A permafrost microbe has been discovered growing at –15°C, the coldest temperature ever reported for bacterial growth.
Researchers said they found the living strain of bacteria growing in the extreme cold of the permafrost, which may offer insight into possibilities of life existing beyond Earth.
The bacterium, Planococcus halocryophilus OR1, not only survives, but thrives in the permanently frozen sub-soil. Finding the microbe in the briny conditions of the Arctic could provide some hints about what it would take for microbial life to survive in conditions found on the Saturn moon, Enceladus, or Mars, where similar frigid conditions are thought to exist.
The researchers examined about 200 separate types of microbes from the high Arctic before they found the microorganism that was best adapted to the harsh conditions of the Arctic permafrost.
”We believe that this bacterium lives in very thin veins of very salty water found within the frozen permafrost on Ellesmere Island,” said McGill professor Lyle Whyte who co-led the research team. “The salt in the permafrost brine veins keeps the water from freezing at the ambient permafrost temperature creating a habitable but very harsh environment. It’s not the easiest place to survive but this organism is capable of remaining active to at least -25ºC in permafrost.”
To make their discovery, the research team studied the genomic sequence and other molecular characteristics of the P. halocryophilus OR1 microbe. The researchers found the bacterium adapts quite well to its bitter cold and salty environment, thanks to significant adjustments in its cell structure and function, as well as having increased amounts of cold-adapted proteins. Some of these cellular modifications also include changes to the membranes that envelop the microbe and protect it from its hostile environment.
After studying the microbe’s genome sequence, the scientists also discovered the bacterium is unusual in other ways; it seems to have the ability to maintain high levels of compounds within the bacterial cell that act like molecular antifreeze, keeping the microorganism from not only from freezing solid but protects it from the salty environment.
“I’m kind of proud of this bug. It comes from the Canadian High Arctic and is our cold temperature champion, but what we can learn from this microbe may tell us a lot about how similar microbial life may exist elsewhere in the solar system,” said research co-leader Nadia Mykytczuk.
The researchers agree concerned with one possibly troubling aspect of the microbe. They think the living microorganisms can harm the bitter cold environment of areas such as the high Arctic by increasing the amount of carbon dioxide emissions from the permafrost which is now melting due to what many scientists believe is global warming.
Humans have built-in biological sonar similar to bats and dolphins that could lead to a better quality of life for blind people and the visually impaired.
The international study suggests people have the ability to use echoes, or echolocation, a skill some animals use to detect and find objects. Developing this ability could promote increased independence for the blind and visually impaired.
The study, published in Hearing Research, looked at how the ability to hear echoes could help the blind with spatial awareness and navigation. Researchers also examined the impact hearing impairment has on echolocation as well as how to optimize a person’s echolocation capabilities.
Using a technique called virtual auditory space, which creates sounds that simulate movement, the researchers from the University of Southampton and the University of Cyprus, conducted a series of experiments with sighted and blind subjects.
“We wanted to determine unambiguously whether blind people, and perhaps even sighted people, can use echoes from an object to determine roughly where the object is located. We also wanted to figure out what factors facilitate and restrict people’s abilities to use echoes for this purpose in order to know how to enhance ability in the real world,” said Daniel Rowan, the study’s lead author.
The researchers found that, as long as they have good hearing, both those with and without sight have the potential to use echoes to locate objects, even if they have no previous experience with echolocation. The study found that individuals must be able to hear high-frequency sounds – above 2 kHz – to effectively use echolocation.
“Some people are better at this than others, and being blind doesn’t automatically confer good echolocation ability, though we don’t yet know why,” said Rowan. “Nevertheless, ability probably gets even better with extensive experience and feedback.”
Rowan also adds, “We also found that our ability to use echoes to locate an object gets rapidly worse with increasing distance from the object, especially when the object is not directly facing us. While our experiments purposely removed any influence of head movement, doing so might help extend ability to farther distances. Furthermore, some echo-producing sounds are better for determining where an object is than others, and the best sounds for locating an object probably aren’t the same as for detecting the object or determining what, and how far away, the object is.”
