as far back as the ancient Egyptians in 17th-century B.C. In early November, centuries of neuroscience and decades of AI computer research culminated with the world’s most powerful supercomputer being turned on for the very first time.


Created by the University of Manchester’s School of Computer Science, this neuromorphic machine was designed to mimic the biological processes of the human brain by utilizing:

  • Over 1 million cores
  • 7 terabytes of RAM
  • 57,000 system-in-package nodes (SiP), each containing 18 cores as well as a 128-megabyte synchronous dynamic random-access memory (SDRAM)
  • 64 kilobytes of data tightly-coupled memory (DTCM) in each core
  • 32 kilobytes of instruction tightly-coupled memory (ITCM) in each core


All of these elements come together to create a process similar to human brain function. Rather than transferring large amounts of data from one point to another, like a traditional computer, the supercomputer transmits billions of small bits of information to thousands of system locations at the same time.


This machine, which has been nicknamed SpiNNaker, standing for “Spiking Neural Network Architecture,” was designed and planned for 20 years, and was built over the course of about 10 years.


“SpiNNaker completely rethinks the way conventional computers work,” said Steve Furber, an ICL professor of computer engineering at the University of Manchester. “We’ve essentially created a machine that works more like a brain than a traditional computer, which is extremely exciting.”


SpiNNaker is expected to provide neuroscientists with valuable insight into brain mechanics, bringing about the dawn of a new era in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). Using this advanced neuromorphic technology, engineers can create highly precise robots capable of operating advanced and complex functions.


Intelligent machines already play a critical role in the manufacturing industry, and in the future, advanced neuromorphic AI like this could expand the entire industry to unprecedented levels. For now, SpiNNaker’s birth signifies a new chapter in modern technology.

Via Alan Charky
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Smithsonian researchers name new ocean zone: The rariphotic

Smithsonian researchers name new ocean zone: The rariphotic | Amazing Science |

Based on the unique fish fauna observed from a manned submersible on a southern Caribbean reef system in Curaçao, Smithsonian explorers defined a new ocean-life zone, the rariphotic, between 130 and 309 meters (about 400 to 1,000 feet) below the surface. The rariphotic occurs just below a previously defined reef zone, the mesophotic, which extends from about 40 to as deep as 150 meters (about 120-450 feet). The role of this new zone as a refuge for shallower reef fishes seeking relief from warming surface waters or deteriorating coral reefs is still unclear.


The initial motivation for studying deep-reef ecosystems was the declining health of shallow reefs. Many researchers wonder if deeper reef areas, sometimes known as the "coral reef twilight zone," might act as refuges for shallow-water organisms. As the Smithsonian researchers sought to answer this question, it became clear to them that scientists have only scratched the surface when it comes to understanding the biodiversity of reef fishes.


"It's estimated that 95 percent of the livable space on our planet is in the ocean," said Carole Baldwin, curator of fishes at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, lead author of the study and director of the Smithsonian's Deep Reef Observation Project (DROP). "Yet only a fraction of that space has been explored. That's understandable for areas that are thousands of miles offshore and miles deep. But tropical deep reefs are just below popular, highly studied shallow reefs--essentially our own back yards. And tropical deep reefs are not barren landscapes on the deep ocean floor: they are highly diverse ecosystems that warrant further study. We hope that by naming the deep-reef rariphotic zone, we'll draw attention to the need to continue to explore deep reefs."

Via Mariaschnee
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Engineers developing a HAL 9000-type AI system for monitoring planetary base stations

Engineers developing a HAL 9000-type AI system for monitoring planetary base stations | Amazing Science |

A team of engineers at TRACLabs Inc. in the U.S. is making inroads toward the creation of a planetary base station monitoring system similar in some respects to Hal 9000—the infamous AI system in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. In this case, it is called cognitive architecture for space agents (CASE) and is outlined in a Focus piece by Pete Bonasso, the primary engineer working on the project, in the journal Science Robotics.


