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Reconstruction of 1918-like avian influenza virus stirs concern over gain of function experiments

Reconstruction of 1918-like avian influenza virus stirs concern over gain of function experiments | Amazing Science |

The gain of function experiments in which avian influenza H5N1 virus was provided the ability to transmit by aerosol among ferrets were met with substantial outrage from both the press and even some scientists; scenarios of lethal viruses escaping from the laboratory and killing millions proliferated (see examples here and here). The recent publication of new influenza virus gain of function studies from the laboratories of Kawaoka and Perez have unleashed another barrage of criticism.

The work by Kawaoka and colleagues attempts to answer the question of whether an influenza virus similar to that which killed 50 million people in 1918 could emerge today. First they identified in the avian influenza virus sequence database individual RNA segments that encode proteins that are very similar to the 1918 viral proteins.

Next, an infectious influenza virus was produced with 8 RNA segments that encode proteins highly related to those of the 1918 virus. Each RNA segment originates from a different avian influenza virus, and differs by 8 (PB2), 6 (PB1), 20 (PB1-F2), 9 (PA), 7 (NP), 33 (HA), 31 (NA), 1 (M1), 5 (M2), 4 (NS1), and 0 (NS2) amino acids from the 1918 virus.

The 1918-like avian influenza virus was less pathogenic in mice and ferrets compared with the 1918 virus, and more pathogenic than a duck influenza virus isolated in 1976. Virulence in ferrets increased when the HA or PB2 genes of the 1918-like avian influenza virus were substituted with those from the 1918 virus.

Aerosol transmission among ferrets was determined for the 1918-like avian influenza virus, and reassortants containing 1918 viral genes (these experiments are done by housing infected and uninfected ferrets in neighboring cages). The 1918 influenza virus was transmitted to 2 of 3 ferrets. Neither the 1918-like avian influenza virus, nor the 1976 duck influenza virus transmitted among ferrets. Aerosol transmission among ferrets was observed after infection with two different reassortant viruses of the 1918-avian like influenza virus: one which possesses the 1918 virus PB2, HA, and NA RNAs (1918 PB2:HA:NA/Avian), and one which possesses the 1918 virus PA, PB1, PB2, NP, and HA genes (1918(3P+NP):HA/Avian).

It is known from previous work that amino acid changes in the viral HA and PB2 proteins are important in allowing avian influenza viruses to infect humans. Changes in the viral HA glycoprotein (HA190D/225D) shift receptor specificity from avian to human sialic acids, while a change at amino acid 627 of the PB2 protein to a lysine (627K) allows avian influenza viruses to efficiently replicate in mammalian cells, and at the lower temperatures of the human upper respiratory tract.

These changes were introduced into the genome of the 1918-like avian influenza virus. One of three contact ferrets was infected with 1918-like avian PB2-627K:HA-89ED/190D/225D virus (a mixture of glutamic acid and aspartic acid at amino acid 89 was introduced during propagation of the virus in cell culture). Virus recovered from this animal had three additional mutations: its genotype is 1918-like avian PB2-627K/684D : HA-89ED/113SN/ 190D/225D/265DV : PA-253M (there are mixtures of amino acids at HA89, 113, and 265). This virus was more virulent in ferrets and transmitted by aerosol more efficiently than the 1918-like avian influenza virus. The virus recovered from contact ferrets contained yet another amino acid change, a T-to-I mutation at position 232 of NP. Therefore ten amino acid changes are associated with allowing the 1918-like avian influenza virus to transmit by aerosol among ferrets. Aerosol transmission of these viruses is not associated with lethal disease in ferrets.

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Loose ends: Almost 1 in 5 human genes still have unresolved coding status

Loose ends: Almost 1 in 5 human genes still have unresolved coding status | Amazing Science |

More than 17 years after the sequencing of the human genome (HUGO), the human proteome is still under revision. One in eight of the 22,210 coding genes listed by the Ensembl/GENCODE, RefSeq and UniProtKB reference databases are annotated differently across the three sets. Scientists have now carried out an in-depth investigation on the 2,764 genes classified as coding by one or more sets of manual curators and not coding by others. Data from large-scale genetic variation analyses suggests that most are not under protein-like purifying selection and so are unlikely to code for functional proteins. A further 1,470 genes annotated as coding in all three reference sets have characteristics that are typical of non-coding genes or pseudogenes. These potential non-coding genes also appear to be undergoing neutral evolution and have considerably less supporting transcript and protein evidence than other coding genes. The researchers believe that the three reference databases currently overestimate the number of human coding genes by at least 2000, complicating and adding noise to large-scale biomedical experiments. Determining which potential non-coding genes do not code for proteins is a difficult but vitally important task since the human reference proteome is a fundamental pillar of most basic research and supports almost all large-scale biomedical projects.

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Mona Lisa made from bacteria: Light-engineered bacterial shapes could hold key to future labs-on-a-chip

Mona Lisa made from bacteria: Light-engineered bacterial shapes could hold key to future labs-on-a-chip | Amazing Science |

Scientists suggest genetically modified bacteria that respond to light could be used as 'microbricks' for building the next generation of microscopic devices.


Controlling bacteria in this way means it could be possible to use them as microbricks for building the next generation of microscopic devices. For example, they could be made to surround a larger object such as a machine part or a drug carrier, and then used as living propellers to transport it where it is needed.


E. coli bacteria are known to be fantastic swimmers. They can move a distance of ten times their length in a second. They have propellers that are powered by a motor, and they usually recharge this motor by a process that needs oxygen. Recently, scientists found a protein (proteorhodopsin) in ocean-dwelling bacteria that allows them to power their propellers using light. By engineering other types of bacteria to have this protein, it is possible to place a 'solar panel' on every bacterial cell and control its swimming speed remotely with light.


"Much like pedestrians who slow down their walking speed when they encounter a crowd, or cars that are stuck in traffic, swimming bacteria will spend more time in slower regions than in faster ones," explains lead author Giacomo Frangipane, Postdoctoral Scientist at Rome University, Italy. "We wanted to exploit this phenomenon to see if we could shape the concentration of bacteria using light."


