New Species of World’s Only Venomous Primate Found

Posted December 14th, 2012 at 7:27 pm (UTC+0)
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One of the newly identified species of slow loris, Nycticebus kayan. (Photo: Ch'ien C Lee)

One of the newly identified species of slow loris, Nycticebus kayan. (Photo: Ch’ien C Lee)

An endangered lemur-like primate with two tongues and a toxic bite has more branches on its family tree than originally thought.

Writing in the American Journal of Primatology, Missouri researchers say they’ve identified three new species of the slow loris – the only venomous primate in the world – living on the Indonesian island of Borneo.

At first glance, with its big brown eyes and teddy-bear face, this nocturnal mammal appears cute and cuddly, but it’s got a lethal bite, which can cause fever, pain and swelling. For humans who suffer from allergic reactions, it can also be deadly.

Due to a benign appearance, and its uses in traditional medicine, the slow loris is a favorite of poachers throughout southeastern Asia and its surrounding islands.

The three newly identified species were originally grouped with another species. Now that the slow loris has been divided into four distinct classes, its risk of extinction is greater than previously believed. However, in the long run, it could also help efforts to protect the primate.

“Four separate species are harder to protect than one, since each species needs to maintain its population numbers and have sufficient forest habitat,” says lead author Rachel Munds from University of Missouri. “Unfortunately, in addition to habitat loss to deforestation, there is a booming black market demand for the animals. They are sold as pets, used as props for tourist photos or dismembered for use in traditional Asian medicines.”

The teeth of a juvenile slow loris being removed by an animal trafficker. (Photo: International Animal Rescue)

The teeth of a juvenile slow loris are removed by an animal trafficker. (Photo: International Animal Rescue)

Munds says slow lorises are not and cannot be domesticated and that keeping them as pets is cruel. The primates are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

“Zoos rarely succeed in breeding them,” says Munds. “Nearly all the primates in the pet trade are taken from the wild, breaking the bonds of the lorises’ complex and poorly understood social structures.”

Those who breed them as pets often pull out the teeth, depriving the the animal of its venomous bite. Many of these illegally captured primates die due to the foul conditions of pet markets.

“Once in the home, pet keepers don’t provide the primates with the social, nutritional and habitat requirements they need to live comfortably,” Munds says. “Pet keepers also want to play with the nocturnal animals during the day, disrupting their sleep patterns.”

The serrated sublingua (or "under-tongue") of a slow loris sticks out beneath the primary tongue. (Photo: David Haring - Duke Lemur Center)

The under-tongue of a slow loris sticks out beneath the primary tongue. (Photo: David Haring – Duke Lemur Center)

The Missouri researchers examined various museum specimens, photographs and actual live animals that had been lumped into the original single species. After noticing the animals had different body sizes, fur thickness, habitats and facial markings, scientists realized they’d identified four separate species of the slow loris rather than just the one.

Now instead of one animal listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, there may be four endangered or threatened species.

 

Mystery Properties of Black Holes Revealed

Posted December 12th, 2012 at 8:18 pm (UTC+0)
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An artist's drawing shows a large black hole pulling gas away from a nearby star. (Image: NASA)

An artist’s drawing shows a large black hole pulling gas away from a nearby star. (NASA)

Of all the celestial objects that make up the Universe, nothing is more mysterious than the black hole.

Now Denmark scientists have come up with what they say are groundbreaking theories that explain several properties of the enigmatic black hole.  The scientists’ research indicates black holes have properties similar to the dynamics of both solids and liquids.

Albert Einstein (circa 1921) theorized that the universe expands, but such expansion slows over time. Recent observations indicate that the opposite may be true that the universe if expanding at an faster rate. (Photo: Creative Commons/Wikipedia)

Albert Einstein- circa 1921 (Photo: Creative Commons/Wikipedia)

What’s generally known about black holes is that they’re extremely compact  –some are as small as less than .01 mm– and that they can generate a gravitational pull so powerful that anything and everything that comes near them is swallowed up, including light.

