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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Epic Lava Outpouring Was Twice As Much As All The Water In All World's Lakes

Floods of molten lava may sound like the stuff of apocalyptic theorists, but history is littered with evidence of such past events where vast lava outpourings originating deep in the Earth accompany the breakup of continents.

New research at Michigan State University shows that the source of some of these epic outpourings, however, may not be as deep as once thought. The results, published in the Journal Geology, show that some of these lavas originated near the surface rather than deep within the mantle.

MSU researcher helps solve source of ancient African lava outpouring. 
 Photo by Tyrone Rooney

When geoscientists want to learn more about massive lava flows – the kind that accompany continental rifting and continent break up – they conduct field studies of the African tectonic plate. Here, the Great Rift Valley of East Africa provides a snapshot of how a continent can be torn apart.

Armed with new technology, scientists can better translate the story that is stored in the rift’s fossilized lava flows. What they learn is applicable to continental breakup around the globe, said Tyrone Rooney, MSU geologist.

“For decades, there’s been a big debate as to where the lavas from this massive outpouring came from,” he said. “Did they emit from deep within the Earth? Or was there some contribution from shallower sources? Our paper shows that some lavas came from within the African tectonic plate itself.”

To clarify, many nonscientists think of big eruptions in terms of Mount St. Helens or Vesuvius. These were mere drops in a bucket compared to what Rooney and his colleagues are studying. The ancient African outpouring is estimated to have poured out 350,000 cubic kilometers of lava about 30 million years ago. That’s comparable to twice the amount of water in all the world’s lakes, Rooney explained.

To study continental rifting, MSU researchers travel to the Great Rift Valley of East Africa. 
Photo by Tyrone Rooney 

While much of this lava is probably derived from deep sources, Rooney’s team found that some parts of the tectonic plate also have melted to form an unusual group of lavas in Ethiopia. The researchers showed that the rocks, artifacts from the ancient outpouring, had chemical signatures of materials found in the lithosphere and were distinctly different from most of the other rocks in Ethiopia.

Rooney and his team were able to confirm their findings because, in part, of having access to tools that their predecessors merely imagined. The new approaches are allowing them to challenge long-standing theories in their field.

For example, mass spectrometers are employed to reveal the rocks’ chemical signatures. By identifying the lavas’ elemental characteristics, the scientists can trace their origin to the surface or from deep in the mantle. Using lasers, scientists can transform rock into a fine mist and measure its composition.

In a surprise finding, the team’s lab experiments revealed that the Ethiopian samples matched rocks collected from other distant regions. The lavas in Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Sudan are similar, which means that some of the ingredients that supply the massive outpourings, or basalt floods, have a shallow source that is tapped as the continents split apart. Indeed the seeds of the lithosphere’s own destruction maybe contained within it, Rooney said.

“We’re interested in this because these massive outpourings happen around the same time continents break apart, create new oceans and affect the planet and the environment on a global scale,” he said. “So knowing the source of the lava gives us insights into a process that we still know little about.”

Rooney’s research laid the groundwork for a National Science Foundation grant that will allow him to continue to unlock the secrets of tectonic forces and continental rifting.



Contacts and sources:
Layne Cameron
Michigan State University

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Andes Mountains Rose Quickly In Rapid Pulses Says New Research

New research points to a rapid surface uplift of mountain ranges

Scientists have long been trying to understand how the Andes and other broad, high-elevation mountain ranges were formed. New research by Carmala Garzione, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Rochester, and colleagues sheds light on the mystery.

In a paper published in the latest Earth and Planetary Science Letters, Garzione explains that the Altiplano plateau in the central Andes—and most likely the entire mountain range—was formed through a series of rapid growth spurts.


Sedimentary deposits near Cerdas in the Altiplano plateau of Bolivia are shown. These rocks contain ancient soils used to decipher the surface temperature and surface uplift history of the southern Altiplano.

Credit: Photo by Carmala Garzione/University of Rochester.

"This study provides increasing evidence that the plateau formed through periodic rapid pulses, not through a continuous, gradual uplift of the surface, as was traditionally thought," said Garzione. "In geologic terms, rapid means rising one kilometer or more over several millions of years, which is very impressive."

It's been understood that the Andes mountain range has been growing as the Nazca oceanic plate slips underneath the South American continental plate, causing the Earth's crust to shorten (by folding and faulting) and thicken. But that left two questions: How quickly have the Andes risen to their current height, and what was the actual process that enabled their rise?