To do this, Frangipane and his team sent light from a projector through a microscope lens, shaping the light with high resolution, and explored how E. coli bacteria alter their speed while swimming through regions with varying degrees of illumination. They projected the light uniformly onto a layer of bacterial cells for five minutes, before exposing them to a more complex light pattern -- a negative image of the Mona Lisa. They found that bacteria started to concentrate in the dark regions of the image while moving out from the more illuminated areas. After four minutes, a recognizable bacterial replica of Leonardo da Vinci's painting could be seen, with brighter areas corresponding to regions of accumulated bacterial cells.


Although the shape formed by the bacteria was recognizable, the team found that the engineered E. coli were slow to respond to variations in light, which led to a blurred formation of the target shape. To remedy this, they used a feedback control loop where the bacterial shape is compared to the target image every 20 seconds, and the light pattern is updated accordingly. This generated an optimal light pattern that shaped cell concentration with much higher accuracy. The result is a 'photokinetic' bacterial cell layer that can be turned into an almost perfect replica of a complex black-and-white target image.


"We have shown how the suspension of swimming bacteria could lead to a new class of light-controllable active materials whose density can be shaped accurately, reversibly and quickly using a low-power light projector," says Roberto Di Leonardo, Associate Professor in the Department of Physics at Rome University. "With further engineering, the bacteria could be used to create solid biomechanical structures or novel microdevices for the transport of small biological cargoes inside miniaturized laboratories."

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DeepMind AI matches health experts at spotting eye diseases like macular degeneration

DeepMind AI matches health experts at spotting eye diseases like macular degeneration | Amazing Science |

DeepMind has successfully developed a system that can analyze retinal scans and spot symptoms of sight-threatening eye diseases. Today, the AI division -- owned by Google's parent company Alphabet -- published "early results" of a research project with the UK's Moorfields Eye Hospital. They show that the company's algorithms can quickly examine optical coherence tomography (OCT) scans and make diagnoses with the same accuracy as human clinicians. In addition, the system can show its workings, allowing eye care professionals to scrutinize the final assessment.


At the moment, hospitals and clinics use flesh-and-bone specialists to dissect OCT scans. The sheer volume they have to process, however -- Moorfields Eye Hospital analyzes over 1,000 every day -- means there can be substantial delays between the initial scan, diagnosis and treatment. Occasionally, problems are caught too late and the developing symptoms cause permanent and irreversible sight loss.


DeepMind's ultimate aim is to develop and implement a system that can assist the UK's National Health Service with its ever-growing workload. Accurate AI judgements would lead to faster diagnoses and, in theory, treatment that could save patients' vision. "These incredibly exciting results take us one step closer to that goal," Mustafa Suleyman, co-founder and head of applied AI at DeepMind Health said. "And could, in time, transform the diagnosis, treatment and management of patients with sight threatening eye conditions, not just at Moorfields, but around the world."


A consultant ophthalmologist analyzes an OCT scan.

DeepMind's system uses two separate 'networks' to tackle the problem. The first, called a segmentation network, converts the raw OCT scan into a 3D tissue map with clearly-defined, color-coded slices. "That map doesn't only describe the layers of the eye, but if there's disease in the eye, and where that disease is," Alan Karthikesalingam, a senior clinician scientist at Google DeepMind said. The network was trained to do this with a dataset that contained 877 OCT scans manually segmented by trained ophthalmologists.


A second 'classification' network analyzes the 3D tissue map and makes decisions about what the diseases might be and how urgent they are for referral and treatment. It was trained on 14,884 tissue maps that were produced by the segmentation network and checked by a trained ophthalmologist and optometrist.


The two-stage process is unusual. A conventional AI system would start with the original retinal scan and go straight to the final diagnosis. DeepMind developed its tool this way so clinicians can check the tissue map and see how the AI came to its final conclusion. "You might wonder, 'why did the system think that there's macular edema, which means fluid in the eye?'"


Karthikesalingam explained. "And you could look back at that interpretable tissue map and say 'Oh I see, it's highlighting some fluid here,' And that would be, we think, potentially helpful."

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Study finds flaw in emergent gravity

Study finds flaw in emergent gravity | Amazing Science |

In recent years, some physicists have been investigating the possibility that gravity is not actually a fundamental force, but rather an emergent phenomenon that arises from the collective motion of small bits of information encoded on spacetime surfaces called holographic screens. The theory, called emergent gravity, hinges on the existence of a close connection between gravity and thermodynamics.


Emergent gravity has received its share of criticism, however, and a new paper adds to this by showing that the holographic screen surfaces described by the theory do not actually behave thermodynamically, undermining a key assumption of the theory.

Zhi-Wei Wang, a physicist at Jilin University in Changchun, China, and Samuel L. Braunstein, a professor of quantum computational science at the University of York in the UK, have published their paper on non-thermodynamic surfaces in a recent issue of Nature Communications.


"Emergent gravity has very strong claims: that it can explain things like dark matter and dark energy, but also reproduce the decades of work coming out of regular general relativity," Wang told "That last claim is now knocked on its head by our work, so emergent gravity proponents will have their work cut out for themselves in showing consistency with the huge canon of observational results. We've set them back, not necessarily knocked them out."


In the cosmological context, surfaces refer generally to any two-dimensional area in spacetime. Some of these surfaces, such as the horizons of black holes and other objects, are confirmed to be thermodynamic. For black hole horizons, this has been known since the 1970s, since the very laws that define black hole mechanics are directly analogous to the laws of thermodynamics. This means that black hole horizons obey thermodynamic principles such as energy conservation and having a positive temperature and entropy.


More recently, surfaces that are not horizons have been conjectured to obey the laws of thermodynamics, with the holographic screens in the emergent gravity theory being one example. However, so far these conjectures have not been fully justified.


In the new paper, the scientists tested whether different kinds of surfaces obey an analogue of the first law of thermodynamics, which is a special form of energy conservation. Their results reveal that, while surfaces near black holes (called stretched horizons) do obey the first law, ordinary surfaces—including holographic screens—generally do not. The only exception is that ordinary surfaces that are spherically symmetric do obey the first law.