We’re not able to see these cosmic vacuum cleaners because any light that does hit them is absorbed rather than being reflected. Black holes were predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity but scientists haven’t been able to determine their properties.

“Black holes are not completely black, because we know that they emit radiation and there are indications that the radiation is thermal, i.e. it has a temperature,” explains Niels Obers, a professor at the University of Copenhagen.

Obers says one can view black holes like particles. Since, in principle, a particle has no dimensions, it is merely a point. But, if a particle is given an extra dimension –such as a straight line– it then becomes a string.  And if you give the string yet an additional dimension, it becomes a plane. Physicists refer to one of these planes as a ‘brane’, similar to the biological term, ‘membrane’.

“In string theory, you can have different branes, including planes that behave like black holes, which we call black branes,” Obers says. “The black branes are thermal, that is to say, they have a temperature and are dynamical objects. When black branes are folded into multiple dimensions, they form a ‘blackfold’.”

In theoretical physics you can have different planes that behave like black holes and they are called black branes. When black branes are folded into multiple dimensions they form a 'blackfold', which new research shows has a relationship between gravity and fluid mechanics and solid-state physics. (Artist impression by Merete Rasmussen)

Artist impression of black branes forming a “blackfold”(Artist impression by Merete Rasmussen)

Obers and his colleagues say they’ve been able to develop their new theories on the physics of black holes based on the principals of these black branes and blackfolds.

“The black branes are hydro-dynamic objects, that is to say that they have the properties of a liquid,” says Jay Armas, who also worked on the project. “We have now discovered that black branes also have properties which can be explained in terms of solids. They can behave like elastic material when we bend them.”

“With these new theories, we expect to be able to explain other black hole phenomena, and we expect to be able to better understand the physical properties of neutron stars,” said Obers.

Scientist Discover Way to Lose Weight Without Dieting

Posted December 10th, 2012 at 7:12 pm (UTC+0)
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British scientists have found you can lose weight without dieting – by replacing high-fat foods with their low-fat counterparts.

Writing in the British Medical Journal,  researchers from the University of East Anglia found that people who switched out high-fat foods with low-fat substitutes lost about 1.6 kg over six months without any additional dieting.

They also found lowering fat in your diet provides additional health advantages, such as lowering blood pressure and bad cholesterol levels.

The researchers believe their findings could play a role in dietary recommendations to help in the worldwide battle against obesity. The WHO and other public health organizations say obesity is a major risk factor for high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers and musculoskeletal disorders, such as the highly disabling degenerative disease of the joints, osteoarthritis.

A display of high fat foods such as cheeses, chocolates, lunch meat, french fries, pastries, doughnuts, etc. (Photo: US National Cancer Institute)

A display of high fat foods such as cheeses, chocolates, lunch meat, french fries, pastries, doughnuts, etc. (Photo: US National Cancer Institute)

Looking to update its guidelines on total fat intake, the WHO recently commissioned a study to evaluate the relationship between the amount of fat and fatty products  consumed in daily diets and various indicators of body fatness such as total weight, waist size and/or body mass index (BMI).

For their study, the researchers evaluated 33 trials in North America, Europe and New Zealand, involving 73,589 participants of various ages and states of health.

Researchers compared the waistline measurements and weight of participants who ate a reduced-fat diet with those whose diet included the usual amounts of fat for at least six months.

Along with the loss of 1.6 kg of bodyweight, they also found that the participants reduced their total BMI by 0.56kg/m² – kg per square meter -and cut their waist circumference by 0.5cm.

Nutritionists recommend foods with protein (eggs/lean meat), whole grains, and fruits (or vegetables) for a healthy breakfast (Photo: Kenji Ross via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Nutritionists recommend foods with protein (eggs/lean meat), whole grains, and fruits (or vegetables) for a healthy breakfast (Photo: Kenji Ross via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Wondering if the weight reduction by those in the group that consumed few fats was due in part to the additional time, attention and support they received, compared to those in the normal fat intake group, researchers looked to studies where both groups were given equal time and attention and found that the weight reduction did not disappear suggesting that the weight loss was really due to lower fat intake.

