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Search For Extraterrestrial Life Suggests Other Solar Systems More Habitable Than Ours

Search For Extraterrestrial Life Suggests Other Solar Systems More Habitable Than Ours | Amazing Science |

Scattered around the Milky Way are stars that resemble our own sun—but a new study is finding that any planets orbiting those stars may very well be hotter and more dynamic than Earth. That’s because the interiors of any terrestrial planets in these systems are likely warmer than Earth—up to 25 percent warmer, which would make them more geologically active and more likely to retain enough liquid water to support life, at least in its microbial form.


The preliminary finding comes from geologists and astronomers at Ohio State University who have teamed up to search for alien life in a new way. They studied eight “solar twins” of our sun—stars that very closely match the sun in size, age, and overall composition—in order to measure the amounts of radioactive elements they contain. Those stars came from a dataset recorded by the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher spectrometer at the European Southern Observatory in Chile.


They searched the solar twins for elements such as thorium and uranium, which are essential to Earth’s plate tectonics because they warm our planet’s interior. Plate tectonics helps maintain water on the surface of the Earth, so the existence of plate tectonics is sometimes taken as an indicator of a planet’s hospitality to life.


Of the eight solar twins they’ve studied so far, seven appear to contain much more thorium than our sun—which suggests that any planets orbiting those stars probably contain more thorium, too. That, in turn, means that the interior of the planets are probably warmer than ours.


For example, one star in the survey contains 2.5 times more thorium than our sun, said Ohio State doctoral student Cayman Unterborn. According to his measurements, terrestrial planets that formed around that star probably generate 25 percent more internal heat than Earth does, allowing for plate tectonics to persist longer through a planet’s history, giving more time for live to arise. “If it turns out that these planets are warmer than we previously thought, then we can effectively increase the size of the habitable zone around these stars by pushing the habitable zone farther from the host star, and consider more of those planets hospitable to microbial life,” said Unterborn.

mdashf's curator insight, December 13, 2012 1:28 PM

Another proof of the contingent creation of life

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Pigments on synthetic DNA circuits can harvest light energy

Pigments on synthetic DNA circuits can harvest light energy | Amazing Science |

Novel structures made with DNA scaffolds could be used to create solar-powered materials.


By organizing pigments on a DNA scaffold, an MIT-led team of researchers has designed a light-harvesting material that closely mimics the structure of naturally occurring photosynthetic structures.


The researchers showed that their synthetic material can absorb light and efficiently transfer its energy along precisely controlled pathways. This type of structure could be incorporated into materials such as glass or textiles, enabling them to harvest or otherwise control incoming energy from sunlight, says Mark Bathe, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT.


“This is the first demonstration of a purely synthetic mimic of a natural light-harvesting circuit that consists of densely packed clusters of dyes that are precisely organized spatially at the nanometer scale, as found in bacterial systems,” Bathe says. One nanometer is one billionth of a meter, or 1/10,000 the thickness of a human hair.


Bathe is one of the senior authors of the new study, along with Alan Aspuru-Guzik, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University, and Hao Yan, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Arizona State University. Lead authors of the paper, which appears in the Nov. 13 issue of Nature Materials, are former MIT postdoc Etienne Boulais, Harvard graduate student Nicolas Sawaya, and MIT postdoc Rémi Veneziano. 

Via Integrated DNA Technologies
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These are the world’s smartest fish

These are the world’s smartest fish | Amazing Science |

The East African cichlid fish Julidochromis transcriptus, a tiny fish no more than seven centimetres long, is able to recognize unfamiliar individuals just by looking at their eyes.


This stripped little fish lives hidden among rocks in Lake Tanganyika, one of the world oldest and largest freshwater lakes.


According to a recent study when another fish comes around, a simple look at the patterns around the eyes of the newcomer reveals if it is a friend or a stranger. Similar results have been found for another species living in this lake. The cichlid fishNeolamprologus pulcher uses face colour patterns to identify different individuals.


Another fish able to identify individuals by their faces is the Japanese rice fish (Oryzias latipes). A recent study showed that this little fish has evolved a complex way to deal with faces, similar to the way human process face patterns.


Humans and primates can easily identify any objects, even if they are upside down, but when it comes to faces, things get more complicated. “The neural pathway used for discriminating faces is different from other objects in mammals, and when faces are upside-down, our brain considers them as non-face objects and we cannot discriminate them as fast as right-up faces,” says Mu-Yun Wang at the University of Tokyo, Japan. And it seems like the brain of the Japanese rice fish works this way too.


“Medaka fish also delays face recognition when the faces are upside-down, and it is possible that they also have specific brain region for processing faces, just like us humans,” Wang says. “As research efforts continue, we are finding out more and more about the cognitive abilities of fish, and learning that there are many cases where the abilities of fish rival other vertebrates,” says Alex Jordan at the Max Planck Institute Department of Collective Behaviour in Konstanz, Germany.


“The long-held idea of a three-second memory for fish will slowly recede under the weight of evidence from studies like these as time goes on,” he adds.


But face recognition is just one of the many skills fish have.

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Acetabularia alga can grow to 10 cm (4 inches) and is a single cell

Acetabularia alga can grow to 10 cm (4 inches) and is a single cell | Amazing Science |

If I asked you what was the experimental basis for the central dogma of biology (DNA makes RNA makes Protein), you would be likely to mention the classical findings that the transforming principle was DNA (Avery et al.) or that phages transfer DNA to the host (Hershey & Chase). However, it is unlikely that you even have heard that the precept was earlier derived from studies with a unicellular marine alga, Acetabularia. If so, you would miss the remarkable biology that made it possible to carry out this work. Here is why: Acetabularia is such a large cell that it can be readily handled with one's hands.  It can be amputated into pieces that can be grafted together and its nucleus transplanted as easily as walking in the park.


Most cells are clearly too small for such luxuries. To enjoy them, we must turn to the outliers in range of sizes, that is, to giant cells. So, how big can cells get? The champion seems to be another a marine alga,Caulerpa, which can reach 3 meters in length. It is multinucleated, which seems almost like cheating (consider acellular slime molds, which can also reach enormous sizes, and othercoenocytic organisms). Incidentally, Caulerpas are edible and are called sea grapes in Okinawa (海葡萄 or umi-budō). Also multinucleated are the xenophyophores, foraminifera-like protists that live in the ocean at depths below 500 meters and reach 15 cm across (and which were mentionedhere earlier). Among the largest uninucleated single cells are the foraminifera called Nummulites, which can reach 5 cm in diameter, and a marine ameba called Gromia spherica.