The study authors plan to extend their research to explore the use of echolocation to find objects in three-dimensional spaces.
They also want to examine why some blind people appear to be better at using this technique than others, including people who can see.
A malfunction could force an abrupt end to the Kepler Space Telescope’s planet-hunting mission.
NASA received the unwelcome news last Sunday after discovering Kepler had malfunctioned and is currently operating in a self-protective “safe-mode” as it also did earlier this month. The US space agency made the news public this past Wednesday.
It appears at least one of Kepler’s four reaction wheels―onboard devices that precisely aim its telescopic instruments―is not working properly. Kepler needs at least three of the positioning devices to keep its aim true, allowing it to continue its mission, according to NASA.
Launched in 2009, Kepler was designed specifically to hunt for Earth-like planets that may support life elsewhere in the Universe. It has revolutionized the study of extrasolar, or exoplanets, and has discovered about 130 worlds circling distant stars. Nearly 2,700 potential planets are still awaiting confirmation.
NASA scientists and technicians are working on ways to either repair Kepler’s malfunctioning devices, or to develop alternate methods to keep the spacecraft properly oriented. If their efforts are unsuccessful, Kepler’s mission could end far sooner than planned.
NASA officials insist they won’t give up on the space telescope until it can no longer perform useful science.
Unlike the days when it could simply dispatch a space shuttle mission whenever the Hubble Space Telescope needed repairs, NASA must make the repairs and correct the problem by remote control from Earth.
The reason is because, unlike Hubble which is in Earth Orbit, Kepler is in orbit with the Sun and is about 65 million kilometers from Earth, or about the distance to Mars. That distance makes it impossible to send a manned or even unmanned repair mission to fix the ailing spacecraft.
However, there are two possible ways to salvage the spacecraft, according to Scott Hubbard, a former NASA official who helped guide Kepler throughout much of its building stage and is now a consulting professor at Stanford University.
“One is that they could try turning back on the reaction wheel that they shut off a year ago,” he said. “It was putting metal on metal, and the friction was interfering with its operation, so you could see if the lubricant that is in there, having sat quietly, has redistributed itself, and maybe it will work.”
The other scheme, which has never been tried, according to Hubbard, involves using thrusters and the solar pressure exerted on the solar panels to try and act as a third reaction wheel and provide additional pointing stability.
“I haven’t investigated it,” Hubbard said, “but my impression is that it would require sending a lot more operational commands to the spacecraft.”
There seems to be little possibility that Kepler could continue to make useful observations of the cosmos, conducting experiments that perhaps wouldn’t depend on it having to precisely aim its instruments
“People have asked about using it to find near-Earth objects, or asteroids,” Hubbard said. “Kepler carries a photometer, not a camera, that looks at the brightness of stars, and so its optics deliberately defocus light from stars to create a nice spread of light on the detector, which is not ideal for spotting asteroids.”
Hubbard said that since the space telescope wasn’t built as a camera, using Kepler as an asteroid detector will need to be studied.
Meanwhile as repair and workaround solutions are being sought, the Kepler team’s priority right now is to complete preparations to put the spacecraft into a resting state similar to hibernation that minimizes fuel usage while providing a continuous X-band downlink. The X-band is a set of microwave frequencies and portions of it have been set aside to be used exclusively for deep space telecommunications.
The software required to do this was uploaded to the spacecraft last week.
Last summer, higher-than-normal temperatures caused surface melting across about 97 percent of the ice sheet.
Scientists expect the robot to detect the layer of the sheet, which is buried beneath two miles of ice, that formed after last year’s extreme melt event.
The space agency plans to test its new prototype robot rover called GROVER, an acronym for both Greenland Rover and Goddard Remotely Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research, through June 8, when it sets off from the National Science Foundation’s research station called Summit Camp.