Bonasso explains that he has had an interest in creating a real Hal 9000 ever since watching the movie as a college student—minus the human killing, of course. His system is designed to run a base situated on another planet, such as Mars. It is meant to take care of the more mundane, but critical tasks involved with maintaining a habitable planetary base, such as maintaining oxygen levels and taking care of waste. He notes that such a system needs to know what to do and how to do it, carrying out activities using such hardware as robot arms. To that end, CASE has been designed as a three-layered system. The first is in charge of controlling hardware, such as power systems, life-support, etc.


The second layer is more brainy—it is in charge of running the software that controls the hardware. The third layer is even smarter, responsible for coming up with solutions to problems as they arise—if damage occurs to a module, for example, it must be sealed off from others modules as quickly as possible. The system also has what Bonasso describes as an ontological system—its job is to be self-aware so that the system can make judgment calls when comparing data from sensors with what it has learned in the past and with information received from human occupants. To that end, the system will be expected to interact with those humans in ways similar to those portrayed in the movie.


Bonasso reports that he and his team have built a virtual reality prototype of a planetary base, which CASE has thus far managed to run for up to four hours. He acknowledges that a lot more work needs to be done. Luckily, they still have a lot of time, as plans for human habitation of Mars and beyond are still decades away.

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Fastest-Ever Cell Contractions Observed in Primitive Invertebrate Without Muscles or Nerves

Fastest-Ever Cell Contractions Observed in Primitive Invertebrate Without Muscles or Nerves | Amazing Science |
The microscopic marine animal Trichoplax adhaerens may use rapid changes in cell shape to avoid being ripped apart by forces in the ocean.


Most animals rely on changes in cell shape to move tissues around during development, but these alterations are usually slow and are rare in adult animals. In a case of extreme exception described in October 2018 in PNAS, the adult marine invertebrate Trichoplax adhaerens, an organism in the shape of a smashed wad of chewing gum no bigger than a piece of lint, consistently contracts and relaxes the cells on the top of its body at speeds nearly 10 times faster than ever before observed in an animal.


Researchers discussed the published work, as well as ongoing studies into the purpose of the super fast cellular contractions, in three presentations at the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) annual meeting in San Diego this week. It’s “astonishing” that a cell can contract so quickly and retain its functional integrity while adhering to the surrounding cells, says Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado, a biologist at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Missouri, who did not participate in the work. “That’s a remarkable way of managing force, and [studying this animal] is helping us understand how multicellularity may have arisen as a life form on this planet.”


Trichoplax adhaerens are just a millimeter or two in diameter and flatter than a piece of paper—only about 25 microns thick. This tiny blob of an animal lives in oceans and is thought to be one of the most ancient metazoans. Their bodies are made up of two layers of epithelial cells: the ciliated bottom layer faces the substrate along which they’re moving and the top layer faces open water. So-called fiber cells reside in between the epithelia. They have no muscles, nerves, organs, or extracellular matrix, yet they are capable of directed movement, coordinated secretion of digestive enzymes, and predictable behaviors.


When Stanford University’s Manu Prakash was starting his lab about eight years ago, he wanted to be able to connect the behavior of an animal’s cells with that of the entire organism. Trichoplax fit the bill, thanks to its limited number of cell types and small size that allowed the researchers to view all the cells in a living adult animal at once. Over the years, Prakash’s group has built tracking microscopes to follow the animals as they lumber along glass dishes in seawater. When they recently used a fluorescent dye to visualize the cell membranes, they saw that cells in the top layer of epithelium contracted their surfaces more than 50 percent over the span of a single second—an observation that Prakash describes as “a huge surprise.”

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Rare microbe leads scientists to discover new branch on the tree of life

Rare microbe leads scientists to discover new branch on the tree of life | Amazing Science |

Canadian researchers have discovered a new kind of organism that's so different from other living things that it doesn't fit into the plant kingdom, the animal kingdom, or any other kingdom used to classify known organisms. Two species of the microscopic organisms, called hemimastigotes, were found in dirt collected on a whim during a hike in Nova Scotia by Dalhousie University graduate student Yana Eglit.