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Superfluid helium could reveal lightweight WIMPs

Superfluid helium could reveal lightweight WIMPs | Amazing Science |

Overlooked mass range is observable with a new approach.


Dark matter surveys conducted until now have focused largely on high-mass particles, and are relatively insensitive to candidates lighter than 10 GeV/c2, or about ten times the mass of the proton. Some recent theories have proposed WIMPs with masses below this threshold, so with a view to filling this observational gap, Humphrey Maris, George Seidel and Derek Stein at Brown University conceived a detector model that could extend the lower mass limit by three or four orders of magnitude.


The team decided on 4He for the detector mass since it receives more energy per collision than heavier targets, and the low internal radioactivity minimizes false positive results. When dark matter particles interact with the target, recoiling helium atoms are expected to trigger phonons and rotons – quasiparticle excitations – which, in superfluid 4He, can propagate without scattering. When these excitations reach the surface of the superfluid, helium atoms are expelled by quantum evaporation.


A similar technique was developed a decade ago by Maris, Seidel and colleagues at Brown University for the HERON neutrino detector. In that experiment, evaporated helium atoms were deposited on a silicon wafer calorimeter suspended above the superfluid, causing a measurable increase in temperature. "This worked fine if a large amount of energy was deposited in the liquid thereby producing many rotons and many atoms," explains Maris. "But the method was inadequate for the detection of the small number of atoms that would be evaporated if the energy deposit was by a dark matter particle with, for example, a mass of 1 MeV."

Single-atom sensitivity

The novelty of the new approach lies in the device’s sensitivity to individual atoms. This makes the minimum detectable transferable kinetic energy (the energy imparted to a helium nucleus by a dark matter collision) equal to the binding energy of a helium atom to the liquid. Since no existing large-area calorimeter could be sensitive to such tiny energies, individual helium atoms ejected at low speed can only be detected if they are first accelerated significantly.


The trick proposed by the team at Brown University is to have evaporated atoms pass near to arrays of positively charged, sharp metal tips. Strong local electric fields ionize the helium, and the resulting positive ions are accelerated toward a cathode at energies within the range detectable by current calorimeters.


"The addition of the field ionization opens up the possibility of detecting energy deposits into the helium that are smaller by a factor of about 10,000 than in the previous work that we did. This will make it possible to detect dark matter in a mass range far below what has been previously achieved," Maris told Assuming the Standard Halo Model of dark matter distribution – in which the galaxy is permeated uniformly by WIMPs of a single type, and the local galactic escape velocity is the maximum particle speed allowed – the researchers expect such single-atom sensitivity to translate to a detectable dark matter particle mass of 0.6 MeV/c2, or less than a thousandth the mass of a proton.

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Beyond good vibrations: New insights into metamaterial magic

Beyond good vibrations: New insights into metamaterial magic | Amazing Science |
If invisibility cloaks and other gee-whiz apps are ever to move from science fiction to science fact, we'll need to know more about how these weird metamaterials actually work. Michigan Tech researcher Elena Semouchkina has gone back to basics and shed more light on the physics behind the magic.


Metamaterials offer the very real possibility that our most far-fetched fancies could one day become real as rocks. From invisibility cloaks and perfect lenses to immensely powerful batteries, their super-power applications tantalize the imagination. That said, so far "tantalize" has been the operative word, even though scientists have been studying metamaterials for more than 15 years.


"Not many real metamaterial devices have been developed," says Elena Semouchkina, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Michigan Technological University. Soldiers can't throw invisibility cloaks over their shoulders to elude sniper fire, and no perfect lens app lets you see viruses with your smartphone. In part, that's because traditionally, researchers overly simplify how metamaterials actually work. Semouchkina says their complications often have been ignored.


So she and her team set about investigating those complications and discovered that the magic of metamaterials is driven by more than just one mechanism of physics. A paper describing their research was recently published online by the Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics.


Metamaterials may seem complex and futuristic, but the opposite is closer to the truth, says Semouchkina. Metamaterials ("meta" is the Greek word for "beyond") are engineered materials that have properties not found in nature. They are typically built of multiple identical elements fashioned from conventional materials, such as metals or nonconductive materials. Think of a Rubik's cube made of millions of units smaller than the thickness of a human hair.


These designer materials work by bending the paths of electromagnetic radiation—from radio waves to visible light to high-energy gamma rays—in new and different ways. How metamaterials bend those paths—a process called refraction—drives their peculiar applications. For example, a metamaterial invisibility cloak would bend the paths of light waves around a cloaked object, accelerating them on their way, and reunite them on the other side. Thus, an onlooker could see what was behind the object, while the object itself would be invisible.

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Scientists create first mathematical model that predicts immunotherapy success

Scientists create first mathematical model that predicts immunotherapy success | Amazing Science |
Researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai have created the first mathematical model that can predict how a cancer patient will benefit from certain immunotherapies, according to a study published in Nature.


Scientists have long sought a way to discover whether patients will respond to new checkpoint inhibitor immunotherapies and to better understand the characteristics that indicate a tumor can be successfully treated with them. The proposed mathematical model, which captures aspects of the tumor's evolution and the underlying interactions of the tumor with the immune system, is more accurate than previous genomic biomarkers in predicting how the tumor will respond to immunotherapy.


"We present an interdisciplinary approach to studying immunotherapy andimmune surveillance of tumors," said Benjamin Greenbaum, PhD, the senior author, who is affiliated with the departments of Medicine, Hematology and Medical Oncology, Pathology, and Oncological Sciences at The Tisch Cancer Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. "This approach will hopefully lead to better mechanistic predictive modeling of response and future design of therapies that further take advantage of how the immune system recognizes tumors." This novel model also has the potential to help find new therapeutic targets within the immune system and to help design vaccines for patients who do not typically respond to immunotherapy.


