Obesity Found to Age the Liver Faster

Posted October 13th, 2014 at 6:59 pm (UTC+0)
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The patterns of the figures provides a microscopic view of liver cells from lean (left  and obese subjects (right), respectively. (UCLA)

The patterns of the figures provides a microscopic view of liver cells from lean (left and obese subjects (right), respectively. (UCLA)

U.S. and German scientists have found, for the first time, that obesity significantly quickens the aging process of the liver and have revealed that carrying excessive weight can negatively impact certain human tissues.

While scientists have suspected that obesity does play a significant role in aging a person faster the American/German team said that their research marked the first time they were able to prove the concept.

The international team’s findings have been published today by the journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers used an ‘epigenetic clock’, which is a unique age prediction method developed in 2013 by Steve Horvath, a professor of human genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).   Horvath is also first author of the PNAS study.

“This is the first study that evaluated the effect of body weight on the biological ages of a variety of human tissues,” Horvath said in a press release.  “Given the obesity epidemic in the Western world, the results of this study are highly relevant for public health.”

The aging clock has been shown to precisely measure the age of a variety of human tissues, organs and cell types, by employing a time-keeping device that had been previously unknown.

In developing his ‘epigenetic clock’ Horvath and his colleagues focused on a naturally occurring process called methylation, which is a chemical modification of the DNA molecule.

Body Mass Index - BMI Chart (National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute)

Body Mass Index – BMI Chart (National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute)

To reach their findings in this study and examine the connection between increased body weight and epigenetic acceleration, the US and German scientists worked with and used Horvath’s aging clock method on almost 1,200 human tissue samples, 140 of which were liver samples.

The researchers found that the aging clock was quite accurate and was able to match the biological age with the chronological age of liver tissue samples taken from subjects with little body fat.

On the other hand, the scientists found that liver tissues taken from subjects who were obese had a tendency of having a higher biological age than their chronological age than they had expected.

While they found that obesity has no affect the epigenetic age of human tissues such as fat, muscle or blood, Horvath and his colleagues found that the epigenetic age of the liver, on average, increased by 3.3 years for every 10 units of Body Mass Index (BMI).

In their published study the researchers gave an example by comparing the biogenetic age of the liver of a 1.65 meter tall woman who weighs 63.5 kg, with a BMI of 23.3 with another woman who of the same height, but instead weighs 27.1 additional kg and a body mass index of 33.3.

This figure overlays aging clocks on the Vitruvian man created by Leonardo da Vinci circa 1490. This diagram illustrates the epigenetic clock (also known as biological aging clock), which can be used to measure the age of different parts of the human body. (Steve Horvath via Wikimedia Commons)

This figure overlays aging clocks on the Vitruvian man created by Leonardo da Vinci circa 1490. This diagram illustrates the epigenetic clock (also known as biological aging clock), which can be used to measure the age of different parts of the human body. (Steve Horvath via Wikimedia Commons)

Horvath and his team found that the heavier woman’s liver would be about three years older than the woman who weighed less.

“This does not sound like a lot, but it is actually a very strong effect,” Horvath said. “For some people, the age acceleration due to obesity will be much more severe, even up to 10 years older.”

The researchers also found that overweight or obese people who had rapidly lost weight with measures such as bariatric surgery were unable, at least in the short term, to reverse the accelerated aging process in the liver.

Horvath said that he and his colleagues will continue their work to find if this obesity driven early-onset aging of the liver could be prevented and if the risk of diabetes and liver cancer could also be avoided.

The researchers said that their findings not only support previously held theories that obesity plays a role with the accelerated aging effects of the human body and is yet another important reason for people to maintain a healthy weight.

New Treatment in Fight Against Antibiotic-Resistant Infections Shows Promise

Posted October 6th, 2014 at 7:43 pm (UTC+0)
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Antibiotics (PublicDomainPictures)

Antibiotics (PublicDomainPictures)

Researchers in New York say their new ‘programmable antibiotic’ treatment that fights dangerous bacterial infections without harming other more benign or even helpful microbes shows promise.

The technique could also some day prove to be a useful tool in the fight against the growing global health threat of antimicrobial resistance

In a study published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, the scientists outlined a new treatment technique that will allow antibiotics to be customized and specially programmed to go after bad germs without harming the good bacteria that help our bodies function properly.

“In experiments, we succeeded in instructing a bacterial enzyme, known as Cas9, to target a particular DNA sequence and cut it up,” said lead researcher Luciano Marraffini, head of Rockefeller University’s Laboratory of Bacteriology in a press release.

“This selective approach leaves the healthy microbial community intact, and our experiments suggest that by doing so you can keep resistance in check and so prevent certain types of secondary infections, eliminating two serious hazards associated with treatment by classical antibiotics,” said Marrafini.

Traditional antibiotics go after harmful bacteria with such force that they often take out many of the “good microbes” while attacking the “bad microbes”.

Bacteria can mutate in a way that lets them develop an immunity to standard antibiotic treatments.  As a result, medical science has been developing stronger and stronger medications to fight these mutating microbes.