As the scientists explain, the finding that stretched horizons obey the first law is not surprising, since these surfaces inherit much of their behavior from the nearby horizons. Still, the scientists caution that the results do not necessarily imply that stretched horizons obey all of the laws of thermodynamics. On the other hand, the finding that ordinary surfaces do not obey the first law is more unexpected, especially as it is one of the key assumptions of emergent gravity. Going forward, researchers will work to understand what this means for the future of emergent gravity, as well as explore other possible implications.

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Laziness led to extinction of Homo erectus

Laziness led to extinction of Homo erectus | Amazing Science |

New archaeological research from The Australian National University (ANU) has found that Homo erectus, an extinct species of primitive humans, went extinct in part because they were 'lazy'.


An archaeological excavation of ancient human populations in the Arabian Peninsula during the Early Stone Age, found that Homo erectus used 'least-effort strategies' for tool making and collecting resources. This 'laziness' paired with an inability to adapt to a changing climate likely played a role in the species going extinct, according to lead researcher Dr. Ceri Shipton of the ANU School of Culture, History and Language. "They really don't seem to have been pushing themselves," Dr. Shipton said. "I don't get the sense they were explorers looking over the horizon. They didn't have that same sense of wonder that we have."


Dr. Shipton said this was evident in the way the species made their stone tools and collected resources. "To make their stone tools they would use whatever rocks they could find lying around their camp, which were mostly of comparatively low quality to what later stone tool makers used," he said. "At the site we looked at there was a big rocky outcrop of quality stone just a short distance away up a small hill. But rather than walk up the hill they would just use whatever bits had rolled down and were lying at the bottom. When we looked at the rocky outcrop there were no signs of any activity, no artefacts and no quarrying of the stone. They knew it was there, but because they had enough adequate resources they seem to have thought, 'why bother?'".


This is in contrast to the stone tool makers of later periods, including early Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, who were climbing mountains to find good quality stone and transporting it over long distances. Dr. Shipton said a failure to progress technologically, as their environment dried out into a desert, also contributed to the population's demise. "Not only were they lazy, but they were also very conservative," Dr. Shipton said. "The sediment samples showed the environment around them was changing, but they were doing the exact same things with their tools. There was no progression at all, and their tools are never very far from these now dry river beds. I think in the end the environment just got too dry for them."

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Massive astrophysical objects governed by subatomic equation

Massive astrophysical objects governed by subatomic equation | Amazing Science |

Quantum mechanics is the branch of physics governing the sometimes-strange behavior of the tiny particles that make up our universe. Equations describing the quantum world are generally confined to the subatomic realm—the mathematics relevant at very small scales is not relevant at larger scales, and vice versa. However, a surprising new discovery from a Caltech researcher suggests that the Schrödinger Equation—the fundamental equation of quantum mechanics—is remarkably useful in describing the long-term evolution of certain astronomical structures.


The work, done by Konstantin Batygin, a Caltech assistant professor of planetary science and Van Nuys Page Scholar, is described in a paper appearing in the March 5 issue of Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Massive astronomical objects are frequently encircled by groups of smaller objects that revolve around them, like the planets around the sun. For example, supermassive black holes are orbited by swarms of stars, which are themselves orbited by enormous amounts of rock, ice, and other space debris. Due to gravitational forces, these huge volumes of material form into flat, round disks. These disks, made up of countless individual particles orbiting en masse, can range from the size of the solar system to many light-years across.


Astrophysical disks of material generally do not retain simple circular shapes throughout their lifetimes. Instead, over millions of years, these disks slowly evolve to exhibit large-scale distortions, bending and warping like ripples on a pond. Exactly how these warps emerge and propagate has long puzzled astronomers, and even computer simulations have not offered a definitive answer, as the process is both complex and prohibitively expensive to model directly.


While teaching a Caltech course on planetary physics, Batygin (the theorist behind the proposed existence of Planet Nine) turned to an approximation scheme called perturbation theory to formulate a simple mathematical representation of disk evolution. This approximation, often used by astronomers, is based upon equations developed by the 18th-century mathematicians Joseph-Louis Lagrange and Pierre-Simon Laplace. Within the framework of these equations, the individual particles and pebbles on each particular orbital trajectory are mathematically smeared together. In this way, a disk can be modeled as a series of concentric wires that slowly exchange orbital angular momentum among one another.


As an analogy, in our own solar system one can imagine breaking each planet into pieces and spreading those pieces around the orbit the planet takes around the sun, such that the sun is encircled by a collection of massive rings that interact gravitationally. The vibrations of these rings mirror the actual planetary orbital evolution that unfolds over millions of years, making the approximation quite accurate.

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South Korea: Inside the Very Big, Very Controversial Business of Dog Cloning

South Korea: Inside the Very Big, Very Controversial Business of Dog Cloning | Amazing Science |

Barbra Streisand is not alone. At a South Korean laboratory, a once-disgraced doctor is replicating hundreds of deceased pets for the rich and famous. It’s made for more than a few questions of bioethics.


The surgeon is a showman. Scrubbed in and surrounded by his surgical team, a lavalier mike clipped to his mask, he gestures broadly as he describes the C-section he is about to perform to a handful of rapt students watching from behind a plexiglass wall. Still narrating, he steps over to a steel operating table where the expectant mother is stretched out, fully anesthetized. All but her lower stomach is discreetly covered by a crisp green cloth. The surgeon makes a quick incision in her belly. His assistants tug gingerly on clamps that pull back the flaps of tissue on either side of the cut. The surgeon slips two gloved fingers inside the widening hole, then his entire hand. An EKG monitor shows the mother’s heart beating in steady pulses. Just like that the baby’s head pops out, followed by its tiny body. Nurses soak up fluids filling its mouth so the tyke can breathe. The surgeon cuts the umbilical cord. After some tender shaking, the little one moves his head and starts to cry. Looking triumphant, the surgeon holds up the newborn for the students to see—a baby boy that isn’t given a name but a number: That’s because he is a clone. One of many.