To create this model, researchers used data from melanoma and lung cancer patients being treated with immune checkpoint inhibitors. The model tracked many properties within the immune response to the drugs, particularly neoantigens, which are specific to mutating and growing tumors.


Neoantigens have the potential to be prime immunotherapy targets, and the proposed framework will likely be useful in studies of acquired resistance to immunotherapy and may be crucial for understanding the circumstances in which immunotherapy causes autoimmune-like side effects.

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Researchers develop color filters that respond to the angle of incident light

Researchers develop color filters that respond to the angle of incident light | Amazing Science |
Imagine a miniature device that suffuses each room in your house with a different hue of the rainbow—purple for the living room, perhaps, blue for the bedroom, green for the kitchen. A team led by scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has, for the first time, developed nanoscale devices that divide incident white light into its component colors based on the direction of illumination, or directs these colors to a predetermined set of output angles.


Viewed from afar, the device, referred to as a directional color filter, resembles a diffraction grating, a flat metal surface containing parallel grooves or slits that split light into different colors. However, unlike a grating, the nanometer-scale grooves etched into the opaque metal film are not periodic—not equally spaced. They are either a set of grooved lines or concentric circles that vary in spacing, much smaller than the wavelength of visible light. These properties shrink the size of the filter and allow it to perform many more functions than a grating can. For instance, the device's nonuniform, or aperiodic, grid can be tailored to send a particular wavelength of light to any desired location. The filter has several promising applications, including generating closely spaced red, green and blue color pixels for displays, harvesting solar energy, sensing the direction of incoming light and measuring the thickness of ultrathin coatings placed atop the filter.


In addition to selectively filtering incoming white light based on the location of the source, the filter can also operate in a second way. By measuring the spectrum of colors passing through a filter custom-designed to deflect specific wavelengths of light at specific angles, researchers can pinpoint the location of an unknown source of light striking the device. This could be critical to determine if that source, for instance, is a laser aimed at an aircraft.


"Our directional filter, with its aperiodic architecture, can function in many ways that are fundamentally not achievable with a device such as a grating, which has a periodic structure," said NIST physicist Amit Agrawal. "With this custom-designed device, we are able to manipulate multiple wavelengths of light simultaneously."


The operation of the directional color filter relies on the interaction between the incoming particles of light—photons—and the sea of electrons that floats along the surface of a metal. Photons striking the metal surface create ripples in this electron sea, generating a special type of light wave—plasmons—that has a much smaller wavelength than the original light source.


The design and operation of aperiodic devices are not as intuitive and straightforward as their periodic counterparts. However, Agrawal and his colleagues have developed a simple model for designing these devices. Lead author Matthew Davis explained, "this model allows us to quickly predict the optical response of these aperiodic designs without relying on time-consuming numerical approximation, thereby greatly decreasing the design time so we can focus on device fabrication and testing."

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Star exploded into supernova, survived and exploded again more than 50 years later

Star exploded into supernova, survived and exploded again more than 50 years later | Amazing Science |
It's the celestial equivalent of a horror movie villain—a star that wouldn't stay dead.


An international team of astronomers including Carnegie's Nick Konidaris and Benjamin Shappee discovered a star that exploded multiple times over a period of 50 years. The finding, published by Nature, completely confounds existing knowledge of a star's end of life, and Konidaris' instrument-construction played a crucial role in analyzing the phenomenon.


In September 2014, the intermediate Palomar Transient Factory team of astronomers detected a new explosion in the sky, iPTF14hls. The light given off by the event was analyzed in order to understand the speed and chemical composition of the material ejected in the explosion.


This analysis indicated that the explosion was what's called a type II-P supernova, and everything about the discovery seemed normal. Until, that is, a few months later when the supernova started getting brighter again. Type II-P supernovae usually remain bright for about 100 days. But iPTF14hls remained bright for more than 600! What's more, archival data revealed a 1954 explosion in the exact same location.

It turned out that somehow this star exploded more than half a century ago, survived, and exploded again in 2014. "This supernova breaks everything we thought we knew about how they work," said lead author Iair Arcavi of University of California Santa Barbara and Las Cumbres Observatory.

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Researchers develop practical superconducting nanowire single-photon detector with record detection efficiency

Researchers develop practical superconducting nanowire single-photon detector with record detection efficiency | Amazing Science |

Superconducting nanowire single-photon detectors (SNSPDs) are significantly better at photon detection efficiency (DE) compared to their semiconducting counterparts, and have enabled many breakthrough applications in quantum information technologies. A team headed by Prof. Lixing You from Shanghai Institute of Microsystem and Information Technology (SIMIT), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) have demonstrated the fabrication and operation of an NbN-SNSPD with system detection efficiency over 90 percent at 2.1 K at a wavelength of 1550 nm, which paves the way for practical application of SNSPD.


The results were published recently on Science China Physics, Mechanics & Astronomy as a cover image story. Dr. Weijun Zhang is the first author and Dr. Lixing You is the corresponding author.

At 1550 nm, which is the most important wavelength for applications, the state of the art SNSPD made of WSi superconductor has reached a DE record of 93 percent, compared to InGaAs detector with DE ~30 percent. Unfortunately, WSi-SNSPD usually operates at sub-kelvin temperatures, requiring expensive, user-unfriendly refrigeration equipment.


Extensive efforts have been made on the development of SNSPDs based on NbN targeted at an operating temperature above 2K, accessible to inexpensive and user-friendly compact cryocoolers. With a decade research, the detection efficiency of NbN-SNSPDs was gradually increased to ~ 80 percent. However, further improvements have proven challenging. Achieving DE over 90 percent requires the simultaneous optimization of many factors, including near-perfect optical coupling, near-perfect absorption, and near-unity intrinsic quantum efficiency. Previous attempts at achieving this have mostly resulted from a process of trial and error.


This paper first reported a NbN-SNSPD system based on a G-M cryocooler with system detection efficiency over 90 percent (at dark count rate of 10 Hz) at 2.1 K at a wavelength of 1550 nm. The efficiency of the device saturates to 92 percent when the temperature is lowered to 1.8 K.


The success of this device results from an integrated distributed Bragg reflector (DBR) cavity offering near-unity detection at the interface, and through systematic optimization of the NbN nanowire's meandered geometry. The joint efforts enable researchers to simultaneously achieve the stringent requirements for coupling, absorption and intrinsic quantum efficiency.