To seek out and destroy certain DNA sequences in harmful bacteria, but leave others alone, the researchers adopted an immunity system, called CRISPR – Clustered Regularly Interspace Short Palindromic Repeats – that bacteria use to protect themselves.

Rockefeller University researchers colonized mouse skin with a mix of bacterial cells, some resistant to the antibiotic kanamycin. They made the resistant cells glow (left) and treated the mix with an enzyme that targeted and killed off most resistant cells (right). (Marraffini Lab and Fischetti Lab/Nature Biotechnology)

Rockefeller University researchers colonized mouse skin with a mix of bacterial cells, some resistant to the antibiotic kanamycin. They made the resistant cells glow (left) and treated the mix with an enzyme that targeted and killed off most resistant cells (right). (Marraffini Lab and Fischetti Lab/Nature Biotechnology)

Contained within these CRISPR systems are some unique genetic sequences called spacers that match up with the sequences found in intruding viruses.

Among the enzymes that are linked with the system is the CRISPR associated protein 9 or Cas9 enzyme.

The New York research team was able to send the Cas9 enzyme to locate and destroy a target within a particular strain of a harmful bacteria by engineering the CRISPR spacer sequences so that it matched the “bad microbe’s” genes.

These engineered sequences, along with Cas9 enzyme, were inserted into a cell of a “bad microbe”.  Once inside, the combination causes the cell to turn on its own immunity system.  Depending on where its target was located within the cell, the Cas9 could wipe out the target gene or destroy the cell itself.

The researchers also found that in some instances, this type of treatment could prevent a harmful microbe from developing any resistance at all.

“We previously showed that if Cas9 is programmed with a target from a bacterial genome, it will kill the bacteria. Building on that work, we selected guide sequences that enabled us to selectively kill a particular strain of microbe from within a mixed population,” says first author David Bikard, a former Rockefeller postdoctoral research who is now at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.

To help reach their findings, the researchers conducted three sets of experiments.

The first involved a common skin and respiratory microbe that can resist the antibiotic kanamycin.  In this situation, the Cas9 targeted and killed the antibiotic resistant portion of the bacteria, leaving the rest to be destroyed by the kanamycin antibiotic.

Scanning electron micrograph of Staphylococcus. aureus; false color added. (CDC)

Scanning electron micrograph of Staphylococcus. aureus; false color added. (CDC)

In the second set of experiments the researchers sent the Cas9 after some tetracycline-resistant elements in a strain of potentially deadly bacteria known as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA.  The Cas9 treatment in this case not only allowed the bacteria to again be vulnerable to tetracycline again, but it also set up other staph cells to act as a form of immunization that prevented the bacteria from adopting elements that made it resistant to antibiotics.

In the third and final set of tests the researchers used the Cas9 to selectively destroy antibiotic resistant staph infections from the shaved backs of mice.

The researchers said that although their work produced promising results, the delivery method used to carry out this new treatment needs further improvement.

Unique Carbon-Based Molecule Found in Deep Space May Indicate Origins of Life

Posted October 3rd, 2014 at 8:02 pm (UTC+0)
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Milky Way above the antennas at the ALMA Observatory in Chile ((c) Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO

Milky Way above the antennas at the ALMA Observatory in Chile ((c) Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO

Astronomers from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, and the University of Cologne found an unusual carbon-based molecule called isopropyl cyanide in a gas cloud some 27,000 light years away.

Those involved with the discovery say the finding suggests the type of complex molecules needed for life may have their origins deep in interstellar space.

“We think that detecting this molecule in particular will serve as a new frontier in the degree of complexity that we can find from molecules in space,” said research team member Dr. Rob Garrod from Cornell University’s Center for Radiophysics and Space Research.

While a large majority of molecules detected in space so far have carbon in them, what makes this new interstellar molecule discovery unique, according to the researchers, is its structure and size.

The astronomers say it’s the largest molecule ever found in similar star-forming areas of space.

Also, other carbon-based molecules found in similar environments tend to have their carbon atoms arranged in a single straight chain. The bit of isopropyl cyanide found in this discovery has its carbon atoms arranged in a more complex branched structure.

Milky Way's Galactic Center and Sagittarius B2 as seen by the ATLASGAL survey ((c) ESO/APEX & MSX/IPAC/NASA)

Milky Way’s Galactic Center and Sagittarius B2 as seen by the ATLASGAL survey ((c) ESO/APEX & MSX/IPAC/NASA)

Scientists say that molecules that contain branched carbon structures, such as those contained within isopropyl cyanide, are quite common in materials like amino acids, which are key ingredients that are needed for life.

The researchers believe their new discovery backs up a theory that molecules crucial for the existence of life may have been delivered to planets in objects such as meteorites.  These celestial objects are thought to have been produced in the early stages of a star’s formation, before the creation of other solar system bodies such as planets.

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA radio-telescope, located high in the mountains of northern Chile, the U.S. and German astronomers discovered the molecule by picking up on the radio waves it transmits from deep space.