A genetic analysis shows they're more different from other organisms than animals and fungi (which are in different kingdoms) are from each other, representing a completely new part of the tree of life, Eglit and her colleagues report in Nature.,


"They represent a major branch that we didn't know we were missing," said Dalhousie biology professor Alastair Simpson, Eglit's supervisor and co-author of the new study. "There's nothing we know that's closely related to them." In fact, he estimates you'd have to go back a billion years — about 500 million years before the first animals arose — before you could find a common ancestor of hemimastigotes and any other known living things.


The hemimastigotes analyzed by the Dalhousie team were found by Eglit during a spring hike with some other students along the Bluff Wilderness Trail outside Halifax a couple of years ago. She often has empty sample vials in her pockets or bags, and scooped a few tablespoons of dirt into one of them from the side of the trail. Back at the lab, she soaked the soil in water, which often revives microbes that have gone dormant, waiting for the next big rainstorm. Over the next few weeks, she checked on the dish through a microscope to see what might be swimming around.


Then, one day, about three weeks later, she saw something that caught her eye — something shaped like the partially opened shell of a pistachio. It had lots of hairs, called flagella, sticking out. Most known microbes with lots of flagella move them in co-ordinated waves, but not this one, which waved them in a more random fashion.  "It's as if these cells never really learned that they have many flagella," Eglit said with a laugh. She had seen something with that strange motion once before, a few years ago, and recognized it as a rare hemimastigote.


Hemimastigotes were first seen and described in the 19th century. But at that time, no one could figure out how they fit into the evolutionary tree of life. Consequently, they've been "a tantalizing mystery" to microbiologists for quite a long time, Eglit said.

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Hop, Don't Roll: How the Tiny Japanese Rovers on Asteroid Ryugu Move

Hop, Don't Roll: How the Tiny Japanese Rovers on Asteroid Ryugu Move | Amazing Science |

Two tiny Japanese rovers began exploring the surface of the big asteroid Ryugu recently — but they're not roving in the traditional sense of the term. The little robots, called MINERVA-II1A and MINERVA-II1B, touched down on Sept. 21, 2018, after separating from their Hayabusa2 mothership, which has been orbiting the 3,000-foot-wide (900 meters) Ryugu since late June 2018. 


MINERVA-II1A and MINERVA-II1B don't have wheels like NASA's Opportunity and Curiosity Mars rovers do — and there's a very good reason for that [see Japan's Hayabusa2 Asteroid Ryugu Mission in Pictures].


"Gravity on the surface of Ryugu is very weak, so a rover propelled by normal wheels or crawlers would float upwards as soon as it started to move," officials with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) wrote in a description of MINERVA-II1A and MINERVA-II1B.

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First-ever baby born from a uterus transplanted after death

First-ever baby born from a uterus transplanted after death | Amazing Science |
For the first time, a woman who received a uterus from a deceased donor has successfully given birth—an important milestone for the young field of uterus transplantation, STAT reports. Researchers at the University of São Paulo in São Paulo, Brazil, transplanted the uterus of a 45-year-old woman who had died of a brain hemorrhage into the body of 32-year-old woman with a condition that prevented her from developing the organ. Once it was clear the recipient’s body was not rejecting the organ, a fertilized embryo was placed in the uterus; 36 weeks later she gave birth through a cesarean section to a 2.5-kilogram girl (above), researchers report this week in The Lancet. This is the first time a woman has given birth with a deceased donor’s uterus; some organs from live donors have figured in past births.
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Genome-wide study of hair color in UK Biobank explains most of the SNP heritability for red, brown and blond hair

Genome-wide study of hair color in UK Biobank explains most of the SNP heritability for red, brown and blond hair | Amazing Science |

Natural hair color within European populations is a complex genetic trait. Previous work has established that MC1R variants are the principal genetic cause of red hair color, but with variable penetrance. Here, a group of geneticists have now extensively mapped the genes responsible for human hair color in the Caucasian British ancestry, participants in UK Biobank. MC1R only explains 73% of the SNP heritability for red hair in the UK Biobank, and in fact most individuals with two MC1R variants have blonde or light brown hair. The scientists identified several other genes contributing to red hair, the combined effect of which accounts for ~90% of the SNP heritability. Blonde hair is associated with over 200 genetic variants and the researchers find a continuum from black through dark and light brown to blonde and account for 73% of the SNP heritability of blonde hair. Many of the associated genes are involved in hair growth or texture, emphasizing the cellular connections between keratinocytes and melanocytes in the determination of hair color.