Additionally, the device exhibit timing jitters down to 79 ps, almost half that of previously reported WSi-SNSPD, promising additional advantages in applications requiring high timing precision. The devices have been applied to the quantum information frontier experiments in University of Science and Technology of China.


SNSPD with near-unity detection efficiency operational on economical and user-friendly compact cryocooler will provide researchers a powerful, accessible tool, and paves the way for further breakthroughs in quantum information technology, such as optical quantum computation/simulation and quantum key distribution.

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Step towards better 'beyond lithium' batteries

Step towards better 'beyond lithium' batteries | Amazing Science |
A step towards new "beyond lithium" rechargeable batteries with superior performance has been made by researchers at the University of Bath.


We increasingly rely on rechargeable batteries for a host of essential uses; from mobile phones and electric cars to electrical grid storage. At present this demand is taken up by lithium-ion batteries. As we continue to transition from fossil fuels to low emission energy sources, new battery technologies will be needed for new applications and more efficient energy storage.


One approach to develop batteries that store more energy is to use "multivalent" metals instead of lithium. In lithium-ion batteries, charging and discharging transfers lithium ions inside the battery. For every lithium ion transferred, one electron is also transferred, producing electric current. In multivalent batteries, lithium would be replaced by a different metal that transfers more than one electron per ion. For batteries of equal size, this would give multivalent batteries better energy storage capacity and performance.


The team showed that titanium dioxide can be modified to allow it to be used as an electrode in multivalent batteries, providing a valuable proof of concept in their development.


The scientists, an international team from the University of Bath, France, Germany, Holland, and the USA, deliberately introduced defects in titanium dioxide to form high concentrations of microscopic holes, and showed these can be reversibly occupied by magnesium and aluminum; which carry more than one electron per ion.


The team also describes a new chemical strategy for designing materials that can be used in future multivalent batteries.


The research is published in the journal Nature Materials.

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Defects in next-generation solar cells can be healed with light

Defects in next-generation solar cells can be healed with light | Amazing Science |

Researchers have shown that defects in the molecular structure of perovskites - a material which could revolutionize the solar cell industry - can be "healed" by exposing it to light and just the right amount of humidity.


An expanded team, from Cambridge, MIT, Oxford, Bath and Delft, have shown that these defects can be permanently healed, which could further accelerate the development of cheap, high-performance perovskite-based solar cells that rival the efficiency of silicon. Their results are reported in the inaugural edition of the journal Joule, published by Cell Press.


Most solar cells on the market today are silicon-based, but since they are expensive and energy-intensive to produce, researchers have been searching for alternative materials for solar cells and other photovoltaics. Perovskites are perhaps the most promising of these alternatives: they are cheap and easy to produce, and in just a few short years of development, perovskites have become almost as efficient as silicon at converting sunlight into electricity.


Despite the potential of perovskites, some limitations have hampered their efficiency and consistency. Tiny defects in the crystalline structure of perovskites, called traps, can cause electrons to get "stuck" before their energy can be harnessed. The easier that electrons can move around in a solar cell material, the more efficient that material will be at converting photons, particles of light, into electricity.


"In perovskite solar cells and LEDs, you tend to lose a lot of efficiency through defects," said Dr Sam Stranks, who led the research while he was a Marie Curie Fellow jointly at MIT and Cambridge. "We want to know the origins of the defects so that we can eliminate them and make perovskites more efficient."


Metal Halide Perovskite Polycrystalline Films Exhibiting Properties of Single Crystals, JouleDOI: 10.1016/j.joule.2017.08.006

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Twilight trick: Hybrid photoreceptor cell has been found in the eye of a deep-sea fish

Twilight trick: Hybrid photoreceptor cell has been found in the eye of a deep-sea fish | Amazing Science |
A new type of cell has been found in the eye of a deep-sea fish, and scientists say the discovery opens a new world of understanding about vision in a variety of light conditions.


Most vertebrates have a duplex retina comprising two photoreceptor types, rods for dim-light (scotopic) vision and cones for bright-light (photopic) and color vision. However, deep-sea fishes are only active in dim-light conditions; hence, most species have lost their cones in favor of a simplex retina composed exclusively of rods. Although the pearlsides, Maurolicus spp., have such a pure rod retina, their behavior is at odds with this oversimplified visual system. Contrary to other deep-sea fishes, pearlsides are mostly active during dusk and dawn close to the surface, where light levels are intermediate (twilight or mesopic) and require the use of both rod and cone photoreceptors.


A new study now elucidates this paradox by demonstrating that the pearlside retina does not have rod photoreceptors only. Instead, it is composed almost exclusively of transmuted cone photoreceptors. These transmuted cells combine the morphological characteristics of a rod photoreceptor with a cone opsin and a cone phototransduction cascade to form a unique photoreceptor type, a rod-like cone, specifically tuned to the light conditions of the pearlsides’ habitat (blue-shifted light at mesopic intensities). Combining properties of both rods and cones into a single cell type, instead of using two photoreceptor types that do not function at their full potential under mesopic conditions, is likely to be the most efficient and economical solution to optimize visual performance.


These results challenge the standing paradigm of the function and evolution of the vertebrate duplex retina and emphasize the need for a more comprehensive evaluation of visual systems in general.

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Lab mice's ancestral ‘Eve’ gets her genome sequenced

Lab mice's ancestral ‘Eve’ gets her genome sequenced | Amazing Science |
Effort aims to help scientists understand how generations of inbreeding have altered the genetics of research rodents.


Adam and Eve, a pair of black mice, lived for less than two years and never left their home at the Jackson Laboratory (JAX) in Bar Harbor, Maine. But since they were bred in 2005, their progeny have spread around the globe: the pair’s living descendants, which likely number in the hundreds of thousands. They are members of the most popular strain of mice used in biomedical research, which was created nearly a century ago.


Now, researchers at JAX are reconstructing Eve’s genome in the hopes of better understanding — and compensating for — the natural mutations that occur in lab mice over the course of generations. These genetic changes can cause unanticipated physiological effects that can confound experiments. Related substrains of lab mice can differ in their taste for alcohol or their sensitivity to insulin, for example, and researchers suspect that such differences between supposedly identical mice lines have hampered some areas of research.