Garrod explained that he and his colleagues aimed the radio antenna dishes of ALMA toward areas of space where stars are forming and were able to detect radio signals produced by various molecules.

Each type of molecule produces radio signals at very specific frequencies.

It’s not uncommon for radio astronomers to detect dozens or even hundreds of emissions, all at different frequencies, said Garrod.

He pointed out that scientists sometimes have a bit of trouble zeroing in on the radio emission of one particular molecule. With so many different kinds of molecules in the star-forming regions of space, there’s a virtual cacophony of varied radio signals being produced.

Rob Garrod, Cornell senior research associate at the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research (Lindsay France/Cornell University)

Rob Garrod, Cornell senior research associate at the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research (Lindsay France/Cornell University)

These numerous and different signals tend to overlap each other, which often distorts and sometimes cancels out the reception of a particular molecule’s radio emission.

The astronomers found the isopropyl cyanide molecule in a huge cloud of gas and dust called Sagittarius B2, located in the constellation Sagittarius, close to the galactic center of our galaxy, the Milky Way.

Garrod said this region of space is known for being particularly rich in complex organic or carbon-bearing molecules, which is why he and his colleagues are so interested in looking for these types of molecules in space.

“We think that, eventually, these molecules that are formed in space, will eventually be incorporated into new planetary systems and may ultimately be delivered to the surfaces of planets which presumably could impact the ultimate emergence of life on those planets,” said Garrod.

The researchers described their findings in a recent edition of the journal Science.

Dr. Rob Garrod talks about his team’s discovery on this weekend’s radio edition of Science World.  You can hear the interview in the player below or you can check out the entire Science World radio program.  Program air-times and an audio feed can be found in the right hand column.

Science Scanner: Gravity Dip & Ice Loss Linked, Settling an Scientific Argument, Powerful Solar Flares Found on Mini-Star, Dolphins May Like Magnets

Posted October 1st, 2014 at 8:01 pm (UTC+0)
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A combination of data from ESA’s GOCE mission and NASA’s Grace satellites shows the changes in Earth’s gravity field resulting from loss of ice from West Antarctica between November 2009 and June 2012. (DGFI/Planetary Visions)

A combination of data from ESA’s GOCE mission and NASA’s Grace satellites shows the changes in Earth’s gravity field resulting from loss of ice from West Antarctica between November 2009 and June 2012. (DGFI/Planetary Visions)

Drop in Gravity Field Over West Antarctic Linked with Ice Loss

A group of German, Dutch and U.S. scientists who analyzed high-resolution satellite data from November 2009 until January 2012 found a drop in the gravity field over West Antarctica, which according to various reports has also experienced record ice loss.

The researchers studied data gathered by the European Space Agency’s Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer – GOCE.

The scientists believe that the dip in gravity and ice loss is related, since they found that the reduction in ice mass throughout the study period was also reflected in GOCE’s gravity measurements.

Various factors such as our planet’s rotation and the location of geological features like mountains and ocean trenches as well as changes in the mass of large ice sheet – such as those in West Antarctica – can slightly vary Earth’s gravity from location to location.

 

A graphic from 1885-1886 that illustrates evolution of limbs into wings (Wikimedia Commons)

A graphic from 1885-1886 that illustrates evolution of limbs into wings (Wikimedia Commons)

Chilean Scientists Work to Resolve A Dispute Between Two Different Fields of Scientific Study

Scientists from the University of Chile writing in the journal PLOS Biology are hoping that they have settled a dispute between developmental biologists and palaeontologists by combining the approaches of each scientific discipline.

As dinosaurs evolved into birds over the course of millions of years, the wrists of the animals went from being straight to becoming bent and hyperflexible, a characteristic that allows birds to fold their wings against their bodies when not flying.

It’s thought that the early dinosaur ancestors of today’s bird had as many as nine wrist bones which were reduced to four as evolution kicked in and the animals became birds.

What the two groups of scientists disagreed about is which four of the nine original wrist bones modern birds kept.

Hopefully this combination of approaches will satisfy scientists from both fields of study.

 

Artist rendering of the series of powerful solar flares that were observed blasting from one of the two Red dwarfs in the DG CVn binary star system. (NASA)

Artist rendering of the series of powerful solar flares that were observed blasting from one of the two Red dwarfs in the DG CVn binary star system. (NASA)

NASA Satellite Finds Unusual Series of Solar Flares on Neighboring Red Dwarf

NASA recently announced that this past April 23rd, the space agency’s Swift satellite found what it describes as the strongest, hottest, and longest-lasting sequence of solar flares ever seen from a nearby red dwarf star.

“We used to think major flaring episodes from red dwarfs lasted no more than a day, but Swift detected at least seven powerful eruptions over a period of about two weeks,” said Stephen Drake, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Scientists reported that the solar flare discharge from one of pair of red dwarfs in the DG CVn binary star system began with what NASA called a ‘record-setting series of explosions’ was found to be about 10,000 more powerful than the largest solar flare ever recorded.