“The effect isn’t dramatic, like going on a diet. The research specifically looked at people who were cutting down on fat, but didn’t aim to lose weight, so they were continuing to consume a normal amount of food,” said Dr. Lee Hooper, who led the research. “What surprised us was that they did lose weight, their BMI decreased and their waists became slimmer. On top of this, they kept their weight down over at least seven years. There isn’t a specific goal, the more fat you cut down, the more your weight falls.”

Speeding Space Junk Poses Risks for Spacecraft

Posted December 7th, 2012 at 6:11 pm (UTC+0)
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The amount of space junk floating around the Earth grows every year, and increasingly can pose risks to spacecraft orbiting the planet.

This computer generated graphic provided by NASA shows objects in Earth orbit that are currently being tracked. Space junk has made such a mess of Earth’s orbit that experts say we may need to finally think about cleaning it up. (AP)

In the United States, NASA’s Orbital Debris Program (ODP) at the Johnson Space Center in Texas, keeps an eye on the ever-expanding junkyard of space.

“We define orbital debris as any man-made object orbiting the Earth that is no longer serving a useful purpose,” says Gene Stansbery, project manager for the ODP. “That can be anything from very large rocket bodies and dead satellites that are no longer useful, all the way to very tiny particles that are eroded from the painted surfaces of spacecraft or rockets, the entire size range.”

In the weightless and friction-free environment of orbit, it’s not so much the size of all this junk floating in the Earth’s orbit, but also the speeds at which it travels, according to Stansbery.

“If you look at orbital velocities and the average collision velocity, you’re talking on the order of 11 kilometers a second,” he says. “So even a small paint fleck can damage a sensitive component for spacecraft.”

An example occurred during STS 7, when a window for the space shuttle had to be replaced for the first ever time after being damaged by a .2 millimeter paint fleck. If that level of damage can be caused by a particle that small, one can imagine the threat posed by larger orbiting refuse.

Given that space exploration has been an on-going venture since the 1950s, there’s a lot of old stuff circling the planet, and much of it can pose serious risks.

“The Department of Defense has a world-wide network that can track objects down to about 10 centimeters in size in low Earth orbit,” says Stansbery. “For those objects, there’s about 22,000 that they’re tracking. You go down to about one centimeter and larger, you’re talking about 500,000, and if you get smaller than that and you’re talking into the millions.”

Some of that stuff, especially in low-Earth orbit, will eventually fall back to the planet, much of it burning up on re-entry. However, for junk found at higher altitudes, around 1,000 kilometers or so, Stansbery says it could remain in orbit for decades, maybe even hundreds of years. For altitudes even higher than that, junk could remain for centuries…or longer.

A white arrow points to damage on a piece of a solar array from the Russian space station Mir. The array had been damaged by a miniscule piece of space junk. (AP)

Major collisions are rare, but they do happen. On Feb. 10, 2009, two large satellites, the Iridium 33 and the Kosmos 2251, collided at a speed of about 42,000 kilometers per hour. The collision spread about 1,000 pieces of debris capable of being tracked across the skies, where much of it remains.

In March of this year, one of those pieces came uncomfortably close to the International Space Station. So close, in fact, that as a precaution, the ISS’ six-member crew waited for a time in the Soyuz emergency exit capsule, just in case a collision occurred and they had to abandon ship.

More worrisome, says Stansbery, is that the crew only had 24 hours notice of the possible collision. “Unfortunately, that is too short a time to plan a re-avoidance maneuver for the space station,” he says.

The threat posed by space junk isn’t new; space scientists have been concerned about it since the 1970s. However, with more rockets taking off, more satellites in the sky, and more spacecraft – such as from China or private firms like SpaceX and Blue Origin – the skies are getting more crowded all the time.

This week on VOA’s “Science World” radio program, you can hear the complete interview with Gene Stansbury on space junk, as well as other features on the science behind children’s snack food choices, the lingering effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill on corral communities, and a new web-based computer program that helps doctors save lives. Take a look at the right hand column for scheduled times.