GROVER was built by students who took part in Goddard’s summer engineering boot camps in 2010 and 2011, who told Koenig they wanted to build a rover to help her study snow accumulation on ice sheets.
NASA describes GROVER, which stands nearly two meters tall, as tank-like in appearance. The robot weighs about 383 kilograms and will be able to crawl across the icy terrain at an average speed of two kilometers an hour on a pair of re-purposed snowmobile tracks.
The solar panels mounted on GROVER form an inverted V. This unique configuration allows the panels to collect energy from the sun as well as from sunlight reflected off the ice sheet.
The sun never goes down during the Arctic summer, so GROVER will be able to constantly refuel, allowing it to work longer, gathering more information than perhaps a human riding on a snowmobile.
And, since it’s solely powered by the sun, the rover should operate in the unspoiled polar environment without polluting the air and environment.
GROVER has other advantages. NASA expects to save money since the polar rovers cost less than the aircraft and satellites usually used to gather data.
In June, GROVER will get a partner, another robot called Cool Robot, which was developed at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. NASA says the National Science Foundation-funded rover will be able to tow a variety of instrument packages needed to conduct glaciological and atmospheric sampling studies.
Watch this NASA video to see GROVER in action (NASA)
The World’s Smallest Stop-action Movie (IBM)
Bigger is often better in Hollywood, but IBM is drawing lots of attention for making the smallest movie ever.
A Boy and His Atom is a stop-motion, animated movie made with thousands of precisely positioned atoms in nearly 250 motion picture frames. The folks at Guinness World Records® verified that it’s the smallest stop-action movie ever made.
The storyline, set to a lively musical track, follows a boy who makes friends with a single atom. Together, they go on a spirited journey that has them dancing, playing catch with each other, and bouncing on a trampoline.
IBM says its little movie is a unique way of conveying science outside the research community.
“Capturing, positioning and shaping atoms to create an original motion picture on the atomic-level is a precise science and entirely novel,” said Andreas Heinrich, principle investigator at IBM Research. “At IBM, researchers don’t just read about science, we do it. This movie is a fun way to share the atomic-scale world while opening up a dialogue with students and others on the new frontiers of math and science.”
The atoms in the animation were manipulated with an IBM-invented, award-winning scanning tunneling microscope.
“This Nobel Prize winning tool was the first device that enabled scientists to visualize the world all the way down to single atoms,” said Christopher Lutz, a scientist with IBM Research. “It weighs two tons, operates at a temperature of negative 268 degrees Celsius and magnifies the atomic surface over 100 million times. The ability to control the temperature, pressure and vibrations at exact levels makes our IBM Research lab one of the few places in the world where atoms can be moved with such precision.”
Researchers used a standard computer to remotely operate the microscope, manipulating a super-sharp needle that hovered about one nanometer, or one billionth of a meter, above a copper surface, which allowed the scientists to “feel” the atoms.
At such a minute distance, the needle was able to physically attract atoms and molecules on the surface and then move them to precisely specified locations on the surface.
According to IBM, the moving atom makes a unique sound that is critical feedback in determining how many positions it’s actually moved.
The scientists created and photographed 242 still images of stop-action motion with the nearly 10,000 individually placed atoms. Those photos were then rendered into a video that’s about a minute and eight seconds long.
The IBM researchers created the film in part to demonstrate technology that could be used in the future to create computer storage systems, based on atomic-scale memory, that would be capable of storing massive amounts of data.
Although the voice on the restored recording sounds a bit faint with some hiss and noise in the background, it is now possible to hear Bell speak for the first time. Before the restored recordings were made available, no one knew what the inventor sounded like.
The sound of the inventor’s voice comes from the National Museum of American History‘s collection of 200 recordings from Bell’s Volta Laboratory that are among some of the earliest sound recordings ever made.
Researchers also found a loose piece of paper containing what appears to be a written transcript of Bell’s recording.