According to the NASA scientists, the temperatures of this ‘record breaking flare’ peaked at 200 million degrees Celsius, is more than 12 times hotter than the center of the sun.

 

One of the six bottlenose dolphins that were observed in the French Study (Planète Sauvage, France)One of the six bottlenose dolphins that were observed in the French Study (Planète Sauvage, France)

One of the six bottlenose dolphins that were observed in the French Study (Planète Sauvage, France)

Are Dolphins Attracted to Magnets?

French scientists found that dolphins may be magnetoreceptive, with an attraction to magnets or objects that have been magnetized.

A study conducted by scientists at France’s University of Rennes noticed that dolphins found swimming near magnetized objects tend to behave differently than when swimming in an environment without magnets.

The scientists studied six bottlenose dolphins in the dolphinarium located at the Planète Sauvage (Wild Planet) safari park near Port-Saint-Père, France.

To make their findings the scientists randomly placed either a magnetic or non-magnetic barrel in one the four dolphinarium pools.  The barrels were identical in appearance. Throughout a number of experimental periods, all six dolphins were free to swim into the pool and interact with the barrel.  The researchers recorded the experiment sessions on videotape and later analyzed the reaction of each of the dolphins to the barrels.

The study has been published in a recent edition of the journal, Naturwissenschaften (The Science of Nature).

Science Images for September, 2014

Posted September 29th, 2014 at 7:23 pm (UTC+0)
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The colorful fish (Pterophyllum Scalare var.) glowing in this aquarium have been genetically-engineered.   The fish were on display from September 12th through September 15th at the 2014 Taiwan Aquarium Expo in Taipei September 12, 2014.  (Reuters)

The colorful fish (Pterophyllum Scalare var.) glowing in this aquarium have been genetically-engineered. The fish were on display from September 12th through September 15th at the 2014 Taiwan Aquarium Expo in Taipei September 12, 2014. (Reuters)

The Soyuz TMA-14M rocket carrying three new crewmembers to the International Space Station launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Friday, Sept. 26, 2014. (NASA, Aubrey Gemignani)

The Soyuz TMA-14M rocket carrying three new crewmembers to the International Space Station launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Friday, Sept. 26, 2014. (NASA, Aubrey Gemignani)

Japan’s Mount Ontake erupted on Saturday, September 27, 2014.  Here you can see smoke rising from the volcano, located in central Japan.  On Sunday, September 28, 2014, local officials and media said that four hikers were confirmed dead and an additional 27 bodies had been found on the mountain. (Reuters/Kyodo)

Japan’s Mount Ontake erupted on Saturday, September 27, 2014. Here you can see smoke rising from the volcano, located in central Japan. On Sunday local officials and media said that four hikers were confirmed dead and an additional 27 bodies had been found on the mountain. (Reuters/Kyodo)

The sun-powered Solar Impulse 2 aircraft during a training flight at its base in Payerne, Switzerland on September 27, 2014.  The solar plane will attempt an around the world flight in March 2015 from Abu Dhabi. (Reuters)

Here’s the sun-powered Solar Impulse 2 aircraft during a training flight near its base in Payerne, Switzerland on September 27, 2014. The solar plane will attempt an around the world flight in March 2015 from Abu Dhabi. (Reuters)

A man attending the opening of the second annual Bulletproof Biohacking Conference tries out a gyro device on September 26, 2014.  The conference being held in California features innovative technology that optimizes a human’s mental and physical performance. (Reuters)

A man attending the opening of the second annual Bulletproof Biohacking Conference tries out a gyro device on September 26, 2014. The conference being held in California features innovative technology that optimizes a human’s mental and physical performance. (Reuters)

These parabolic mirrors are tracking the sun at a research facility in Israel’s Negev desert on September 9, 2014. The solar power company Brenmiller Energy said that their unique new system of parabolic mirrors can provide a more efficient way to store heat from the sun and will allow thermal solar power i plants to run at full capacity both during the day and at night. (Reuters)

These parabolic mirrors are tracking the sun at a research facility in Israel’s Negev desert on September 9, 2014. The solar power company Brenmiller Energy said their unique new system of parabolic mirrors can provide a more efficient way to store heat from the sun and will allow thermal solar power plants to run at full capacity both during the day and at night. (Reuters)

Here’s a look of the powerful engines of the Soyuz-FG booster rocket that ferried a new crew to the International Space Station on September 26, 2014.  The photo was taken at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, on Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. (NASA, Aubrey Gemignani)

Here’s a look of the powerful engines of the Soyuz-FG booster rocket that ferried a new crew to the International Space Station.. The photo was taken at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, on Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. (NASA, Aubrey Gemignani)

This set of giant panda triplets, were born recently with the help of artificial insemination at the Chimelong Safari Park in Guangzhou, Guangdong province.  The trio of baby pandas opened their eyes on September 19, 2014. (Reuters)