(Written by Doug Bernard,  Digital Frontiers Editor)

Science Images of the Week

Posted December 5th, 2012 at 7:31 pm (UTC+0)
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This NASA image shows the work site of the Curiosity rover on Mars. The first test of Martian soil by Curiosity shows no definitive evidence that the red planet has the chemical ingredients to support life. (NASA)

NASA’s artist rendering of Voyager 1 at the edge of the solar system. The long-running spacecraft has entered the fringes of the solar system which is thought to be the last layer before the beginning of interstellar space, or the space between stars. Mission chief scientist Ed Stone says Voyager 1 will be the first manmade object to leave the solar system. (AP Photo/NASA)

A 68-mile-diameter crater, large indentation at center, in the north polar region of Mercury which has been shown to harbor water ice, thanks to measurements by the Messenger spacecraft. (AP Photo/NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

Joe Wasilewski works with a captured Nile crocodile, caught near his Homestead, Fla., home. State wildlife officials have given their agents a rare order to shoot to kill in the hunt for a young and potentially dangerous Nile crocodile loose near Miami. “They get big. They’re vicious. The animals are just more aggressive and they learn that humans are easy targets,” says Wasilewski, a reptile expert and veteran wrangler. (AP)

The Plosky Tolbachnik volcano erupts in Russia’’s Far Eastern Kamchatka Peninsula. The volcano, located on the peninsula’s eastern coast, is erupting for the first time in 36 years. (AP)

In an undated photo, Glenn Storrs, left, helps haul a dinosaur fossil on a contraption made from two hospital gurneys and a motorcycle wheel, dubbed the dino wheel, near Pryor Mountains in Montana. After 10 years of painstakingly unearthing scattered dinosaur fossils at a site along the base of the Pryor Mountains, Storrs believes he has finally figured out how the bones arrived at their final resting place 145 million to 150 million years ago. His theory is that a group of young dinosaurs, probably migrating with adults, died of thirst while searching for a wetter environment.
   (AP Photo/Courtesy of Cincinnati Museum Center via The Billings Gazette)

A shadow self-portrait taken by NASA’’s Opportunity rover on the Martian surface. The solar-powered spacecraft has been exploring a huge crater in the Martian southern hemisphere and has detected what appear to be clay minerals. (AP Photo NASA)

Multiple dust plumes are seen blowing off the coasts of Iran and Pakistan in this NASA handout image taken Nov. 29, 2012. These images document the movement of the plumes southward over the Arabian Sea. (REUTER/NASA/Jeff Schmaltz)

The moon Tethys (in the upper left of the image) is seen next to Saturn in this NASA image taken from the Cassini spacecraft on Aug. 19, 2012 and released Dec. 3, 2012. Saturn’s rings appear to dwarf Tethys (660 miles, or 1,062 kilometers across) although scientists believe the moon to be many times more massive than the entire ring system combined. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 1.5 million miles (2.4 million kilometers) from Saturn. (REUTERS/NASA)

n this photo made Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012, The Plosky Tolbachnik volcano erupts in Russia on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012, for the first time in 36 years. (AP)

Flu Forecasts Could Soon Join Weathercasts

Posted November 30th, 2012 at 8:10 pm (UTC+0)
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(Photo: NatalieJ via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Influenza is unpleasant for many, and for some people, can be deadly. (Photo: NatalieJ via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Imagine that one day soon when you tune in to your favorite radio or TV station for the latest weather forecast, you’re given a flu forecast as well.

Adapting techniques used in modern weather prediction, scientists at Columbia University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research have come up with a way to produce localized forecasts of seasonal influenza outbreaks.

The researchers hope their new flu forecasting system, still in its initial phases, will serve both local and international health officials with highly detailed information, while also providing easier-to-understand versions for the general public. The researchers plan to get the system to an operational state within the next year or two.