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Researchers create tiny droplets of early universe matter

Researchers create tiny droplets of early universe matter | Amazing Science |
Scientists have generated an ultra-hot state of matter called a quark gluon plasma in three shapes and sizes: circles, ellipses and triangles.


The study, published today in Nature Physics, stems from the work of an international team of scientists and focuses on a liquid-like state of matter called a quark gluon plasma. Physicists believe that this matter filled the entire universe during the first few microseconds after the Big Bang when the universe was still too hot for particles to come together to make atoms.


CU Boulder Professor Jamie Nagle and colleagues on an experiment known as PHENIX used a massive collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, to recreate that plasma. In a series of tests, the researchers smashed packets of protons and neutrons in different combinations into much bigger atomic nuclei. They discovered that, by carefully controlling conditions, they could generate droplets of quark gluon plasma that expanded to form three different geometric patterns.


"Our experimental result has brought us much closer to answering the question of what is the smallest amount of early universe matter that can exist," Nagle said.


Researchers from CU Boulder and Vanderbilt University lead the data analysis efforts for the PHENIX experiment. Scientists first started studying such matter at Brookhaven's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) in 2000. They crashed together the heavy nuclei of gold atoms, generating temperatures of trillions of degrees Celsius. In the resulting boil, quarks and gluons, the subatomic particles that make up all protons and neutrons, broke free from their atomic chains and flowed almost freely.

Several years later, another group of researchers reported that they seemed to have created a quark gluon plasma not by slamming together two atoms, but by crashing together just two protons.

That was surprising because most scientists assumed that lone protons could not deliver enough energy to make anything that could flow like a fluid.

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Cholesterol traces suggest these mysterious fossils were animals, not fungi

Cholesterol traces suggest these mysterious fossils were animals, not fungi | Amazing Science |

Cholesterol clinched it: A group of strange Precambrian fossils are among the oldest known animals in the rock record. Organic molecules preserved with fossils of the genus Dickinsonia confirm that the creatures were animals rather than fungi or lichen, a study in the Sept. 21 Science says. Researchers led by paleontologist Ilya Bobrovskiy of Australian National University in Canberra analyzed levels of steroids in the fossils, which date to between 571 million and 541 million years ago. The team found an abundance of cholesterol that points firmly to the animal kingdom.


The finding “gets rid of the more outlandish hypotheses about what these objects were,” says MIT geobiologist Roger Summons, who cowrote a related commentary in the same issue of Science. “You can’t argue with chemistry.” Dickinsonia are part of the enigmatic Ediacara biota, the collective name for a burst of strange, alienlike life-forms that flourished during the Precambrian Eon. Ediacarans, originally named for Australia’s Ediacara Hills, where they were first discovered, are now found in Precambrian-aged rocks around the globe.


The new study was conducted on Ediacaran fossils extracted from a remote coastline in northwest Russia along the White Sea. The site is difficult to access — Bobrovskiy had to helicopter in and rappel down a cliff to collect the fossils — but the rewards are worth it, paleontologists say: The fossil-bearing rocks at the site haven’t been cooked and twisted by tectonic forces. The rocks are so pristine, in fact, that they still contain traces of soft tissue containing organic molecules, which researchers can use as biomarkers to help identify the fossils.


That’s particularly helpful when it comes to the Ediacaran fossils, which have proven difficult to place on the tree of life as they bear little resemblance to any known creatures.The Ediacarans were macrofossils, meaning that, at several centimeters across, they are large enough to see with the naked eye. But their strange shapes — for example, Dickinsonia resemble ribbed ovals that are symmetrical around a central axis — left scientists stumped. Most paleontologists suspected that Dickinsonia were animals. But some scientists argued they could be fungi, lichens or even giant, single-celled creatures called protists (SN: 1/26/13, p. 15).