This set of giant panda triplets were conceived with the help of artificial insemination at the Chimelong Safari Park in Guangzhou, Guangdong province. The trio of baby pandas opened their eyes on September 19, 2014. (Reuters)

NASA, astronaut Randy Bresnik prepares to enter The Boeing Company's CST-100 spacecraft for a fit check evaluation on Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014.  Both Bresnik and fellow astronaut Serena Aunon spent four hours testing their maneuverability in the spacecraft at Boeing’s Houston facility. (NASA)

NASA, astronaut Randy Bresnik prepares to enter The Boeing Company’s CST-100 spacecraft for a fit check evaluation on Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014. Both Bresnik and fellow astronaut Serena Aunon spent four hours testing their maneuverability in the spacecraft at Boeing’s Houston facility. (NASA)

Meet the "Murata Cheerleaders", the latest concept robots from Japan's Murata Manufacturing Co.  The team of cheerleading robots, seen here at an unveiling event in Tokyo on September 25, 2014, use the latest sensing and communication technology to balance on balls and synchronize as a team. (Reuters/Yuya Shino)

Meet the “Murata Cheerleaders”, the latest concept robots from Japan’s Murata Manufacturing Co. The team of cheerleading robots, seen here at an unveiling event in Tokyo on September 25, 2014, use the latest sensing and communication technology to balance on balls and synchronize as a team. (Reuters/Yuya Shino)

This is an extreme ultra-violet wavelength image of a powerful X1.6 class solar flare, which can be seen in the middle of the sun.  This image captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) on at 1745 UTC on Sept. 10, 2014. (NASA)

This is an extreme ultra-violet wavelength image of a powerful X1.6 class solar flare, which can be seen in the middle of the sun. This image was captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) on at 1745 UTC on Sept. 10, 2014. (NASA)

In a photo taken on September 29, 2014, this is the ‘Corpse Flower’ otherwise known as the Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum) in bloom at Switzerland’s Botanical Garden at the University of Basel.  The Corpse Flower, one of the world's largest and rare tropical flowering plants, got its nickname from the incredibly strong and foul odor it emits.  After blooming for only a couple of days, the plant then wilts and dies. (Reuters)

In a photo taken on September 29, 2014, this is the ‘Corpse Flower’ otherwise known as the Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum) is seen blooming at Switzerland’s Botanical Garden at the University of Basel. The Corpse Flower, one of the world’s largest and rare tropical flowering plants, got its nickname from the incredibly strong and foul odor it emits. After blooming for only a couple of days, the plant wilts and dies. (Reuters)

This is the primary landing site on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko that was selected by the European Space Agency for its Philae lander.  The photo was taken by the Rosetta spacecraft on September 21, 2014.  Before picking this location, known to ESA scientists as ‘landing site J’, the space agency had considered a number of other touch down spots for its lander that is scheduled to be sent  down to the comet by the Rosetta in November 2014. (© ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM)

This is a close-up of the primary landing site on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko that was selected by the European Space Agency for its Philae lander. The photo was taken by the Rosetta spacecraft on September 21, 2014. Before picking this location, known to ESA scientists as ‘landing site J’, the space agency had considered a number of other touch down spots for its lander that is scheduled to be sent down to the comet by the Rosetta in November 2014. (© ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM)

A scientist counts male and female genetically modified aedes aegypti mosquito pupae with a microscope at a laboratory in Panama City, on Sept. 26, 2014. Scientists recently released these genetically modified mosquitos in Panama to fight and control populations of this species of mosquitoes, which transmit dengue. (AP)

A scientist counts male and female genetically modified aedes aegypti mosquito pupae with a microscope at a laboratory in Panama City, on Sept. 26, 2014. Scientists recently released these genetically modified mosquitoes in Panama to fight and control populations of the mosquitoes, which transmit dengue. (AP)

NASA's DHC-3 Otter plane surveys mountain glaciers in Alaska as a part of Operation IceBridge-Alaska on September 18, 2014.  Operation IceBridge-Alaska will provide scientists an understanding of how rising temperatures are affecting the Arctic.   The NASA project was designed to address questions about the relationship between retreating sea ice and the Arctic climate.  (NASA)

NASA’s DHC-3 Otter plane surveys mountain glaciers in Alaska as a part of Operation IceBridge-Alaska on September 18, 2014. Operation IceBridge-Alaska will provide scientists an understanding of how rising temperatures are affecting the Arctic. The NASA project was designed to address questions about the relationship between retreating sea ice and the Arctic climate. (NASA)