Jeffrey Shaman, assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health is the lead author of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He says peak flu season can greatly vary from year to year, and from region to region.  For example, Atlanta, a Southern U.S. city might reach its peak flu season weeks ahead of Anchorage in the far northwest.

Students in Kazakhstan wear surgical masks to help prevent the spread of flu during the 2009 swine flu outbreak.  An influenza forecasting system such the one Jeff Shaman and colleagues are developing could help health officials better plan for upcoming outbreaks. (Photo: Nikolay Olkhovoy via Wikmedia Commons)

Students in Kazakhstan wear surgical masks to help prevent the spread of flu during the 2009 swine flu outbreak.  (Photo: Nikolay Olkhovoy via Wikmedia Commons)

The system will track flu outbreaks from week to week, location to location, showing the prevalence of flu in our own areas.

“I think what you can expect from it is weekly prognostications, weekly predictions, of how far in the future the peak of a flu outbreak is expected to be,” said Shaman.

Comparing his team’s flu forecasts to weathercasts we’re all used to, Shaman says the meteorological forecasts tell you, for example, that there’s an 80 percent chance of rain tomorrow, which prompts you to expect wet weather.

The flu forecast, on the other hand, would tell you that the peak of the flu season will be hitting your area within perhaps the next week or month reminding you to take any steps necessary to minimize the impact of the flu on you and your family.

The influenza forecast will also be able to provide data to health officials on the size and scope of the outbreak as well, allowing them to better plan a public health response.

Previous research conducted by Shaman and his colleagues found that U.S. wintertime flu epidemics were most likely to take place following a spell of very dry weather.

A microscopic image of the H1N1 ('swine flu') influenza virus - In 2009, the World Health Organization declared this new strain as a pandemic.

A microscopic image of the H1N1 (swine flu) influenza virus. In 2009, the World Health Organization declared this new strain to be a pandemic.

Using a computer model that incorporated this finding and feeding it web-based estimates of flu-related sickness in New York City from the winters of 2003-04 and 2008-09, Shaman and co-author Alicia Karspect of the the National Center for Atmospheric Research were able to produce weekly flu forecasts for those time periods that predicted the peak timing of the outbreak more than seven weeks ahead of the actual peak.

Shaman says that three ingredients are needed to do this kind of forecasting.

First, a mathematical model that describes the transmission of influenza within a specific population or community.

Next, real-time observations of what’s currently going on in the real world.  Shaman says data comes from web-based estimates of influenza-like illnesses, recorded by various hospitals and clinics that see or treat patients with symptoms consistent with the flu.

And finally, a statistical or data assimilation method similar to those used in weather forecasting, to pull in data from the observations into the model that generates the predictions.

A flu shot may sting a little bit but the US CDC recommends a yearly flu vaccine as the first and most important step in protecting ourselves against flu viruses. (Photo: US Navy)

Yes, a flu shot may sting a little bit but the CDC recommends a yearly flu vaccine as the first and most important step in protecting ourselves against flu viruses. (Photo: US Navy)

Variations made to the incoming data stream, as conditions change, keep the model updated and on track to better reflect real-world conditions allowing for much more accurate forecasts.

Shaman and his research colleagues plan to test their system in other localities across the US by using up-to-date data.

“There is no guarantee that just because the method works in New York, it will work in Miami,” Shaman said.

Jeffrey Shaman joins us this weekend on the radio edition of “Science World.”  Tune in to the radio program (see right column for scheduled times) or check out the interview below.

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New Microbes May Hold Clues To Extraterrestrial Life

Posted November 29th, 2012 at 12:40 am (UTC+0)
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Scanning electron micrograph of very small and numerous bacterial cells inhabiting icy brine waters in Antarctica’s Lake Vida. (Photo:  Christian H. Fritsen, Desert Research Institute)

Scanning electron micrograph of very small and numerous bacterial cells inhabiting icy brine waters in Antarctica’s Lake Vida. (Photo: Christian H. Fritsen, Desert Research Institute)

Scientists say they have found ancient microbial life in dark and very salty water some 20 meters below the surface of a frozen and isolated Antarctic lake. The finding could provide scientists with insight into how life could possibly exist in the most extreme environments on Earth as well as elsewhere throughout the cosmos.