The transcript, which is signed by Bell, ends with the words, “in witness whereof, hear my voice, Alexander Graham Bell.”
It was paired with a recently identified “wax-on-binder-board disc” with the initials “AGB” and the same date, April 15, 1885, etched into its surface.
The recording was made using a non-invasive optical sound recovery process on Library of Congress equipment that was developed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The researchers were able to positively identify Bell’s voice by matching the audio on the old disc with the written transcript.
“Identifying the voice of Alexander Graham Bell—the man who brought us everyone else’s voice—is a major moment in the study of history,” said John Gray, director of the museum. “Not only will this discovery allow us to further identify recordings in our collection, it enriches what we know about the late 1800s—who spoke, what they said, how they said it—and this formative period for experimentation in sound.”
Along with identifying the inventor’s voice, the museum also identified the voice of Bell’s father, Alexander Melville Bell, from a wax-coated drum recording made in September 1881.
Partially quoting Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the elder Bell said on the recording, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.” He went on to say, “I am a graphophone, and my mother was a phonograph.”
In 1881, concerned about a possible patent war with rival inventors, Alexander Graham Bell placed the recording, along with the machine that made the recording, at the Smithsonian so that they could be used as proof in the event of any litigation.
In 2002, the Lawrence Berkeley Lab came up with the idea of using a non-invasive optical technique to scan and recover sounds.
The unique sound recovery process makes a high-resolution digital map of the disc or, in many cases, a cylinder. This map then goes through further processing to remove skips, scratches and other noises. Finally, the system uses special software that calculates the motion of a stylus moving through the disc or cylinder’s grooves, reproducing the audio and saving it as a standard digital sound file.
The continuing effort to recover and restore Bell’s old Volta discs is part of an ongoing project to preserve and catalog the museum’s collection of early recordings, while also increasing public access to the collection’s contents.
The Smithsonian says that the content of these old recordings, and the distinctive old physical discs and cylinders, provide unique insight into the invention process of these 19th-century labs and speech patterns of the late 19th century.
Smithsonian video with the restored sound of Bell’s voice and accompanying written transcript
Its creators, from the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) and Northwestern University, wanted a better understanding of how these animals use their flippers and fins to move on surfaces like sand.
Flipperbot, which is 19 centimeters long and weighs 790 grams, crawls by using two flipper-like front limbs that span about 40 centimeters. To power the turtle-like robot, each of its limbs is equipped with small servo motors with thin, lightweight flippers attached to the end.
Flipperbot could also help scientists gain a better understanding of how structures like fins and flippers evolved when fish-like animals moved from the water onto land several hundred million years ago.
To better understand the mechanics of flipper-based movement on land Daniel Goldman from the Georgia Tech team said that his group, before designing Flipperbot, to better understand the mechanics of flipper-based movement on land, researchers studied how hatchling sea turtles propelled themselves from their nests on sandy beaches into the sea.
“Flipperbot allowed us to explore aspects of the sea turtle’s gait and structure that were challenging, if not impossible, to investigate in field experiments using actual animals,” said Goldman.
The researchers realized the advantages of a free moving wrist, instead of a fixed wrist, at the end of the flipper. When fitted with a free wrist, Flipperbot moved much more effectively over the ground while not disturbing much surface material as it propelled itself forward.
“With a fixed wrist, the robot also interacts with the ground that has already been disturbed by its previous steps, which hinders its movement,” Goldman said.
Video of “Flipperbot” in action (Institute of Physics)
The researchers tested Flipperbot on a 122-centimeter-long bed of poppy seeds and recorded its movements with a high-speed digital camera.
The study’s co-author, Nicole Mazouchova, also from Georgia Tech, believes further robot testing could help in turtle conservation biology.
“The natural beach habitat of hatchling sea turtles is endangered by human activity,” she said. “Robot modeling can provide us with a tool to test environmental characteristics of the beach and implement efforts for conservation.”