This is not some sci-fi, futuristic scenario—it’s happening right now, in Seoul, South Korea. The newborn, however, is not a human. It’s a puppy, a breed called Central Asian Ovcharka. He weighs only a few ounces, and his fur, slickened by fluid, is covered in black and white splotches, like a miniature Holstein. His eyes are not yet open. When he cries, it’s a barely perceptible squeak. The surgeon, Hwang Woo-suk, unclips his microphone and holds it close to little 1108’s mouth, amplifying its mewling over a loudspeaker so the students can hear its plaintive, what-the-hell-just-happened whine—eeee, eeee, eeee.


Hwang’s assistants, meanwhile, are busy suturing up the mother, a Labrador-sized mutt with shaggy yellow fur who was specially bred to give birth to and nurse cloned puppies. “She’s a mixed breed,” explains Jae Woong Wang, a canine-reproduction researcher who works for Hwang here at the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, the world’s first company dedicated to cloning dogs. “We breed the surrogate moms to be docile and gentle.”


It has been more than two decades since the world collectively freaked out over the birth of Dolly the Sheep, the first-ever mammal cloned from an adult cell. The media jumped on the fear implicit in creating genetic replicas of living beings: Time featured a close-up of two sheep on its cover, accompanied by the headline “Will There Ever Be Another You?” Jurassic Park, meanwhile, was terrifying audiences with cloned T. rexes and velociraptors that broke free from their creators and ran amok, eating lawyers and terrorizing small children. But over the years, despite all the Jurassic sequels, the issue faded from the public imagination, eclipsed by the rapid pace of scientific and technological change. In an age of gene editing, synthetic biology, and artificial intelligence, our dread of cloning now seems almost quaint, an anxiety from a simpler, less foreboding time.


Then, last March, Barbra Streisand came out as a cloner. In an interview with Variety, the singer let slip that her two Coton de Tulear puppies, Miss Violet and Miss Scarlett, are actually clones of her beloved dog Samantha, who died last year. The puppies, she said, were cloned from cells taken from “Sammie’s” mouth and stomach by ViaGen Pets, a pet-cloning company based in Texas that charges $50,000 for the service. “I was so devastated by the loss of my dear Samantha, after 14 years together, that I just wanted to keep her with me in some way,” Streisand explained in a New York Times opinion piece, after the news provoked an outcry from animal-rights advocates. “It was easier to let Sammie go if I knew that I could keep some part of her alive, something that came from her DNA.”

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From Airbus and Audi to Uber and Ehang: 10 flying car firms are competing for first-to-market dominance

From Airbus and Audi to Uber and Ehang: 10 flying car firms are competing for first-to-market dominance | Amazing Science |

Flying cars are being developed by companies spanning from new startups like Ehang and Pal-V, to industry giants like Airbus and Rolls-Royce.


Not long ago, the idea of traveling by flying car was pure science fiction. The Jetsons made the concept famous, but turning such a machine into reality seemed like a step too far. How should they be governed? Would you need a license? Where would they land and take-off from?


These questions remain mostly unanswered, but that hasn't stopped a wide range of companies from putting forward their plans for a flying car. Some are conducting test flights right now, while others have wowed us with mocked-up concepts of a future no one is quite sure will actually arrive.


Despite this, industry leaders like Airbus, Boeing and Rolls-Royce are pumping money into flying machines of the future, while carmakers like Audi and Aston Martin are equally interested. Keep in mind, in almost all cases, if you're planning to operate one of these flying cars know this: you'll need a pilot as well as driver's license since you'll be moving from ground to air.


Currently 10 companies are showing their prototypes to potential customers. A decade ago, autonomous tech was too weak to support the complexity of functions required to safely keep a network of vertical-take-off-and-landing (VTOL) vehicles in the air. Today, however, companies are developing the sensor and processing power that can support a fully autonomous flying vehicle. Although some cost and regulatory issues remain, the continued development of autonomy is important to personal aerial transport. That's because without the computers responsible for flying, you'd have to spend weeks and thousands of dollars to get an FAA Sport license, which runs counter to the mass-market ambitions of companies entering the flying-car space.


So the flying car is no longer just an idea full of hot air. It's now a potential business opportunity. Advances in electric propulsion are only making it hotter. As batteries ripen toward greater power density and lower cost, they become an even stronger argument against more costly and complex fuel-powered props and turbines.

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A Complete Taxonomy of Fractal Curves

A Complete Taxonomy of Fractal Curves | Amazing Science |
A curve that bends and curls at every level of maginifation is a fractal curve. It has a fractional dimension between 1 and 2, A curve which is so curvey that it essentially visits every point in a planar area is a spacefilling curve, and it defines a continuous mapping from a lower-dimensional space (a line) into a higher-dimensional space (a plane). Its dimension is 2. The fascinating thing about these curves is that they are self-similar and tiling by nature. There are infinitely many ways that fractal curves can be crafted so that they fill space. These ways can be expressed in elegant geometrical rules, as demonstrated by Koch Construction, the application of L-systems to Turtle Geometry, and Iterated Function Systems.

Viewing a space-filling curve with only a few levels of fractal recursion reveals the beautiful logic of its convoluted path. This page is dedicated to the awesome world of fractal curves, and the infinite ways a single curly line can fill the space between 1 and 2 dimensions.
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World's fastest human-made spinning object could help study quantum mechanics

World's fastest human-made spinning object could help study quantum mechanics | Amazing Science |
Researchers have created the fastest human-made spinning object in the world, which they believe will help them study material science, quantum mechanics and the properties of vacuum.


At more than 60 billion revolutions per minute, this machine is more than 100,000 times faster than a high-speed dental drill.

"This study has many applications, including material science," said Tongcang Li, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy, and electrical and computer engineering, at Purdue University. "We can study the extreme conditions different materials can survive in."


Li's team synthesized a tiny dumbbell from silica and levitated it in high vacuum using a laser. The laser can work in a straight line or in a circle -- when it's linear, the dumbbell vibrates, and when it's circular, the dumbbell spins.


A spinning dumbbell functions as a rotor, and a vibrating dumbbell functions like an instrument for measuring tiny forces and torques, known as a torsion balance. These devices were used to discover things like the gravitational constant and density of Earth, but Li hopes that as they become more advanced, they'll be able to study things like quantum mechanics and the properties of vacuum.