The scientists who founded JAX created Adam and Eve’s breed, which is called C57BL/6, in 1921. To keep the mice as genetically similar as possible, researchers have repeatedly bred brothers with sisters for nearly a century — and sold the resulting offspring to customers around the world. But this strategy created a genetic bottleneck: every generation, between 10 and 30 new mutations pop up and are passed down to offspring. This ‘genetic drift’ quickly accumulates over the years, says Laura Reinholdt, a geneticist at JAX. The genomes of the C57BL/6 mice that the lab sells today have thousands of genetic differences from the mouse reference genome, which was created in 2002 from three mice from the substrain C57BL/6J. The genome is used as a template for researchers developing genetically modified mice.


Other suppliers have inadvertently created divergent substrains of C57BL/6 mice when they’ve bought rodents from JAX and bred them over several generations. Although most mutations go unnoticed, some occur in genes that affect a mouse's appearance or physiology. In 2016, mouse supplier Envigo in Somerset, New Jersey, found that C57BL/6 mice at 6 of its 19 breeding facilities around the world had acquired a mutation in a gene related to the immune system. The company notified the researchers that bought these mice, and asked customers to specify which location they preferred to source mice from in the future, given that the company’s stocks were no longer identical.

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The Beautiful Intelligence of Bacteria and Other Microbes

The Beautiful Intelligence of Bacteria and Other Microbes | Amazing Science |

Bacterial biofilms and slime molds are more than crude patches of goo. Detailed time-lapse microscopy reveals how they sense and explore their surroundings.


Intelligence is not a quality to attribute lightly to microbes. There is no reason to think that bacteria, slime molds and similar single-cell forms of life have awareness, understanding or other capacities implicit in real intellect. But particularly when these cells commune in great numbers, their startling collective talents for solving problems and controlling their environment emerge. Those behaviors may be genetically encoded into these cells by billions of years of evolution, but in that sense the cells are not so different from robots programmed to respond in sophisticated ways to their environment. If we can speak of artificial intelligence for the latter, perhaps it’s not too outrageous to refer to the underappreciated cellular intelligence of the former.


Under the microscope, the incredible exercise of the cells’ collective intelligence reveals itself with spectacular beauty. Since 1983, Roberto Kolter, a professor of microbiology and immunobiology at Harvard Medical School and co-director of the Microbial Sciences Initiative, has led a laboratory that has studied these phenomena. In more recent years, it has also developed techniques for visualizing them. In the photographic essay book Life at the Edge of Sight: A Photographic Exploration of the Microbial World (Harvard University Press), released in September, Kolter and his co-author, Scott Chimileski, a research fellow and imaging specialist in his lab, offer an appreciation of microorganisms that is both scientific and artistic, and that gives a glimpse of the cellular wonders that are literally underfoot.


Imagery from the lab is also on display in the exhibition World in a Drop at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. That display will close in early January but will be followed by a broader exhibition, Microbial Life, scheduled to open in February, 2018.

Via Mariaschnee
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Where did valence electrons go? Decades-old mystery solved!

Where did valence electrons go? Decades-old mystery solved! | Amazing Science |

The concept of "valence" - the ability of a particular atom to combine with other atoms by exchanging electrons - is one of the cornerstones of modern chemistry and solid-state physics.


Valence controls crucial properties of molecules and materials, including their bonding, crystal structure, and electronic and magnetic properties. Four decades ago, a class of materials called "mixed valence" compounds was discovered. Many of these compounds contain elements near the bottom of the periodic table, so-called "rare-earth" elements, whose valence was discovered to vary with changes in temperature in some cases. Materials comprising these elements can display unusual properties, such as exotic superconductivity and unusual magnetism.


But there's been an unsolved mystery associated with mixed valence compounds: When the valence state of an element in these compounds changes with increased temperature, the number of electrons associated with that element decreases, as well. But just where do those electrons go?


Using a combination of state-of-the-art tools, including X-ray measurements at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS), a group led by Kyle Shen, professor of physics, and Darrell Schlom, the Herbert Fisk Johnson Professor of Industrial Chemistry in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, have come up with the answer.


Their work is detailed in a paper, "Lifshitz transition from valence fluctuations in YbAl3," published in Nature Communications. The lead author is Shouvik Chatterjee, formerly of Shen's research group and now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


To address this mystery, Chatterjee synthesized thin films of the mixed-valence compound of ytterbium - whose valence changes with temperature - and aluminum, using a process called molecular beam epitaxy, a specialty of the Schlom lab. The group then employed angle-resolved photoemission spectroscopy (ARPES) to investigate the distribution of electrons as a function of temperature to track where the missing electrons went.


"Typically for any material, you change the temperature and you measure the number of electrons in a given orbital, and it always stays the same," Shen said. "But people found that in some of these materials, like the particular compound we studied, that number changed, but those missing electrons have to go somewhere."


It turns out that when the compound is heated, the electrons lost from the ytterbium atom form their own "cloud," of sorts, outside of the atom. When the compound is cooled, the electrons return to the ytterbium atoms. "You can think of it as two glasses that contain some water," Shen said, "and you're pouring back and forth from one to the other, but the total amount of water in both glasses remains fixed." "These findings point toward the importance of valence changes in these material systems. By changing the arrangement of mobile electrons, they can dramatically influence novel physical properties that can emerge," said Chatterjee.

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Towards wearable gallium nitride gas sensors in fabrics

Towards wearable gallium nitride gas sensors in fabrics | Amazing Science |

A transfer technique based on thin sacrificial layers of boron nitride could allow high-performance gallium nitride gas sensors to be grown on sapphire substrates and then transferred to metallic or flexible polymer support materials. The technique could facilitate the production of low-cost wearable, mobile and disposable sensing devices for a wide range of environmental applications.


Transferring the gallium nitride sensors to metallic foils and flexible polymers doubles their sensitivity to nitrogen dioxide gas, and boosts response time by a factor of six. The simple production steps, based on metal organic vapor phase epitaxy (MOVPE), could also lower the cost of producing the sensors and other optoelectronic devices.


Sensors produced with the new process can detect ammonia at parts-per-billion levels and differentiate between nitrogen-containing gases. The gas sensor fabrication technique was reported November 9 in the journal Scientific Reports.