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A Cyclic Universe? Avoidance of the Big Bang Singularity Based on a New Version of the Generalized Uncertainty Principle

A Cyclic Universe? Avoidance of the Big Bang Singularity Based on a New Version of the Generalized Uncertainty Principle | Amazing Science |

There are many scientific and non-scientific varieties of the answer about what came before Big Bang. In this paper, theorists investigate the effects of a new version of the generalized uncertainty principle (modified GUP) on the dynamics of the Universe. As the modified GUP will modify the relation between the entropy and area of the apparent horizon, it will also deform the Friedmann equations within Jacobson’s approach. They explicitly find these deformed Friedmann equations governing the modified GUP-corrected dynamics of such a Universe. It is shown in the paper that the modified GUP-deformed Jacobson’s approach implies an upper bound for the density of such a Universe.


The Big Bang singularity can therefore also be avoided using the modified GUP-corrections to horizons’ thermodynamics. In fact, the authors are able to analyze the pre Big Bang state of the Universe. Furthermore, the equations imply that the expansion of the Universe will come to a halt and then will immediately be followed by a contracting phase. When the equations are extrapolated beyond the maximum rate of contraction, a cyclic Universe scenario emerges.


Paper is here

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In 200 years, humans reversed a climate trend lasting 50 million years, study says

In 200 years, humans reversed a climate trend lasting 50 million years, study says | Amazing Science |

What do scientists see when comparing our future climate with the past? In less than 200 years, humans have reversed a multimillion-year cooling trend, new research suggests.

If global warming continues unchecked, Earth in 2030 could resemble its former self from 3 million years ago, according to a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds.
During that ancient time, known as the mid-Pliocene epoch, temperatures were higher by about 2 to 4 degrees Celsius (3.6 to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) and sea levels were higher by roughly 20 meters (almost 66 feet) than today, explained Kevin D. Burke, lead author of the study and a researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Tackling climate change could save millions of lives, report says. Today is "one of the most difficult scenarios we've ever found ourselves in," Burke said. "This is a very rapid period of climatic change. Looking for anything that we can do to curb those emissions is important."
Climate scientists say that our globe is about 1 degree Celsius hotter today than it was between 1850 and 1900 and that this is due in part to gas emissions from cars, planes and other human activities. Some gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, trap heat in the atmosphere, producing a "greenhouse effect" that makes the planet warmer.
The new study is basically "a similarity assessment," Burke said. "We have projections of future climate available for the year 2020, 2030 and so forth." For nearly 30 future decades, then, he and his co-authors drew future-to-past comparisons based on six reference periods.
The reference periods were the Historical, about mid-20th century; the Pre-Industrial, around 1850; the mid-Holocene, about 6,000 years ago; the last Interglacial Period, about 125,000 years ago; the mid-Pliocene, about 3 million years ago; and the early Eocene, about 50 million years ago.
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Next U.S. moon landing will be by private companies, not NASA

Next U.S. moon landing will be by private companies, not NASA | Amazing Science |

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced Thursday that nine U.S. companies will compete to deliver experiments to the lunar surface. The space agency will buy the service and let private industry work out the details on getting there, he said.


The goal is to get small science and technology experiments to the surface of the moon as soon as possible. The first flight could be next year; 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the first manned moon landing.


“We’re going at high speed,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s science mission directorate, which will lead the effort.

NASA officials said the research will help get astronauts back to the moon more quickly and keep them safer once they’re there.


The initial deliveries likely will include radiation monitors, as well as laser reflectors for gravity and other types of measurements, according to Zurbuchen. Bridenstine said it will be up to the companies to arrange their own rocket rides. NASA will be one of multiple customers using these lunar services.