"People say that there is nothing in vacuum, but in physics, we know it's not really empty," Li said. "There are a lot of virtual particles which may stay for a short time and then disappear. We want to figure out what's really going on there, and that's why we want to make the most sensitive torsion balance."


By observing this tiny dumbbell spin faster than anything before it, Li's team may also be able to learn things about vacuum friction and gravity. Understanding these mechanisms is an essential goal for the modern generation of physics, Li said.

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New triboelectric auditory sensor for social robotics and hearing aids developed

New triboelectric auditory sensor for social robotics and hearing aids developed | Amazing Science |
Researchers from Chongqing University, in China, have recently developed a self-powered triboelectric auditory sensor (TAS) that could be used to build electronic auditory systems for external hearing aids in intelligent robotics applications. Their recent study, published in Science Robotics, could inform the creation of a new generation of auditory systems, addressing some of the key challenges in the field of social robotics.


The auditory system is the most straightforward and effective means of communication between human beings and robots. Ideally, robotic auditory systems should allow robots to listen to human instructions while also perceiving their vocal intonations, in order to respond accordingly.


One of the key aims of social robotics is hence to design auditory sensors that are powerful and sensitive in a wide frequency range. These applications could also benefit the 10 percent of the global population that have hearing impairments.


"Commonly, people with impaired hearing always lose one or several specific frequency regions," the researchers who carried out the study told Tech Xplore. "The purpose of external hearing aids is to amplify the specific impaired sound regions to the audible level for those people. Therefore, the use of auditory sensors with frequency selectivity as hearing aid devices for recovering impaired hearing would enhance human-robot social interactions."


An additional challenge within the field of robotics is related to power and energy. To successfully design auditory sensors with broadband frequency response and frequency selectivity, researchers should use traditional acoustic sensors with precise signal processing circuits, which raise the power consumption and reduce the working period.

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First Successful Test of Einstein’s General Relativity Near a Supermassive Black Hole

First Successful Test of Einstein’s General Relativity Near a Supermassive Black Hole | Amazing Science |
Observations made with ESO’s Very Large Telescope have for the first time revealed the effects predicted by Einstein’s general relativity on the motion of a star passing through the extreme gravitational field near the supermassive black hole in the centre of the Milky Way. This long-sought result represents the climax of a 26-year-long observation campaign using ESO’s telescopes in Chile.


Obscured by thick clouds of absorbing dust, the closest supermassive black hole to the Earth lies 26 000 light-years away at the centre of the Milky Way. This gravitational monster, which has a mass four million times that of the Sun, is surrounded by a small group of stars orbiting around it at high speed. This extreme environment — the strongest gravitational field in our galaxy — makes it the perfect place to explore gravitational physics, and particularly to test Einstein’s general theory of relativity.


New infrared observations from the exquisitely sensitive GRAVITYSINFONI and NACO instruments on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) have now allowed astronomers to follow one of these stars, called S2, as it passed very close to the black hole during May 2018. At the closest point this star was at a distance of less than 20 billion kilometers from the black hole and moving at a speed in excess of 25 million kilometers per hour — almost three percent of the speed of light.


The team compared the position and velocity measurements from GRAVITY and SINFONI respectively, along with previous observations of S2 using other instruments, with the predictions of Newtonian gravity, general relativity and other theories of gravity. The new results are inconsistent with Newtonian predictions and in excellent agreement with the predictions of general relativity.


These extremely precise measurements were made by an international team led by Reinhard Genzel of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) in Garching, Germany, in conjunction with collaborators around the world, at the Paris Observatory–PSL, the Université Grenoble AlpesCNRS, the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, the University of Cologne, the Portuguese CENTRA – Centro de Astrofisica e Gravitação and ESO. The observations are the culmination of a 26-year series of ever-more-precise observations of the centre of the Milky Way using ESO instruments.


“This is the second time that we have observed the close passage of S2 around the black hole in our galactic centre. But this time, because of much improved instrumentation, we were able to observe the star with unprecedented resolution,” explains Genzel. “We have been preparing intensely for this event over several years, as we wanted to make the most of this unique opportunity to observe general relativistic effects.

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These beautiful maps show our impact on the planet

These beautiful maps show our impact on the planet | Amazing Science |

From global shipping to undersea cables and population density, these maps highlight our impact on the planet.


In a short amount of time, humans have changed the face of planet Earth. Our impact has been so profound, in fact, that scientists have declared the dawn of the Anthropocene epoch, or the age of human influence. Today’s ambitious graphic comes to us from Reldresal, and it looks at this human footprint from a number of different angles. Here are some of the ones we found most interesting.


While there are humans present in nearly every part of the world, the overall distribution of population is far from even. As the map above vividly demonstrates, humans cluster in specific places that have the right conditions to support a large population. Massive river deltas such as Ganges-Brahmaputra (Bangladesh) and the Nile (Egypt) are obvious bright spots on the map. Not surprisingly, sparsely populated countries like Australia and Canada are nearly indistinguishable as most people cluster in more habitable places.

Via Lorraine Chaffer
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Meet the exosome, the rising star in drug delivery

Meet the exosome, the rising star in drug delivery | Amazing Science |

Millions of tiny bubbles, released from cells and packaged with molecular mail, are racing through your bloodstream right now. And until recently, only a handful of researchers gave them any thought.

Stephen J. Gould is one of those scientists. For more than a decade, Gould has devoted significant time and resources to understanding the curious cellular couriers. Called exosomes, these lipid vesicles shuttle proteins and genetic information between both neighboring and distant cells. “They are just a ubiquitous fact of our biology,” the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine professor says.


Scientists have known about exosomes for decades, but as recently as 2006, only 508, mostly obscure, papers referred to them, according to PubMed. Today, a search on the site brings more than 8,000 hits, including several high-profile publications from the past year.