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft recently snapped this rare photo of three of Saturn's moons surrounding the planet’s ‘F-Ring’.  Each of these moons are quite different from one another. The largest of the trio Tethys, seen in the center, is round and has a variety of landscapes across its surface.  Hyperion, which can been seen to the upper-left of Tethys, is known to astronomers as the "wild one" because it has such a chaotic spin.  And then there is Prometheus, seen as the tiny dot just to the lower left of the ring.  This moon of Saturn, called a ‘Shepard satellite’, by astronomers helps keep an edge on the planet’s ‘F-Ring’. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft recently snapped this rare photo of three of Saturn’s moons surrounding the planet’s ‘F-Ring’. Each of these moons are quite different from one another. The largest of the trio, Tethys, seen in the center, is round and has a variety of landscapes across its surface. Hyperion, which can been seen to the upper-left of Tethys, is known to astronomers as the “wild one” because it has such a chaotic spin. And then there is Prometheus, seen as the tiny dot just to the lower left of the ring. This moon, called a ‘Shepard satellite’, by astronomers, helps keep an edge on the planet’s ‘F-Ring’. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

About Half of the Water You Drink is Older than the Sun

Posted September 26th, 2014 at 8:07 pm (UTC+0)
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Child quenches thirst with some water (USAID)

Child quenches thirst with some water (USAID)

New research reveals that as much as one half of all of Earth’s current water supply is older than the Sun.

An international team of scientists led by Ilse Cleeves at the University of Michigan looked back into creation of Earth and our solar system to find out where all of the water came from.

Some scientists think Earth’s supply of life-sustaining H2O was the result of chemical reactions that took place as the Sun and solar system began forming some 4.6 billion years ago.

Others theorize that today’s water originated about a million years earlier in the cold recesses of interstellar space from a molecular cloud that later provided material to form the sun and planets.

To reach their findings, Cleeves and her colleagues simulated the chemistry of our solar system as it was forming and then compared the ratio of two slightly different types of water, one that was plain H2O and the other, ‘heavier type’, that had been enriched with deuterium – an isotope of the hydrogen molecule.

The researchers found that the water in Earth’s oceans as ice found in comets have a higher ratio of the ‘heavy water’ to the deuterium free water than the Sun contains.

A view of Earth taken by NASA/NOAA GOES-11 satelite. About 71 percent of the Earth's surface is water (NASA/NOAA)

A view of Earth taken by NASA/NOAA GOES-11 satellite. About 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is water (NASA/NOAA)

“That’s obviously a clue for what’s going on and it suggests that that very cold chemistry is required to produce these very large enrichments in the heavy isotopes deuterium in the water,” said Dr. Conel Alexander from the Carnegie Institution for Science, who was a member of the research team.

Alexander said that this very cold chemistry, about 10 to 30 degrees Kelvin – -263.15 to -243.15 Celsius – had to have ionizing radiation around in order to overcome the activation barriers that stop typical chemistry that takes place at the extremely cold temperatures.

The scientists considered two possible locations that may have allowed the cold chemistry.

One would be in the ancient molecular clouds (also called stellar nurseries) where stars form.

The other location would be in very cold regions of protoplanetary disks, which form solar system bodies such as planets, moons, asteroids, and others that surround developing stars.

But Cleeves realized that young stars that are surrounded by these planet-forming disks produce some very intense solar winds.

These solar winds, according to Alexander, would prevent galactic cosmic rays – one of the major sources of ionizing radiation – from even entering those disks, something that may very well stop deuterium-enriched water from forming.

This realization helped Cleeves create a complex model for the chemistry that existed within the planetary disks.

Composite image of the molecular cloud Cepheus B, taken with combined data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope. (NASA)

Composite image of the molecular cloud Cepheus B, taken with combined data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope. (NASA)

Alexander said the model did indeed show that deuterium-enriched water cannot be made in the disks, which led the group to conclude that it was produced within molecular clouds found in the interstellar medium.

“Ultimately, the intriguing idea is that you’re bringing in ices from the interstellar medium, pretty much intact, and those ices have a lot of organic material in them and some people have speculated that the organic material in meteorites and comets may have helped kick-start life,” said Alexander.

“If that’s true, and our solar system is fairly typical, then fairly similar superable organic material and water/ice is coming into most forming solar systems.”

This could, Alexander said, make the potential for life in other solar systems significantly more probable.

You can listen to the Science World radio interview with Dr. Conel Alexander either through the player below or check out the entire show at the times and places listed in the right side column.

Science Scanner: Voters Say Pluto is a Planet, Sense of Touch Explored, Promising New Way to Stop Spread of Cancer, High-Tech Bracelet Secures Computers

Posted September 24th, 2014 at 7:48 pm (UTC+0)
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Computer-augmented map of Pluto in rotation (NASA/ESA)

Computer-augmented map of Pluto in rotation (NASA/ESA)

People Vote to Make Pluto a Planet Again

Until 2006, school children were taught – and most people considered the matter settled – that Pluto is one of the nine planets of the solar system.  But that year members of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) – which is responsible for naming and classifying celestial objects – voted to define the characteristics that officially make a planet a planet.

And according to the formally adopted definition, Pluto could no longer be considered a planet.  It was demoted to dwarf planet status.

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts felt it was time to reexamine IAU’s definition of a planet by holding a debate that featured three leading experts in planetary science.

After listening to all sides of the debate, the audience voted on what a planet is or isn’t and whether or not Pluto is a planet.