"Mechanically, we just peel the devices off the substrate, like peeling the layers of an onion," explained Abdallah Ougazzaden, director of Georgia Tech Lorraine in Metz, France and a professor in Georgia Tech's School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE). "We can put the layer on another support that could be flexible, metallic or plastic. This technique really opens up a lot of opportunity for new functionality, new devices - and commercializing them."

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Researchers develop flexible, stretchable photonic devices

Researchers develop flexible, stretchable photonic devices | Amazing Science |

Researchers at MIT and several other institutions have developed a method for making photonic devices — similar to electronic devices but based on light rather than electricity — that can bend and stretch without damage. The devices could find uses in cables to connect computing devices, or in diagnostic and monitoring systems that could be attached to the skin or implanted in the body, flexing easily with the natural tissue.


The findings, which involve the use of a specialized kind of glass called chalcogenide, are described in two papers by MIT Associate Professor Juejun Hu and more than a dozen others at MIT, the University of Central Florida, and universities in China and France. The paper is slated for publication soon in Light: Science and Applications.


Hu, who is the Merton C. Flemings Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, says that many people are interested in the possibility of optical technologies that can stretch and bend, especially for applications such as skin-mounted monitoring devices that could directly sense optical signals. Such devices might, for example, simultaneously detect heart rate, blood oxygen levels, and even blood pressure.


Photonics devices process light beams directly, using systems of LEDs, lenses, and mirrors fabricated with the same kinds of processes used to manufacture electronic microchips. Using light beams rather than a flow of electrons can have advantages for many applications; if the original data is light-based, for example, optical processing avoids the need for a conversion process.

But most current photonics devices are fabricated from rigid materials on rigid substrates, Hu says, and thus have an “inherent mismatch” for applications that “should be soft like human skin.” But most soft materials, including most polymers, have a low refractive index, which leads to a poor ability to confine a light beam.


Instead of using such flexible materials, Hu and his team took a novel approach: They formed the stiff material — in this case a thin layer of a type of glass called chalcogenide — into a spring-like coil. Just as steel can be made to stretch and bend when formed into a spring, the architecture of this glass coil allows it to stretch and bend freely while maintaining its desirable optical properties.


“You end up with something as flexible as rubber, that can bend and stretch, and still has a high refractive index and is very transparent,” Hu says. Tests have shown that such spring-like configurations, made directly on a polymer substrate, can undergo thousands of stretching cycles with no detectable degradation in their optical performance. The team produced a variety of photonic components, interconnected by the flexible, spring-like waveguides, all in an epoxy resin matrix, which was made stiffer near the optical components and more flexible around the waveguides.

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Lamborghini and MIT team up to create the self-healing supercar of the future

Lamborghini and MIT team up to create the self-healing supercar of the future | Amazing Science |
The Lamborghini Terzo Millenio is an electric, semi-autonomous supercar concept developed by Lamborghini and MIT.


You would expect the combination of Lamborghini and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to produce a killer supercar, and the Lamborghini Terzo Millenio concept doesn’t disappoint. Unveiled as part of MIT’s EmTech conference, it’s Lambo’s first all-electric concept car, and sports nifty features like self-healing bodywork and semi-autonomous driving capability.


The Terzo Millenio is powered by four electric motors, one for each wheel. But instead of a battery pack like the ones used in today’s electric cars, the motors get their electricity from supercapacitors. While automotive applications have been limited so far, Lamborghini believes supercapacitors are the answer to many of the limitations of current electric cars. Supercapacitors can charge and discharge faster, and store more energy in a given footprint, the automaker claims.


Like any self-respecting supercar, the Terzo Millenio is wrapped in attention-grabbing bodywork. But there’s more to that skin than meets the eye. One area of Lamborghini and MIT’s joint research is the use of carbon fiber body panels as an energy-storage medium, essentially turning the bodywork into a battery. The material can also detect small cracks and “heal” itself, preventing the cracks from expanding and causing an outright breakage.


Lamborghini is adamantly against fully autonomously driving cars, but the automaker does believe limited autonomy could have a place in future supercars. Instead of taking over driving duties completely, the Terzo Millenio can coach its owner into being a better driver by demonstrating the best line around a track. It would be just like going for a familiarization lap with an instructor, but without the instructor.

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Warm Air Helped Make 2017 Ozone Hole the Smallest Since 1988

Warm Air Helped Make 2017 Ozone Hole the Smallest Since 1988 | Amazing Science |

According to NASA, the ozone hole reached its peak extent on Sept. 11, covering an area about two and a half times the size of the United States – 7.6 million square miles in extent - and then declined through the remainder of September and into October. NOAA ground- and balloon-based measurements also showed the least amount of ozone depletion above the continent during the peak of the ozone depletion cycle since 1988. NOAA and NASA collaborate to monitor the growth and recovery of the ozone hole every year.


“The Antarctic ozone hole was exceptionally weak this year,” said Paul A. Newman, chief scientist for Earth Sciences at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This is what we would expect to see given the weather conditions in the Antarctic stratosphere.”


The smaller ozone hole in 2017 was strongly influenced by an unstable and warmer Antarctic vortex – the stratospheric low pressure system that rotates clockwise in the atmosphere above Antarctica. This helped minimize polar stratospheric cloud formation in the lower stratosphere. The formation and persistence of these clouds are important first steps leading to the chlorine- and bromine-catalyzed reactions that destroy ozone, scientists said. These Antarctic conditions resemble those found in the Arctic, where ozone depletion is much less severe.


In 2016, warmer stratospheric temperatures also constrained the growth of the ozone hole. Last year, the ozone hole reached a maximum 8.9 million square miles, 2 million square miles less than in 2015. The average area of these daily ozone hole maximums observed since 1991 has been roughly 10 million square miles.  


Although warmer-than-average stratospheric weather conditions have reduced ozone depletion during the past two years, the current ozone hole area is still large because levels of ozone-depleting substances like chlorine and bromine remain high enough to produce significant ozone loss.


Scientists said the smaller ozone hole extent in 2016 and 2017 is due to natural variability and not a signal of rapid healing.