In a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) the researchers say they took the microbes from the Antarctic’s Lake Vida, which contains no oxygen but has the highest nitrous oxide levels found in any natural bodies of water on Earth. The scientists describe the icy environment in which the sample microbes were taken as a briny liquid, about six times saltier than normal seawater and with an average temperature of minus 13.5 degrees centigrade.

“This study provides a window into one of the most unique ecosystems on Earth,” said lead author Dr. Alison Murray from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno, Nevada. “Our knowledge of geochemical and microbial processes in lightless icy environments, especially at subzero temperatures, has been mostly unknown up until now. This work expands our understanding of the types of life that can survive in these isolated, cryoecosystems (ecosystems found in ice) and how different strategies may be used to exist in such challenging environments.”

Previous studies going back to 1996 show the Lake Vida brine and its microbial residents have had to do without outside resources that normally support life (i.e.: sunlight or oxygen) for more than 3,000 years. Despite what many would consider being an unlivable habitat, the researchers in this project found that the polar lake supports what they call a surprisingly diverse and large community of bacteria that can survive the harsh conditions.

To ensure that their samples and the microbe’s ecosystem weren’t affected or contaminated by human or other external influences, the researchers developed specialized equipment and a set of very strict procedures when they set out to retrieve them during expeditions to the Antarctic back in 2005 and 2010.

Members of the 2010 Lake Vida expedition team use a sidewinder drill inside a secure, sterile tent on the lake’s surface to collect samples for their research. (Photo: Desert Research Institute, Emanuele Kuhn)

Members of the 2010 Lake Vida expedition team use a sidewinder drill inside a secure, sterile tent on the lake’s surface to collect samples for their research. (Photo: Desert Research Institute, Emanuele Kuhn)

Regarding the high levels of nitrous oxide that was found in the lakes salty water, the scientists say that geochemical analyses are suggesting that the N2O was generated by chemical reactions between the salty water and the lake’s iron-rich sediments. The chemical reaction also produced an amount of molecular hydrogen, which the researchers say may be what has been providing the energy that was needed to sustain the community of diverse microbial life.

“It’s plausible that a life-supporting energy source exists solely from the chemical reaction between anoxic salt water and the rock,” explained co-author Dr. Christian Fritsen, also from DRI.

“If that’s the case,” Murray said, “this gives us an entirely new framework for thinking of how life can be supported in cryoecosystems on earth and in other icy worlds of the universe.”

Murray said that the scientists involved with the project are continuing their research by analyzing the non-organic components, the chemical interactions between Lake Vida brine and sediment, and by using various methods of genome sequencing, and are learning more about their rare microbial find.

They also suggested the research and findings produced for this study could also provide some help to others who conduct investigations into possible cryoecosystems that might be found in the soil, sediments, wetlands, and other lakes that lie beneath the Antarctic ice sheet.

Science Images of the Week

Posted November 21st, 2012 at 3:27 pm (UTC+0)
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After spending 4 months aboard the International Space Station, three Expedition 33 crewmembers recently returned to Earth in their Soyuz spacecraft. The spacecraft which made a rare night landing touched down in a remote area of Kazakhstan. (Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

After four months aboard the International Space Station, three Expedition 33 crewmembers returned to Earth in their Soyuz spacecraft, making a rare night landing in a remote area of Kazakhstan. (NASA)

This is a view of Antarctica’s Sheldon Glacier with Mount Barre in the background.  The photo was taken by scientists participating in a new NASA/British Antarctica Survey study that is trying to find out why Antarctic sea ice cover has increased under the effects of climate change over the past two decades. (Photo: British Antarctic Survey)

Antarctica’s Sheldon Glacier with Mount Barre in the background. This photo was taken by scientists participating in a new NASA/British Antarctica Survey studying the effects of climate change on Antarctic sea ice cover. (British Antarctic Survey)