The audience voted for a definition submitted by Dr. Dimitar Sasselov, director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, who defined a planet as “the smallest spherical lump of matter that formed around stars or stellar remnants.” The also voted that Pluto was a planet.

 

(Agustín Ruiz via Creative Commons/Flickr)

(Agustín Ruiz via Creative Commons/Flickr)

Scientists Offer New Theory on How Our Sense of Touch is Produced

Have you ever wondered how our sense of touch is produced?

Neuroscientists from the University of Chicago, writing in the journal Trends in Neurosciences, said their research indicates a variety of different nerves and skin receptors which sense pressure, temperature, and vibrations on or around the skin all work together to produce our sense of touch.

The findings made by the Chicago scientists dispute long-held theories that indicate there are separate and distinct groups of nerves and skins receptors that are each responsible for various aspects of touch, such as an object’s texture or its shape.

To make their findings, the researchers analyzed more than 100 previously conducted studies conducted over the past 57 years.

 

New Therapy to Keep Cancer from Spreading Shows Promise

Stanford researchers develop protein therapy to stop metastasis (Stanford University)

Researchers at Stanford University may be close to developing a new way to slow or even stop cancer from spreading or metastasizing from one part of the body to others without the risks and severe side-effects of chemotherapy.

The California scientists, whose findings were published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, developed what they call an ‘evolved’ protein therapy.

Their new metastasis prevention therapy interrupts the process that causes cancer cells to separate from original tumor locations, enter the bloodstream and travel to other locations throughout the body where the more aggressive and deadly cancer growths can form.

The researchers found that cancer spreads when two proteins – Axl and Growth arrest-specific 6 (Gas6) interact with each other.

To keep this interaction from taking place, the scientists created a harmless version of the Axl protein.  This harmless protein, acting like a decoy, attaches itself to the Gas6 protein within the bloodstream and keeps the harmful Axl protein from being activated.

The scientists said that they used their new experimental protein therapy to stop the spread of ovarian and breast cancer in lab mice.

 

Dartmouth College Scientists develop new system that continously protects computers systems from unauthorized users (US NAVY)

Dartmouth College Scientists develop new system that continously protects computers systems from unauthorized users (US NAVY)

New Bracelet Device Helps Keep Computer Systems Safer and More Secure

Keeping important and sensitive information safe and secure on computer and network systems is incredibly challenging.

Researchers at Dartmouth College say their Zero-Effort Bilateral Recurring Authentication (ZEBRA) method of computer security continuously confirms the identity of a user as they work at their terminal.

When the system detects that an authorized user is no longer working with the terminal, it automatically logs them out, preventing others from viewing or accessing their material.

The researchers said that despite the popular and effective authentication systems used today – such as those that rely on passwords, finger prints or eye scans – users often forget to logout when they step-away from their computer, leaving it open and vulnerable to security risks.

Users accessing ZEBRA-protected systems wear a specially designed bracelet that includes a built-in accelerometer, gyroscope and radio on their dominant wrist.  The bracelet interacts with the computer or terminal to continuously monitor and authenticate authorized use. Once the authorized user steps away from the computer for a predetermined length of time the system automatically logs the user out.

Report – Record High Amount of CO2 will be Released in 2014

Posted September 22nd, 2014 at 6:28 pm (UTC+0)
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Industrial pollution - one source of CO2 emissions (©Martin Muránsky/Shutterstock.com)

Industrial pollution – one source of CO2 emissions (©Martin Muránsky/Shutterstock.com)

A new report by the Global Carbon Project, an international science/environmental group, shows that the emission of carbon dioxide, one of the world’s top greenhouse gases – which scientists say leads to global warming – will not only rise once again in 2014, but will set a record high of 40 billion metric tons.

As the UN prepares to host its one day Climate Summit Tuesday at its New York headquarters, the report, which is an annual update to the group’s Global Carbon Budget, indicated that CO2 emissions that stem from fossil-fuel combustion and the production of cement grew by rate of 2.3 percent in 2013, with a record 36 billion metric tons of CO2 being produced. The report also predicted an additional 2.5 percent increase in CO2 emissions for 2014.

For a 66 percent chance of maintaining the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change goal of keeping average global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, this new report indicates that the total amount of future CO2 emissions can’t exceed more than 1,200 metric tons.

The Global Carbon Project estimates that, at the current CO2 emission rate, this 1,200 metric ton quota would be used up in about 30 years.

The report shows that global CO2 emissions must be reduced by more than 5 percent each year over the next several decades to keep global warming below the 2 degrees Celsius goal.

Climate scientists contributing to the report said that unless new technologies to store carbon in the ground are developed and widely deployed, more than half of all the planet’s fossil fuel reserves may need to be left untouched to keep CO2 emissions below the 1,200 metric ton total.

global-warming-“The human influence on climate change is clear,” said Professor Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change at the UK’s University of East Anglia in a press release. “We need substantial and sustained reductions in CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels if we are to limit global climate change. We are nowhere near the commitments necessary to stay below 2 degrees Celsius of climate change, a level that will be already challenging to manage for most countries around the world, even for rich nations.”