The announcement came just three days after NASA landed a spacecraft on Mars. NASA wants to see how it goes at the moon before committing to commercial delivery services at Mars. This new partnership is loosely modeled after NASA’s successful commercial cargo deliveries to the International Space Station, as well as the still-unproven commercial crew effort. SpaceX and Northrop Grumman, formerly Orbital ATK, have been making space station shipments since 2012. SpaceX expects to start transporting astronauts to the orbiting lab next year; so does Boeing.


Altogether, these Commercial Lunar Payload Services contracts have a combined value of US$2.6 billion over the next 10 years.

NASA wants lots of companies involved to encourage competition and get to the moon fast, so astronauts can benefit once an orbiting outpost is up and running near the moon.

Bridenstine expects to have humans working intermittently on the moon, along with robots and rovers, within a decade.


The nine companies, representing seven states, are:

  • Astrobiotic Technology Inc., Pittsburgh;
  • Deep Space Systems, Littleton, Colorado;
  • Draper, Cambridge, Massachusetts;
  • Firefly Aerospace Inc., Cedar Park, Texas;
  • Intuitive Machines, Houston;
  • Lockheed Martin, Littleton;
  • Masten Space Systems Inc., Mojave, California;
  • Moon Express, Cape Canaveral; and
  • Orbit Beyond, Edison, New Jersey.

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SUBSEA, the Systematic Underwater Biogeochemical Science and Exploration Analog Program

SUBSEA, the Systematic Underwater Biogeochemical Science and Exploration Analog Program | Amazing Science |

Exciting new discoveries on Ocean Worlds in our Solar System, in particular on Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan and Jupiter’s moon Europa, have helped bring together ocean explorers with interplanetary explorer counterparts. These scientists recognize that terrestrial features and systems on Earth—like hydrothermal vents—could help scientists understand systems that might be similar on the moons of Saturn or Jupiter. Studying these systems on our own planet might even help guide the search for life in space.


One result of this growing conversation between terrestrial and interplanetary ocean experts is the SUBSEA (Systematic Underwater Biogeochemical Science and Exploration Analog) Research Program, a new project that will investigate how what we know about the deep ocean can be applied to interplanetary worlds, how our ocean exploration telepresence paradigm might be adapted for use in human-led exploration of other planetary systems, and at a practical level, how ocean explorers can help NASA test instruments and systems destined for outer space in the deep ocean.

Now routinely used by terrestrial ocean explorers on vessels such as NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer and Exploration Vessel Nautilus, telepresence technology uses high-bandwidth satellite connections to allow scientists to add their expertise to missions to explore the deep ocean on Earth no matter where in the world the ship, or the scientists, are located. In this photo, scientists at the University of Hawaii Exploration Command Center help guide an Okeanos dive to explore the water column near Malulu Seamount, located more than 4,000 kilometers away. SUBSEA will investigate how this telepresence paradigm might be adapted for use in human-led exploration of other planetary systems. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research. 
The SUBSEA Research Program is a partnership between NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER) and NASA, as well as the Ocean Exploration Trust  (OET) and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution  (WHOI) and other academic institutions. The project blends ocean exploration with ocean worlds research to address knowledge gaps related to the origins of life and the habitability potential of other planets in our Solar System.
The SUBSEA team will conduct telepresence-based science to observe, gather instrument data, and collect samples from fluid venting locations at isolated seamounts in the deep ocean as analog environments to hydrothermal systems on other Ocean Worlds. The team will conduct their scientific fieldwork from the OET E/V Nautilus, which is equipped with the Hercules and Argus remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). These ROVs are controlled by (human) pilots and scientists located on board the Nautilus under low-latency feedback conditions (i.e., offering little delay). This on-ship team receives scientific support and exploration direction by a remote, distributed science team located at Exploration Command Centers (ECCs) throughout the U.S. and connected to the ship by a high-speed communications link. The primary ECC for this expedition is at the University of Rhode Island’s Inner Space Center .