Scientists will soon conduct experiments to hunt for one of nature's most elusive particles, "dark matter."  An important tool to be used in the experiment is the Large Underground Xenon (LUX) detector.  Here’s a top-down view of the copper photomultiplier tube mounting structure, which is a key component of the detector.  (Photo: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

The Large Underground Xenon (LUX) detector is an important tool in scientists’ search for dark matter, one of nature’s most elusive particles.  This is a top-down view of the copper photomultiplier tube mounting structure, a key component of the detector. (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

An adult female walrus sits on an ice floe and poses for photos just off the Eastern Chukchi Sea in Alaska.  (Photo: S.A. Sonsthagen/USGS)

An adult female walrus sits on an ice floe just off the Eastern Chukchi Sea in Alaska. (S.A. Sonsthagen/USGS)

NASA's Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO) was snapping pictures of the Sun recently when it erupted with two prominence eruptions, one after the other over a four-hour period.  Fortunately the expanding particle clouds heading into space weren’t directed at Earth.  (Photo: NASA)

The Sun recently experienced two prominent eruptions, which occurred one after the other over a four-hour period. Fortunately, the expanding particle clouds shooting into space weren’t directed at Earth. (NASA)

This is a view of the country side in Binghamton, NY as seen from inside a US National Weather Service radar radome (which protects radar components from the elements).  The weather radar was recently taken offline so that repairs could be made.  (Photo: NOAA/NWS)

A view of the countryside in Binghamton, NY as seen from inside a US National Weather Service radar radome (which protects radar components from the elements). The weather radar was recently taken offline so that repairs could be made. (NOAA/NWS)

This is Titan, the world’s most powerful and fastest supercomputer located at the Oakridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.  Titan has computational capability is on par with each of the world’s 7 billion people being able to carry out 3 million calculations per second.   (Photo: Oakridge National Laboratory)

Titan, the world’s most powerful and fastest supercomputer, is located at the Oakridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Titan’s computational capability is on par with each of the world’s 7 billion people being able to carry out 3 million calculations per second. (Oakridge National Laboratory)

A group of galaxies glow like fireflies on a dark night in this image snapped recently by the Hubble Space Telescope.  (Image: ESA/NASA/Hubble)

A group of galaxies glows like fireflies on a dark night in this image snapped recently by the Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA)

A cluster of lightning over the US National Severe Storms Lab Probe #2 minivan that measures weather statistics as it travels through storms.  (Photo: NOAA)

A cluster of lightning over a US National Severe Storms Lab Probe minivan which measures weather statistics as it travels through storms. (NOAA)

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Ames Laboratory are working to more effectively remove a rare earth element (group of closely related metallic elements) called neodymium from the mix of other materials in a magnet.  Here rare-earth magnet scraps are melted in a furnace with magnesium. (Photo: DOE/Ames Laboratory)

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Ames Laboratory are working to more effectively remove a rare earth element (group of closely related metallic elements) called neodymium from the mix of other materials in a magnet. Here rare-earth magnet scraps are melted in a furnace with magnesium. (DOE/Ames Laboratory)

Study: A Person’s DNA Isn’t Always Identical

Posted November 19th, 2012 at 7:48 pm (UTC+0)
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DNA structure  (Image: Michael Ströck via Wikimedia Commons)

DNA structure (Image: Michael Ströck via Wikimedia Commons)

Prevailing wisdom holds that every cell in the body contains identical DNA.

But Yale researchers say they examined skin stem cells and found a number of genetic variations in a variety of skin tissue.

The study, published in Nature, could have profound implications for genetic screening.

“We found that humans are made up of a mosaic of cells with different genomes,” said lead author Flora Vaccarino, M.D., from the Yale Child Study Center. “We saw that 30 percent of skin cells harbor copy number variations (CNV), which are segments of DNA that are deleted or duplicated. Previously it was assumed that these variations only occurred in cases of disease, such as cancer. The mosaic that we’ve seen in the skin could also be found in the blood, in the brain, and in other parts of the human body.”

It’s been long believed that all of our cells have the very same DNA sequence.