Several years ago (2006-2008), Garzione and several colleagues provided the first estimates of the timing and rates of the surface uplift of the central Andes ("Mountain Ranges Rise Much More Rapidly than Geologists Expected") by measuring the ancient surface temperatures and rainfall compositions preserved in the soils of the central Altiplano, a plateau in Bolivia and Peru that sits about 12,000 feet above sea level. Garzione concluded that portions of the dense lower crust and upper mantle that act like an anchor on the base of the crust are periodically detached and sink through the mantle as the thickened continental plate heats up. Detachment of this dense anchor allows the Earth's low density upper crust to rebound and rise rapidly.

More recently, Garzione and Andrew Leier, an assistant professor of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of South Carolina, used a relatively new temperature-recording technique in two separate studies in different regions of the Andes to determine whether pulses of rapid surface uplift are the norm, or the exception, for the formation of mountain ranges like the Andes.

Garzione and Leier ("Stable isotope evidence for multiple pulses of rapid surface uplift in the Central Andes, Bolivia") both focused on the bonding behavior of carbon and oxygen isotopes in the mineral calcite that precipitated from rainwater; their results were similar.

Garzione worked in the southern Altiplano, collecting climate records preserved in ancient soils at both low elevations (close to sea level), where temperatures remained warm over the history of the Andes, and at high elevations where temperatures should have cooled as the mountains rose. The calcite found in the soil contains both the lighter isotopes of carbon and oxygen—12C and 16O—as well as the rare heavier isotopes—13C and 18O. Paleo-temperature estimates from calcite rely on the fact that heavy isotopes form stronger bonds. At lower temperatures, where atoms vibrate more slowly, the heavy isotope 13C-18O bonds would be more difficult to break, resulting in a higher concentration of 13C-18O bonds in calcite, compared to what is found at warmer temperatures. By measuring the abundance of heavy isotope bonds in both low elevation (warm) sites and high elevation (cooler) sites over time, Garzione used the temperature difference between the sites to estimate the elevation of various layers of ancient soils at specific points in time.

She found that the southern Altiplano region rose by about 2.5 kilometers between 16 million and 9 million years ago, which is considered a rapid rate in geologic terms. Garzione speculates that the pulsing action relates to a dense root that grows at the boundary of the lower crust and upper mantle. As the oceanic plate slips under the continental plate, the continental plate shortens and thickens, increasing the pressure on the lower crust. The basaltic composition of the lower crust converts to a very high-density rock called eclogite, which serves as an anchor to the low-density upper crust. As this root is forced deeper into the hotter part of the mantle, it heats to a temperature where it can be rapidly removed (over several million years), resulting in the rapid rise of the mountain range.

"What we are learning is that the Altiplano plateau formed by pulses of rapid surface uplift over several million years, separated by long periods (several tens of million years) of stable elevations," said Garzione. "We suspect this process is typical of other high-elevation ranges, but more research is needed before we know for certain."



Contacts and sources: 
Peter Iglinski
University of Rochester

Antarctica Once As Warm As California And Florida Now

Parts of ancient Antarctica were as warm as today's California coast, and polar regions of the southern Pacific Ocean registered 21st-century Florida heat, according to scientists using a new way to measure past temperatures.

The findings, published the week of April 21 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, underscore the potential for increased warmth at Earth's poles and the associated risk of melting polar ice and rising sea levels, the researchers said.

Led by scientists at Yale, the study focused on Antarctica during the Eocene epoch, 40-50 million years ago, a period with high concentrations of atmospheric CO2 and consequently a greenhouse climate. Today, Antarctica is year-round one of the coldest places on Earth, and the continent's interior is the coldest place, with annual average land temperatures far below zero degrees Fahrenheit.

Parts of ancient Antarctica were as warm as today’s California coast, and polar regions of the southern Pacific Ocean registered 21st-century Florida heat, according to scientists using a new way to measure past temperatures.
Credit: Yale University

But it wasn't always that way, and the new measurements can help improve climate models used for predicting future climate, according to co-author Hagit Affek of Yale, associate professor of geology & geophysics.

"Quantifying past temperatures helps us understand the sensitivity of the climate system to greenhouse gases, and especially the amplification of global warming in polar regions," Affek said.

The paper's lead author, Peter M.J. Douglas, performed the research as a graduate student in Affek's Yale laboratory. He is now a postdoctoral scholar at the California Institute of Technology. The research team included paleontologists, geochemists, and a climate physicist.

By measuring concentrations of rare isotopes in ancient fossil shells, the scientists found that temperatures in parts of Antarctica reached as high as 17 degrees Celsius (63F) during the Eocene, with an average of 14 degrees Celsius (57F) — similar to the average annual temperature off the coast of California today.