That research explosion is due, in part, to Swedish scientist Jan Lötvall from the University of Gothenburg. Exosomes had long been viewed as merely tiny trash sacs tossed from cells, but Lötvall showed in 2007 that some cells use exosomes to transfer genetic material—messenger RNAs to make proteins and microRNAs to regulate the expression of genes—between each other (Nat. Cell Biol. 2007, DOI: 10.1038/ncb1596). That discovery set scientists searching for ways that exosomes might be involved in health and disease and even be used as treatments.

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1000-fold increase in computer storage capacity

1000-fold increase in computer storage capacity | Amazing Science |
Scientists report a new technique, based on quickly removing or replacing single hydrogen atoms, which can provide a thousand-fold increase in solid-state memory density.


The densest solid-state memory ever created could soon exceed the capabilities of current computer storage devices by 1,000 times, thanks to a new technique scientists at the University of Alberta have perfected.


"Essentially, you can take all 45 million songs on iTunes and store them on the surface of one quarter," said Roshan Achal, PhD student in Department of Physics and lead author on the new research. "Five years ago, this wasn't even something we thought possible."


His team used the same technology they developed in previous research to build atomic-scale circuits – which allows the quick removal or replacement of single hydrogen atoms. This enables the memory to be rewritable, offering tremendous potential for more efficient solid-state drives. Previous discoveries of atomic-scale computer storage were stable only at extremely low temperatures, but the new memory developed by Achal's team works at real-world temperatures and can withstand normal use.


"What is often overlooked in the nanofabrication business is actual transportation to an end-user, which simply was not possible until now given temperature restrictions," explains Achal. "Our memory is stable well above room temperature and precise down to the atom."

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Another step forward on universal quantum computer

Another step forward on universal quantum computer | Amazing Science |
Researchers have demonstrated holonomic quantum gates under zero-magnetic field at room temperature, which could enable the realization of fast and fault-tolerant universal quantum computers.



A quantum computer is a theoretical machine with the potential to solve complex problems much faster than conventional computers. Researchers are currently working on the next step in quantum computing—building a universal quantum computer.

The paper, published in the journal Nature Communications, reports experimental demonstration of non-adiabatic and non-abelian holonomic quantum gates over a geometric spin qubit on an electron or nitrogen nucleus, which paves the way to realizing a universal quantum computer.


The geometric phase is currently a key issue in quantum physics. A holonomic quantum gate purely manipulating the geometric phase in the degenerate ground state system is believed to be an ideal way to build a fault-tolerant universal quantum computer. The geometric phase gate or holonomic quantum gate has been experimentally demonstrated in several quantum systems, including nitrogen-vacancy (NV) centers in diamond. However, previous experiments required microwaves or light waves to manipulate the non-degenerate subspace, leading to the degradation of gate fidelity due to unwanted interference of the dynamic phase.


"To avoid unwanted interference, we used a degenerate subspace of the triplet spin qutrit to form an ideal logical qubit, which we call a geometric spin qubit, in an NV center. This method facilitated fast and precise geometric gates at a temperature below 10 K, and the gate fidelity was limited by radiative relaxation," says corresponding author Professor Hideo Kosaka of Yokohama National University. "Based on this method, in combination with polarized microwaves, we succeeded in manipulation of the geometric phase in an NV center in diamond under a zero-magnetic field at room temperature."

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NASA spacecraft rockets toward sun for closest look yet

NASA spacecraft rockets toward sun for closest look yet | Amazing Science |

A NASA spacecraft zoomed toward the sun Sunday on an unprecedented quest to get closer to our star than anything ever sent before.


As soon as this fall, the Parker Solar Probe will fly straight through the wispy edges of the sun's corona, or outer atmosphere, that was visible during last August's total solar eclipse. It eventually will get within 3.8 million (6 million kilometers) of the surface in the years ahead, staying comfortably cool despite the extreme heat and radiation, and allowing scientists to vicariously explore the sun in a way never before possible.


No wonder scientists consider it the coolest, hottest mission under the sun, and what better day to launch to the sun than Sunday as NASA noted. "All I can say is, 'Wow, here we go.' We're in for some learning over the next several years," said Eugene Parker, the 91-year-old astrophysicist for whom the spacecraft is named.


Protected by a revolutionary new carbon heat shield and other high-tech wonders, the spacecraft will zip past Venus in October 2018. That will set up the first solar encounter in November. Altogether, the Parker probe will make 24 close approaches to the sun on the seven-year, $1.5 billion undertaking.

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How to engineer topology in graphene nanoribbons

How to engineer topology in graphene nanoribbons | Amazing Science |

Two independent groups of physicists have shown that the topology of the electronic states of graphene nanoribbons can be controlled by adjusting the width of the material. Both teams made nanoribbons that alternated between wide and narrow sections and then showed that sections with different widths have different topologies.


Graphene is a sheet of carbon just one atom thick that was first isolated in 2004. It has since been shown to have a wide range of fascinating and potentially useful electronic properties. In this latest research Daniel Rizzo, Gregory Veber and Ting Cao and colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley – and an independent team including Oliver Gröning  and Shiyong Wang of EMPA in Switzerland and Xuelin Yao of the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Germany – created graphene nanoribbons that were nine or fewer atoms wide. Crucially, the nanoribbons were defect-free – particularly at the edges, where the carbon atoms had the distinctive “arm-chair” configuration. In both cases, the widths of the nanoribbons varied by just two atoms from a narrow section to a wide section (see figure).


The nanoribbons were made to investigate whether they behaved as topological insulators. Such materials are electrical insulators in the bulk but conduct electricity like metals on their surfaces. This property can arise from the interaction between the spin of an electron and its motion, making it impossible for electrons to scatter when moving on the surface of a material.

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Machine-learning system determines the fewest, smallest doses that could still shrink brain tumors

Machine-learning system determines the fewest, smallest doses that could still shrink brain tumors | Amazing Science |

MIT researchers are employing novel machine-learning techniques to improve the quality of life for patients by reducing toxic chemotherapy and radiotherapy dosing for glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of brain cancer.


Glioblastoma is a malignant tumor that appears in the brain or spinal cord, and prognosis for adults is no more than five years. Patients must endure a combination of radiation therapy and multiple drugs taken every month. Medical professionals generally administer maximum safe drug doses to shrink the tumor as much as possible. But these strong pharmaceuticals still cause debilitating side effects in patients.