Other scientists conducting similar genetic research have theorized the DNA sequence of a cell could be modified during the cell’s development – when DNA is copied from a mother cell to a daughter cell.  These many changes to a cell’s original DNA, they say, could affect an entire group of genes.

While it’s difficult for scientists to actually test these theories, the Yale researchers say they have been able to do so for their new study.

To reach their findings, the research team used whole genome sequencing – a genome is a complete set of hereditary information – to study induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS), which are genetically engineered stem cells developed from a mature-differentiated cell.

The team grew cells taken from the inner upper arms of people from two families. For two years, the researchers examined their genetically engineered iPS cell lines, compared them to the original skin cells, and noted any differences between each cell’s DNA.

The team also conducted further experiments to see what might have caused the differences to occur.

While the research in the project outlined in this recent study was limited to finding variations in DNA sequencing within skin cells, the Yale team is continuing its studies to see if these same DNA variations can be found in developing brain cells of animals as well as humans.

Astronomers Discover Furthest Galaxy Ever

Posted November 16th, 2012 at 7:05 pm (UTC+0)
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Composite image of the newly discovered galaxy - MACS0647-JD. The inset at left shows a close-up of the young dwarf galaxy. (Photo: NASA, ESA, & M. Postman and D. Coe (STScI) and CLASH Team)

Composite image of the galaxy cluster which helped reveal the newly discovered galaxy – MACS0647-JD. The inset at left shows a close up of the young dwarf galaxy. (NASA)

Scientists have discovered what could be the oldest, most distant galaxy in the universe, thanks to a unique combination of man-made and natural telescopes.

The newly discovered galaxy, MACS0647-JD, was found by the Cluster Lensing And Supernova Survey with Hubble (CLASH).

It is about 13.3 billion light years, or 125,825,000,000,000,000,000,000 km, from Earth. Scientists are getting to see it just as it was 420 million years after the Big Bang, or when the universe was only three percent of its current age of about 13.7 billion years.

Astronomers made the discovery by combining the power of the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope and a natural zoom effect called gravitational lensing, which uses enormous galaxy clusters as interstellar telescopes to magnify distant galaxies behind them.

The effect is achieved when the light rays from the distant object are bent by the gravity of the huge galaxy clusters, just like a giant cosmic lens, that lie between the object and  Earth.

“While one occasionally expects to find an extremely distant galaxy using the tremendous power of gravitational lensing, this latest discovery has outstripped even my expectations of what would be possible with the CLASH program,” said Rychard Bouwens of Leiden University in the Netherlands, a co-author of the study that outlined the discovery. “The science output in this regard has been incredible.”

The massive galaxy cluster that’s making the distant galaxy appear brighter than it normally would, providing the natural boost to the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes, , is called MACS J0647.7+7015 and is about five billion light years away.

The Hubble in orbit above the Earth (Photo: NASA)

Hubble in orbit above the Earth (Photo: NASA)

Because of the gravitational lensing provided by the cluster, the CLASH team was able to observe three magnified images of MACS0647-JD with the Hubble.

“This cluster does what no man-made telescope can do,” said Marc Postman of the Space Telescope Science Institute, who leads the CLASH team. “Without the magnification, it would require a Herculean effort to observe this galaxy.”

The astronomers say that the distant galaxy is so small, about 600 light years across according to their observations that it may be going through its first stages formation. Our own Milky Way galaxy is about 150,000 light years across.

“This object may be one of many building blocks of a galaxy,” says Dan Coe from the Space Telescope Institute and lead author of the study.  “Over the next 13 billion years, it may have dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of merging events with other galaxies and galaxy fragments.”

The galaxy could turn out to be too far away for astronomers to confirm its distance with any of the current available technology.  But once the new James Webb Space Telescope launches in 2018, astronomers expect to be able to take a definitive measurement of its distance and to study the properties of the galaxy in more detail.

MACS0647-JD, is very young and only a tiny fraction of the size of our Milky Way. The object is observed 420 million years after the big bang.   (Video: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI))

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