Eocene temperatures in parts of the southern Pacific Ocean measured 22 degrees Centigrade (or about 72F), researchers said — similar to seawater temperatures near Florida today.

Today the average annual South Pacific sea temperature near Antarctica is about 0 degrees Celsius.

These ancient ocean temperatures were not uniformly distributed throughout the Antarctic ocean regions — they were higher on the South Pacific side of Antarctica — and researchers say this finding suggests that ocean currents led to a temperature difference.

"By measuring past temperatures in different parts of Antarctica, this study gives us a clearer perspective of just how warm Antarctica was when the Earth's atmosphere contained much more CO2 than it does today," said Douglas. "We now know that it was warm across the continent, but also that some parts were considerably warmer than others. This provides strong evidence that global warming is especially pronounced close to the Earth's poles. Warming in these regions has significant consequences for climate well beyond the high latitudes due to ocean circulation and melting of polar ice that leads to sea level rise."

To determine the ancient temperatures, the scientists measured the abundance of two rare isotopes bound to each other in fossil bivalve shells collected by co-author Linda Ivany of Syracuse University at Seymour Island, a small island off the northeast side of the Antarctic Peninsula. The concentration of bonds between carbon-13 and oxygen-18 reflect the temperature in which the shells grew, the researchers said. They combined these results with other geo-thermometers and model simulations.

The new measurement technique is called carbonate clumped isotope thermometry.

"We managed to combine data from a variety of geochemical techniques on past environmental conditions with climate model simulations to learn something new about how the Earth's climate system works under conditions different from its current state," Affek said. "This combined result provides a fuller picture than either approach could on its own."




Contacts and sources:
Eric Gershon
Yale University


The paper is titled "Pronounced zonal heterogeneity in Eocene southern high-latitude sea surface temperatures."

Other co-authors are Alexander J. P. Houben, Willem P. Sijp, Appy Sluijs, Stefan Schouten, and Mark Pagani.

Support for the research was provided by the National Science Foundation, Statoil, and the European Research Council.

‘Upside-Down Planet’ Reveals New Method For Studying Binary Star Systems

What looked at first like a sort of upside-down planet has instead revealed a new method for studying binary star systems, discovered by a University of Washington student astronomer.

Working with UW astronomer Eric Agol, doctoral student Ethan Kruse has confirmed the first “self-lensing” binary star system — one in which the mass of the closer star can be measured by how powerfully it magnifies light from its more distant companion star. Though our sun stands alone, about 40 percent of similar stars are in binary (two-star) or multi-star systems, orbiting their companions in a gravitational dance.

An image of the Sun used to simulate what the sun-like star in a self-lensing binary star system might look like.
Credit: NASA

Kruse’s discovery confirms an astronomer’s prediction in 1973, based on stellar evolution models of the time, that such a system should be possible. A paper by Kruse and Agol was published in the April 18 edition of Science.

Like so many interesting discoveries, this one happened largely by accident.

Astronomers detect planets too far away for direct observation by the dimming in light when a world passes in front of, or transits, its host star. Kruse was looking for transits others might have missed in data from the planet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope when he saw something in the binary star system KOI-3278 that didn’t make sense.

“I found what essentially looked like an upside-down planet,” Kruse said. “What you normally expect is this dip in brightness, but what you see in this system is basically the exact opposite — it looks like an anti-transit.”

The two stars of KOI-3278, about 2,600 light-years (a light-year is 5.88 trillion miles) away in the Lyra constellation, take turns being nearer to Earth as they orbit each other every 88.18 days. They are about 43 million miles apart, roughly the distance the planet Mercury is from the sun. The white dwarf, a cooling star thought to be in the final stage of life, is about Earth’s size but 200,000 times more massive.

That increase in light, rather than the dip Kruse thought he’d see, was the white dwarf bending and magnifying light from its more distant neighbor through gravitational lensing, like a magnifying glass.

“The basic idea is fairly simple,” Agol said. “Gravity warps space and time and as light travels toward us it actually gets bent, changes direction. So, any gravitational object — anything with mass — acts as a magnifying glass,” though a weak one. “You really need large distances for it to be effective.”

“The cool thing, in this case, is that the lensing effect is so strong, we are able to use that to measure the mass of the closer, white dwarf star. And instead of getting a dip now you get a brightening through the gravitational magnification.”

This finding improves on research in 2013 by the California Institute of Technology, which detected a similar self-lensing effect minus the brightening of the light because the two stars being studied were much closer together.

“The effect in this system is much stronger,” said Agol. “The larger the distance, the more the effect.”