Along with the CO2 emission projection for 2014, the update to the Global Carbon Budget also breaks the 2013 carbon dioxide emissions report into a country by country as well as a per capita breakdown.

Among the report’s key facts and figures:

  • China, the USA, the EU and India are the largest emitters – together accounting for 58 per cent of emissions.
  • China’s CO2 emissions grew by 4.2 per cent in 2013, the USA’s grew by 2.9 per cent, and India’s emissions grew by 5.1 per cent.
  • The EU decreased its emissions by 1.8 per cent, though it continues to export a third of its emissions to China and other producers through imported goods and services.
  • China’s CO2 emissions per person overtook emissions in the EU for the first time in 2013. China’s emissions are now larger than the US and EU combined. 16 per cent of China’s emissions are for goods and services which are exported elsewhere.
  • CO2 emissions are caused primarily by burning fossil fuels, as well as by cement production and deforestation. Deforestation accounts for 8 per cent of CO2 emissions.

The Global Carbon Budget 2014 also includes a number of individual studies conducted by various research organizations who contributed to the report.  These studies were published the journals, Nature Climate Change, Nature Geoscience and Earth System Science Data Discussions.

History of atmospheric CO2 from 800,000 years ago until January, 2012 (NOAA)

Two Martian Probes Set to Orbit Red Planet

Posted September 19th, 2014 at 8:22 pm (UTC+0)
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The planet Mars in late spring as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope (NASA/JPL/California Institute of Technology)

The planet Mars in late spring as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope (NASA/JPL/California Institute of Technology)

Two unmanned spacecraft headed to Mars, one launched by the United States and the other by India, will soon reach the Red Planet within days of each other.

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) probe, launched November 18 is set for insertion into Mars orbit (MOI) on Sunday, September 21.  India’s first interplanetary spacecraft, Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), also known as Mangalyan, launched November 5 will be put into orbit around Mars on Wednesday, September 24.

MAVEN will study the specific processes that led to Mars losing much of its atmosphere about 3.5 billion years ago, something that could provide scientists with new insight about the evolution of the Red Planet as well as help solve the mystery of what happened to its water and carbon dioxide.

Some scientists say that billions of years ago, Mars had a rich atmosphere and was a warm and wet world.  Others have speculated that the planet may have also had the right conditions to support microbial life.

Artist's concept of the MAVEN spacecraft orbiting Mars. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

Artist’s concept of the MAVEN spacecraft orbiting Mars. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

University of Michigan Professor Stephen Bougher, who is also an investigator with the MAVEN team, told us that that it’s possible that the Martian H2O could have gone underground or was simple lost to space.

Among the immediate goals of the MAVEN mission, according to Bougher, is to find out how Mars’s upper atmosphere is connected to the solar wind that blows past the planet and how it strips away that upper atmosphere.

It’s possible that at some time during the early history of Mars the sun may have been much more active than today, producing a much more powerful solar wind that could have swept away Mars’ formerly lush atmosphere away like a broom sweeps dust and dirt.

Once scientists get answers to those present day questions, Bougher said the MAVEN team could run their computer models backwards in time to calculate what might have happened to Mars’s climate billions of years ago.

Artist rendering of India's Mars Orbital Mission spacecraft nearing the Red Planet. (Nesnad via Wikimedia Commons)

Artist rendering of India’s Mars Orbital Mission spacecraft nearing the Red Planet. (Nesnad via Wikimedia Commons)

Data sent back to Earth from the MAVEN spacecraft could also help scientists gain a greater understanding of climate change on the planet and learn more of the history of planetary habitability.

The Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) MOM satellite will orbit Mars for about a year, exploring the Martian surface and atmosphere.

Although not directly connected with ISRO’s mission, Bougher said that India’s spacecraft won’t get as close to the planet as MAVEN.

MOM also has a methane detection and measurement instrument onboard that will look for signs of the gas in the Martian atmosphere.

The detection of methane on Mars is considered by some to be controversial, especially since most methane here on Earth is produced biologically (such as from cow flatulence).  But, some (less than 1%) of our methane has been produced by non-biological methods.

A lab demonstration of the measurement chamber inside the Curiosity's Tunable Laser Spectrometer, an instrument  that found no sign of methane on the Red Planet in 2013. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A lab demonstration of the measurement chamber inside the Curiosity’s Tunable Laser Spectrometer, an instrument  that found no sign of methane on the Red Planet in 2013. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

While some previous Earth based observations indicated the presence of methane on Mars, a year ago NASA delivered disappointing news that “after extensive tests” its Curiosity Rover could not find any sign of the gas on the Red Planet.

Along with its scientific goals of studying the Red Planet, ISRO has said that one of MOM’s other main objectives is to allow the Indian space program to develop the technologies required to design, plan, manage and operate an interplanetary mission.

You can listen to the Science World radio interview with Professor Stephen Bougher either through the player below or check out the entire show at the times and places listed in the right side column.

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