In a paper being presented next week at the 2018 Machine Learning for Healthcare conference at Stanford University, MIT Media Lab researchers detail a model that could make dosing regimens less toxic but still effective. Powered by a "self-learning" machine-learning technique, the model looks at treatment regimens currently in use, and iteratively adjusts the doses. Eventually, it finds an optimal treatment plan, with the lowest possible potency and frequency of doses that should still reduce tumor sizes to a degree comparable to that of traditional regimens.


In simulated trials of 50 patients, the machine-learning model designed treatment cycles that reduced the potency to a quarter or half of nearly all the doses while maintaining the same tumor-shrinking potential. Many times, it skipped doses altogether, scheduling administrations only twice a year instead of monthly.

"We kept the goal, where we have to help patients by reducing tumor sizes but, at the same time, we want to make sure the quality of life—the dosing toxicity—doesn't lead to overwhelming sickness and harmful side effects," says Pratik Shah, a principal investigator at the Media Lab who supervised this research.

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It Takes 26 Fundamental Constants To Give Us Our Universe, But Why?

It Takes 26 Fundamental Constants To Give Us Our Universe, But Why? | Amazing Science |

When we think about our Universe at a fundamental level, we think about all the particles in it and all the forces and interactions that occur between them. If you can describe those forces, interactions and particle properties, you have everything you need to reproduce our Universe, or at least a Universe virtually indistinguishable from our own, in its entirety.


Because if you know the laws of physics -- gravitation, quantum mechanics, electromagnetism, the nuclear forces, etc. -- all you need are the relationships that tell you "by how much," and so long as you start with the same initial conditions, you'll wind up with a Universe with the same structures from atoms to galaxy clusters, the same processes from electron transitions to stellar explosions, the same periodic table of elements, and the same chemical combinations from hydrogen gas to proteins and hydrocarbon chains, among a great number of other similarities.


When you encounter the question of "how much," you probably think of the force of gravity being determined by a universal gravitational constantG, and of the "energy of a particle" being determined by its rest mass, such as the mass of an electron, me. You think of the speed of light,c, and for quantum mechanics, Planck's constant, ħ. But physicists don't like to use these constants when we describe the Universe, because these constants have arbitrary dimensions and units to them.


But there's no inherent importance to a unit like a meter, a kilogram or a second; in fact there's no reason at all to force ourselves to define things like "mass" or "time" or "distance" when it comes to the Universe. If we give the right dimensionless constants (without meters, kilograms, seconds or any other "dimensions" in them) that describe the Universe, we should naturally get out our Universe itself. This includes things like the masses of the particles, the strengths of their interactions, the speed limit of the Universe and even the fundamental properties of spacetime itself!


So, here are the 26 fundamental dimensionless constants:


  • the mass of the up quark
  • the mass of the down quark
  • the mass of the charmed quark
  • the mass of the strange quark
  • the mass of the top quark
  • the mass of the bottom quark
  • 4 numbers for the Kobayashi-Maskawa matrix


  • the mass of the electron
  • the mass of the electron neutrino
  • the mass of the muon
  • the mass of the mu neutrino
  • the mass of the tau
  • the mass of the tau neutrino
  • 4 numbers for the Pontecorvo-Maki-Nakagawa-Sakata matrix


  • the mass of the Higgs boson
  • the expectation value of the Higgs field


  • the U(1) coupling constant
  • the SU(2) coupling constant
  • the strong coupling constant


  • the cosmological constant

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Friendly Foxes’ Genes Offer Hints to How Dogs Became Domesticated

Friendly Foxes’ Genes Offer Hints to How Dogs Became Domesticated | Amazing Science |
A long-running experiment provides clues to genes that influence friendliness to humans.


Tame foxes offer a tantalizing window into the nature of domestication. Starting around 1960, Russian scientists took farm-bred foxes and began to breed them selectively, not for better fur, but for friendliness toward humans. The result is a strain of foxes that appears to take just as much pleasure in the company of people as your average golden retriever. Their story was chronicled last year in a book whose co-author, Lyudmila N. Trut, is one of the scientists who conducted the experiment.


The tame foxes may seem like irresistible pets. But they are still nocturnal, not easily housebroken and not really well-suited to live in a house with human beings, said Anna V. Kukekova, of the University of Illinois, who studies the genetics of the foxes. They are, however, an obvious resource for genetic studies that aim to tease out some of the genes involved in domestication, particularly in dogs. Foxes are canids, like wolves, dogs and the extinct wolves that are thought to have given rise to dogs.


Dr. Kukekova and a team of scientists in the United States, Russia and China, sequenced the red fox genome for the first time and then compared three strains of red foxes — farm bred, selected for tameness and selected for aggressiveness. All three strains were bred by the Institute of Cytology and Genetics of the Russian Academy of Sciences.


Dr. Kukekova and colleagues identified 103 regions of DNA that stood out as having been under selective pressure in the breeding, in which only the friendliest pups were allowed to mate. She also picked one gene that seemed to be a good candidate in selecting for tameness, called SorCS1. They reported their work in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

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Vaccines of the future could be as contagious as viruses

Vaccines of the future could be as contagious as viruses | Amazing Science |
Scientists are taking a leaf from the virus playbook and devising vaccines and antiviral therapies that can spread from host to host.


The vaccines we have today are pretty incredible. They've eradicated smallpox, purged rubella from the Americas, and save millions of people each year from dying of diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, and measles. When enough people get vaccinated, infectious diseases can’t spread easily and everyone benefits from herd immunity.


But it’s hard to reach enough people for this to happen, especially in areas with poor public health infrastructure. So scientists are taking a leaf from the virus playbook. They’re devising vaccines and antiviral therapies that can spread from host to host. These transmissible vaccines will likely first be used in animals that carry diseases that can infect people. Some may use a weakened version of the virus, or attach a piece of the pathogen to a benign virus. Other treatments are aimed at people who are already infected and will prey on the virus dwelling in their cells.