Via Ath Godelitsas
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A Traversable Wormhole: Newfound Wormhole Allows Information to Escape Black Holes

A Traversable Wormhole: Newfound Wormhole Allows Information to Escape Black Holes | Amazing Science |

In 1985, when Carl Sagan was writing the novel Contact, he needed to quickly transport his protagonist Dr. Ellie Arroway from Earth to the star Vega. He had her enter a black hole and exit light-years away, but he didn’t know if this made any sense. The Cornell University astrophysicist and television star consulted his friend Kip Thorne, a black hole expert at the California Institute of Technology (who won a Nobel Prize earlier this month). Thorne knew that Arroway couldn’t get to Vega via a black hole, which is thought to trap and destroy anything that falls in. But it occurred to him that she might make use of another kind of hole consistent with Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity: a tunnel or “wormhole” connecting distant locations in space-time.


While the simplest theoretical wormholes immediately collapse and disappear before anything can get through, Thorne wondered whether it might be possible for an “infinitely advanced” sci-fi civilization to stabilize a wormhole long enough for something or someone to traverse it. He figured out that such a civilization could in fact line the throat of a wormhole with “exotic material” that counteracts its tendency to collapse. The material would possess negative energy, which would deflect radiation and repulse space-time apart from itself. Sagan used the trick in Contact, attributing the invention of the exotic material to an earlier, lost civilization to avoid getting into particulars. Meanwhile, those particulars enthralled Thorne, his students and many other physicists, who spent years exploring traversable wormholes and their theoretical implications. They discovered that these wormholes can serve as time machines, invoking time-travel paradoxes — evidence that exotic material is forbidden in nature. 


Now, several decades later, a new species of traversable wormhole has emerged, free of exotic material and full of potential for helping physicists resolve a baffling paradox about black holes. This paradox is the very problem that plagued the early draft of Contact and led Thorne to contemplate traversable wormholes in the first place; namely, that things that fall into black holes seem to vanish without a trace. This total erasure of information breaks the rules of quantum mechanics, and it so puzzles experts that in recent years, some have argued that black hole interiors don’t really exist — that space and time strangely end at their horizons.


The flurry of findings started last year with a paper that reported the first traversable wormhole that doesn’t require the insertion of exotic material to stay open. Instead, according to Ping Gao and Daniel Jafferis of Harvard University and Aron Wall of Stanford University, the repulsive negative energy in the wormhole’s throat can be generated from the outside by a special quantum connection between the pair of black holes that form the wormhole’s two mouths. When the black holes are connected in the right way, something tossed into one will shimmy along the wormhole and, following certain events in the outside universe, exit the second. Remarkably, Gao, Jafferis and Wall noticed that their scenario is mathematically equivalent to a process called quantum teleportation, which is key to quantum cryptography and can be demonstrated in laboratory experiments.



John Preskill, a black hole and quantum gravity expert at Caltech, says the new traversable wormhole comes as a surprise, with implications for the black hole information paradox and black hole interiors. “What I really like,” he said, “is that an observer can enter the black hole and then escape to tell about what she saw.” This suggests that black hole interiors really exist, he explained, and that what goes in must come out.

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'Sun in a box' would store renewable energy for the grid

'Sun in a box' would store renewable energy for the grid | Amazing Science |

MIT engineers have come up with a conceptual design for a system to store renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, and deliver that energy back into an electric grid on demand. The system may be designed to power a small city not just when the sun is up or the wind is high, but around the clock.


The new design stores heat generated by excess electricity from solar or wind power in large tanks of white-hot molten silicon, and then converts the light from the glowing metal back into electricity when it's needed. The researchers estimate that such a system would be vastly more affordable than lithium-ion batteries, which have been proposed as a viable, though expensive, method to store renewable energy.


They also estimate that the system would cost about half as much as pumped hydroelectric storage—the cheapest form of grid-scale energy storage to date. "Even if we wanted to run the grid on renewables right now we couldn't, because you'd need fossil-fueled turbines to make up for the fact that the renewable supply cannot be dispatched on demand," says Asegun Henry, the Robert N. Noyce Career Development Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.


"We're developing a new technology that, if successful, would solve this most important and critical problem in energy and climate change, namely, the storage problem." Henry and his colleagues have published their design today in the journal Energy and Environmental Science.

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