First detected in 1985, the Antarctic ozone hole forms during the Southern Hemisphere’s late winter as the returning sun’s rays catalyze reactions involving man-made, chemically active forms of chlorine and bromine. These reactions destroy ozone molecules.


Thirty years ago, the international community signed the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer and began regulating ozone-depleting compounds. The ozone hole over Antarctica is expected to gradually become less severe as chlorofluorocarbons—chlorine-containing synthetic compounds once frequently used as refrigerants – continue to decline. Scientists expect the Antarctic ozone hole to recover back to 1980 levels around 2070.

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The future is quantum - New 50 qubit IBM quantum chip is the next quantum leap

The future is quantum - New 50 qubit IBM quantum chip is the next quantum leap | Amazing Science |

Some of the most important technical advances of the 20th century were enabled by decades of fundamental scientific exploration, whose initial purpose was simply to extend human understanding. When Einstein discovered relativity, he had no idea that one day it would be an important part of modern navigation systems. Such is the story of quantum mechanics that will ultimately enable quantum computers.


The first IBM Q systems available online to clients will have a 20 qubit processor. This new device’s advanced design, connectivity and packaging delivers industry-leading coherence times (the amount of time to perform quantum computations), which are double that of IBM’s 5 and 16 qubit processors available to the public on the IBM Q experience.


Expansion of IBM’s open-source quantum package QISKit ( with new functionalities and tools. The software development kit enables users to create quantum computer programs and execute them on one of IBM’s real quantum processors or quantum simulators along with worked examples of quantum applications. Through the IBM Q experience, over 60,000 users have run over 1.7M quantum experiments and generated over 35 third-party research publications.


A 20-qubit machine has double the coherence time, at an average of 90 µs, compared to previous generations of quantum processors with an average of 50 µs. It is also designed to scale; the 50-qubit prototype has similar performance. Our goal with both the IBM Q experience, and our commercial program is to collaborate with our extended community of partners to accelerate the path to demonstrating a quantum advantage for solving real problems that matter.


Over the next year, IBM Q scientists will continue to work to improve its devices including the quality of qubits, circuit connectivity, and error rates of operations. For example, within six months, the IBM team was able to extend the coherence times for the 20 qubit processor to be twice that of the publically available 5 and 16 qubit systems on the IBM Q experience.


In addition to building working systems, IBM continues to grow its robust quantum computing ecosystem, including open-source software tools, applications for near-term systems, and educational and enablement materials for the quantum community. Through the IBM Q experience, over 60,000 users have run over 1.7M quantum experiments and generated over 35 third-party research publications. Users have registered from over 1500 universities, 300 high schools, and 300 private institutions worldwide, many of whom are accessing the IBM Q experience as part of their formal education. This form of open access and open research is critical for accelerated learning and implementation of quantum computing.


To augment this ecosystem of quantum researchers and application development, IBM rolled out earlier this year its QISKit ( project, an open-source software developer kit to program and run quantum computers. IBM Q scientists have now expanded QISKit to enable users to create quantum computing programs and execute them on one of IBM’s real quantum processors or quantum simulators available online. Recent additions to QISKit also include new functionality and visualization tools for studying the state of the quantum system, integration of QISKit with the IBM Data Science Experience, a compiler that maps desired experiments onto the available hardware, and worked examples of quantum applications.


Quantum computing promises to be able to solve certain problems – such as chemical simulations and types of optimization – that will forever be beyond the practical reach of classical machines. In a recent Nature paper, the IBM Q team pioneered a new way to look at chemistry problems using quantum hardware that could one day transform the way new drugs and materials are discovered. A Jupyter notebook that can be used to repeat the experiments that led to this quantum chemistry breakthrough is available in the QISKit tutorials. Similar tutorials are also provided that detail implementation of optimization problems such as MaxCut and Traveling Salesman on IBM’s quantum hardware.

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New analysis of Chicxulub asteroid suggests it may have struck in vulnerable spot on Earth

New analysis of Chicxulub asteroid suggests it may have struck in vulnerable spot on Earth | Amazing Science |

A pair of researchers at Tohoku University has found evidence suggesting that if the asteroid that struck the Earth near Chicxulub 66 million years ago had landed almost anywhere else, it would not have been as devastating to the biosphere.


In their paper published in the journal Scientific Reports, Kunio Kaiho and Naga Oshima suggest that had the asteroid struck another part of the planet it is likely the dinosaurs would have survived.


Scientists around the world have reached a consensus regarding the reason that the dinosaurs (except for bird relatives) went extinct—a large asteroid struck the Earth just off what is now the Yucatan peninsula, hurling so much soot and other material into the atmosphere that the planet became too cold (for approximately three years) for the dinosaurs and most other land animals to survive. But now, it appears that they might have survived had the asteroid struck almost anywhere else.


To learn more about the event that had such a huge impact on the history of our planet, Kaiho and Oshima used a computer to analyze multiple data sources surrounding the impact and the location where it struck—the resulting simulation showed how much soot would have been generated based on the amount of hydrocarbon material in the ground near the impact site. Such hydrocarbons would include not just oil or coal deposits, but other rocks that also contained oil—more hydrocarbons would mean more soot and gases making their way into the atmosphere. The research pair also created a map showing surface hydrocarbon densities across the globe at the time.


They found that the site where the asteroid struck was particularly dense in hydrocarbons—87 percent of the planet surface was less dense. That means, they claim, that if the asteroid had struck a place where it was less dense (which would have been almost anywhere else), much less soot would have been generated, and thus, the planet would not have cooled as much. And if the planet had not cooled so much, the dinosaurs might have survived, and that might have meant that we humans would never have had a chance to evolve.

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Lamb3 Mutation Correction to Heal a Kid with Junctional Epidermolysis Bullosa

Lamb3 Mutation Correction to Heal a Kid with Junctional Epidermolysis Bullosa | Amazing Science |
When a genetic skin-peeling disease threatened the life of a 7-year-old boy, doctors turned to an experimental mashup of stem cells and gene therapy.


The baby was still in diapers when the first blister appeared, ballooning red and angry from his pale, newborn skin. Soon, they became a regular feature on the map of his body, along with deep creases in his face when he howled out in pain. A doctor told the parents his LAMB3 gene had a glitch—his body wasn’t making enough of a protein to anchor the outer layer of his skin to the inner ones. For seven years they kept the blisters at bay. But by summer of 2015, the wounds were winning—and the boy had lost 60 percent of his skin.