It’s early days for these kinds of vaccines and therapies, and scientists still have to show that they are effective and safe to use in wildlife or people. But they could tamp down the spread of HIV and other contagious diseases, and immunize people who would not otherwise be protected. Plus this strategy would be cheaper than vaccinating everyone by hand.

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170 Years Ago, Eta Carinae Erupted Dramatically. Astronomers Now Think They Know Why

170 Years Ago, Eta Carinae Erupted Dramatically. Astronomers Now Think They Know Why | Amazing Science |

Eta Carinae, a double star system located 7,500 light years away in the constellation Carina, has a combined luminosity of more than 5 million Suns – making it one of the brightest stars in the Milky Way galaxy. But 170 years ago, between 1837 and 1858, this star erupted in what appeared to be a massive supernova, temporarily making it the second brightest star in the sky.


Strangely, this blast was not enough to obliterate the star system, which left astronomers wondering what could account for the massive eruption. Thanks to new data, which was the result of some “forensic astronomy” (where leftover light from the explosion was examined after it reflected off of interstellar dust) a team of astronomers now think they have an explanation for what happened.


The studies which describe their findings – titled “Exceptionally fast ejecta seen in light echoes of Eta Carinae’s Great Eruption” and “Light echoes from the plateau in Eta Carinae’s Great Eruption reveal a two-stage shock-powered event” – recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.


Both studies were led by Nathan Smith of the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, and included members from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STSI), the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), the Millennium Institute of Astrophysics, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory and multiple universities.


In their first study, the team indicates how they studied the “light echoes” produced by the explosion, which were reflected off of interstellar dust and are just now visible from Earth. From this, they observed that the eruption resulted in material expanding at speeds that were up to 20 times faster than with any previously-observed supernova.


In the second study, the team studied the evolution of the echo’s light curve, which revealed that it experienced spikes before 1845, then plateaued until 1858 before steadily declining over the next decade. Basically, the observed velocities and light curve were consistent with the blast wave of a supernova explosion rather than the relatively slow and gentle winds expected from massive stars before they die.


The light echoes were first detected in images obtained in 2003 by telescopes at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. For the sake of their study, the team consulted spectroscopic data from the Magellan telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory and the Gemini South Observatory, both located in Chile. This allowed the team to measure the light and determine the ejecta’s expansion speeds – more than 32 million km/h (20 million mph).

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Dangerous times: Earth risks tipping into 'hothouse' state, study finds

Dangerous times: Earth risks tipping into 'hothouse' state, study finds | Amazing Science |

The planet urgently needs to transition to a green economy because fossil fuel pollution risks pushing the Earth into a lasting and dangerous "hothouse" state, researchers warned on Monday.

If polar ice continues to melt, forests are slashed and greenhouse gases rise to new highs—as they currently do each year—the Earth will pass a tipping point.

Crossing that threshold "guarantees a climate 4-5 Celsius (7-9 Fahrenheit) higher than pre-industrial times, and sea levels that are 10 to 60 meters (30-200 feet) higher than today," cautioned scientists in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And that "could be only decades ahead," they said.

What is 'Hothouse Earth'?

"Hothouse Earth is likely to be uncontrollable and dangerous to many," said the article by scientists at University of Copenhagen, Australian National University and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

Rivers would flood, storms would wreak havoc on coastal communities, and coral reefs would be eliminated—all by century's end or even earlier.

Global average temperatures would exceed those of any interglacial period—meaning warmer eras that come in between Ice Ages—of the past 1.2 million years.

Melting polar ice caps would lead to dramatically higher sea levels, flooding coastal land that is home to hundreds of millions of people.

"Places on Earth will become uninhabitable if 'Hothouse Earth' becomes the reality," said co-author Johan Rockstrom, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Where is the tipping point?

Researchers suggest the tipping point could come once the Earth warms to 3.6 Fahrenheit (2 Celsius) over pre-industrial times. The planet has already warmed 1 C over pre-industrial times, and is heating up at a rate of 0.17 C per decade.

"A 2 C warming could activate important tipping elements, raising the temperature further to activate other tipping elements in a domino-like cascade that could take the Earth System to even higher temperatures," said the report.

This cascade "may tip the entire Earth system into a new mode of operation," said co-author Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Many of the effects may be totally irreversible.

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Scientists Finally Solved the Mystery of Antarctica’s Blood Falls

Scientists Finally Solved the Mystery of Antarctica’s Blood Falls | Amazing Science |

Blood Falls is an aptly named feature in Antarctica. The 100-foot stream of water running down the side of a glacier is a deep, rich, blood red.


Though we’ve known for decades what causes the red color, it took more than 100 years for scientists to discover the source of Blood Falls: a secret, ancient, underground lake.


Blood Falls were first discovered by Australian explorer Griffith Taylor during an expedition in 1911. At the time, he and other explorers guessed that the red color might be caused by algae living in the water.


“It's unearthly, it's unreal,” Steve Martin, an Antarctic historian, told Motherboard on the latest episode of Science Solved It. “So when [explorer] Griffith Taylor and his friends saw the blood falls flowing red out of the end of the Taylor Glacier, they must have thought it was just another incredible oddity in a very strange part of the world.”


Though scientists later realized it was the high iron content that turned the water bloody red (the water oxidizes and turns red when exposed to air), they still didn’t know where the water was coming from or how the falls formed.


“We did not know where the brine came from. We didn't know how it made its way through the glacier,” explained Erin Pettit, one of the scientists who solved the mystery of Blood Falls. “If the brine started at the base of the glacier, it should have continued to flow at the base.”


The Pettit team published their findings and were able to confirm them when a drilling team visited the region the following year. By using the map Pettit and her team had created, the drilling crew located where the underground source should be and got to work. Sure enough, red brine squirted up around the drill. Along with finding the source of Blood Falls, the scientists also provided more context for life forms that had previously been discovered there: tiny microbes capable of surviving in super salty, high-iron, very cold water, without sunlight, under a glacier. It turns out these extremophiles were even more extreme than previously recognized, and studying them further can help us understand how life might survive in other extreme environments, such as outer space.


“That first discovery is leading us on a track of further discovery and further explanation,” Martin said. “Antarctica still has not yielded up all her secrets.”

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