In June, the child arrived at the burn unit of the Ruhr University Children’s Hospital in Bochum, Germany, hot with fever and septic from a strain of staph. His doctors began pumping him full of antibiotics and painkillers, bathing him in iodine, and dressing the wounds with ointments. Nothing worked. The father gave his son skin from his own body. It didn’t take. After five weeks in the intensive care unit, the boy was dying. But there was one more thing left to try. A genetic experiment never attempted before.


The doctors snipped out a tiny square of the boy’s skin and shipped it to a laboratory in Modena, Italy. Scientists there used a virus to inject a functioning LAMB3 gene into all the cells that made up that patch of skin, including some stem cells. Then they grew them and grew them and grew them until there were enough to seed onto nine square feet of gauze and protein gel. An adult-sized skin suit would take about 22 square feet, but for a kid, it was more than enough.


In October, the Italians sent the new skin back to Germany, and the boy’s doctors carefully laid them into areas they’d scoured of any dead or infected flesh, first to his arms and legs. When another batch arrived in November they did his chest and back. In January they touched up any spots they’d missed. Seven and a half months after he was admitted, the boy walked out the hospital doors, wound-free—the recipient of the largest-ever infusion of transgenic stem cells. A few weeks later he returned to elementary school. Today, the boy spends his free time playing soccer and bruising like a normal kid. His new skin has never seen a blister.

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Growing kelp for biofuel: Researchers aim to harness potential

Growing kelp for biofuel: Researchers aim to harness potential | Amazing Science |

Sources of energy frequently in the limelight are solar, wind and hydropower.


Giant Kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) is one of the fastest growing producers of biomass.  The open ocean is an immense, untapped region for collecting solar energy.  Giant kelp does not grow naturally in the open ocean because kelp normally needs an attachment at about 10-20 meters of depth and also needs key nutrients that are available in deep ocean water or near shore but not at the surface in the open ocean.  This concept proposes an economical system to provide a grid for attachment and access to nutrients, making it possible to farm kelp in the extensive regions of the open ocean.


If successful, this patented approach will grow kelp attached to large grids in the open ocean, each grid towed by inexpensive underwater drones.  These drones will maintain the grids near the surface during the day to gather sunlight for photosynthesis.  At night, the drones will take the grids down to the deeper, cold water where the kelp can absorb nutrients that are not adequate in the warmer surface waters.  These kelp farms will also be taken to deeper water during storms or to avoid passing ships.  Every three months, the drones will move the kelp farms to scheduled locations to rendezvous with harvesters.


Why grow giant kelp on farms in the open ocean?

  • does not compete with food production for agricultural land.
  • will not harm environmentally-sensitive areas, such as deserts or marine reserves.
  • does not use fresh water, pesticides, or artificial fertilizers (using, instead, abundant nutrients in deep water).
  • stores nutrients when they are available and uses them when needed.
  • is relatively easy to process into drop-in fuels because it has no lignin and little cellulose.
  • is one of the fastest-growing primary producers with elongation rates ~30 cm/day, and average photosynthetic efficiency in the range of 6-8%, much higher than terrestrial plant production at 1.8-2.2%.
  • stores over 1 Watt/m2 (averaged 24/7/365) of sunlight as chemical energy (~2.8 kg ash-free, dry weight per m2-year) , as observed in natural beds.
  • continues to grow year round especially if adequate nutrients are available, and the harvest is non-destructive so farms can be productive for years without replanting.


Why grow giant kelp on farms in the open ocean guided by underwater drones?

  • near shore areas with natural upwelling of nutrients won’t produce enough biomass to make a significant
     impact on the nation’s energy needs.
  • many natural kelp beds are in marine reserves, or in recreational or commercial areas.
  • the production underwater drones will be less expensive than one might expect because they will be made out of reinforced concrete and numerous subsystems are already available in production quantities (automated guidance & control, communications, batteries, pumps, sensors).
  • most importantly, kelp grown in the open ocean can utilize massive open ocean areas to supply an energy feedstock sufficient for the projected peak world population at the current U.S. per capita rate of energy consumption of ~9500W/person.


The Pacific Ocean offshore of the Western U.S. represents an immense, untapped solar collecting area and, if this effort is successful, will be the first deployment region for the commercial farm systems.  Fast-growing kelp produces biomass year round and could provide a transformational solution to the need for millions of tons of feedstock per year.

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Kara - Quantic Dream

How human does a robot have to act before the world will think it’s alive? Video game studio Quantic Dream, makers of the 2010 hit Heavy Rain, unleashed an intriguing demo at the recent Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Entitled, “Kara”, the seven minute video was meant simply as a means of showcasing Quantic Dream’s impressive prototype graphics engine. Rendered entirely in real time on a PlayStation 3, Kara certainly proves its visual prowess, but it also raises some thought-provoking and disturbing questions about what it means to create artificial life. AI, non-human rights, slavery, sex androids, personal robotics – Kara touches them all and then floats away on a swelling symphonic score. Not one you want to miss!


Video is here

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DoNotPay: AI chatbot will soon help individuals with their legal issues

DoNotPay: AI chatbot will soon help individuals with their legal issues | Amazing Science |

As a young programmer, Joshua Browder built a chatbot to act as a kind of AI lawyer that would help people dispute parking tickets. Not only did it work, but it was hugely popular, which led Browder to expand the program to help anyone harmed by the Equifax scandal sue the company in small claims court. Now his company, DoNotPay, is aiming even higher:  by the end of this year, Browder  plans to launch an addition to the platform that will you let you sue anyone.

“To be honest, Equifax was just a bit of testing for the product that would let anyone sue anyone,” Browder, one of 2017’s 35 Innovators under 35, said Wednesday at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech MIT conference. “The main use would be for taking down corporations.”

Wherever corporate malfeasance hurts regular people, Browder envisions DoNotPay’s platform coming to the rescue by allowing users to print out documents that they can take to small claims court instead of relying on class action suits and spending years in the appeals process.

“The corporations will just settle and say, ‘We will give you $1,000 if this goes away,’” Browder said. “Which is great, because it means they actually get punished for doing wrong.”

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