Gravitational lensing is a common tool in astronomy. It has been used to detect planets around distant stars within the Milky Way galaxy, and was among the first methods used to confirm Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Lensing within the Milky Way galaxy, such as this, is called microlensing.

But until now, the process had only been used in the fleeting instances of a nearby and distant star, not otherwise associated in any way, aligning just right, before going their separate ways again.

“The chance is really improbable,” said Agol. “As those two stars go through the galaxy they’ll never come back again, so you see that microlensing effect once and it never repeats. In this case, though, because the stars are orbiting each other, it repeats every 88 days.”

White dwarfs are important to astronomy, and are used as indicators of age in the galaxy, the astronomers said. Basically embers of burned-out stars, white dwarfs cool off at a specific rate over time. With this lensing, astronomers can learn with much greater precision what its mass and temperature are, and follow-up observations may yield its size.

By expanding their understanding of white dwarfs, astronomers take a step closer to learning about the age of the galaxy.

“This is a very significant achievement for a graduate student,” Agol said.

The two have sought time to use the Hubble Space Telescope to study KOI-3278 in more detail, and to see if there are other such star systems waiting to be discovered in the Kepler data.

“If everyone’s missed this one, then there could be many more that everyone’s missed as well,” said Kruse.


Contacts and sources:
Peter Kelley
University of Washington

Mysteries Of A Nearby Planetary System's Dynamics Now Are Solved

Mysteries of one of the most fascinating nearby planetary systems now have been solved, report authors of a scientific paper to be published by the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in its early online edition on 22 April 2014.

This illustration shows the orbital distances and relative sizes of the four innermost planets known to orbit the star 55 Cancri A (bottom) in comparison with planets in own inner Solar System (top). Both Jupiter and the Jupiter-mass planet 55 Cancri "d" are outside this picture, orbiting their host star with a distance of nearly 5 astronomical units (AU), where one AU is equal to the average distance between the Earth and the Sun.

Credit: Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds, Penn State University

The study, which presents the first viable model for the planetary system orbiting one the first stars discovered to have planets -- the star named 55 Cancri -- was led by Penn State University graduate student Benjamin Nelson in collaboration with faculty at the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State and five astronomers at other institutions in the United States and Germany.

Numerous studies since 2002 had failed to determine a plausible model for the masses and orbits of two giant planets located closer to 55 Cancri than Mercury is to our Sun. Astronomers had struggled to understand how these massive planets orbiting so close to their star could avoid a catastrophe such as one planet being flung into the star, or the two planets colliding with each other. Now, the new study led by Penn State has combined thousands of observations with new statistical and computational techniques to measure the planets' properties more accurately, revealing that their particular masses and orbits are preventing the system from self-destructing anytime soon.

"The 55 Cancri planetary system is unique in the richness of both the diversity of its known planets and the number and variety of astronomical observations," said Penn State Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics Eric Ford, a coauthor of the paper who is a member of the Penn State Center for Astrostatistics and the Penn State Institute for CyberScience. "The complexity of this system makes it unusually challenging to interpret these observations," said Ford, whose specialties include the modeling of complex data sets.

In order to perform the new analyses, Nelson and Ford collaborated with computer scientists to develop a tool for simulating planetary systems using graphics cards to accelerate the computations. By combining multiple types of observations, the Penn State astronomers determined that one of the planets in the system (55 Cnc e) has eight times the mass of Earth, twice the distance of Earth's radius, and the same density as that of Earth. This planet is far too hot to have liquid water because its surface temperature is estimated to be 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit, so it is not likely to host life.

It was only in 2011, 8 years after the discovery of this inner-most planet (55 Cnc e) that astronomers recognized it orbited its host star in less than 18 hours, rather than nearly 3 days, as originally thought. Soon after, astronomers detected the shadow of the planet passing over the Earth, allowing astronomers to measure the size of the planet relative to the size of the star.

"These two giant planets of 55 Cancri interact so strongly that we can detect changes in their orbits. These detections are exciting because they enable us to learn things about the orbits that are normally not observable. However, the rapid interactions between the planets also present a challenge since modeling the system requires time-consuming simulations for each model to determine the trajectories of the planets and therefore their likelihood of survival for billions of years without a catastrophic collision," said Penn State graduate student Benjamin Nelson.

"One must precisely account for the motion of the giant planets in order to accurately measure the properties of the super-Earth-mass planet," Ford said. "Most previous analyses had ignored the planet-planet interactions. A few earlier studies had modeled these effects, but had performed only simplistic statistical analyses due to the huge number of calculations required for a proper analysis."


This image is a star map for the constellation Cancer and the 55 Cancri system. The star hosting the 55 Cancri planetary system can be seen with the naked eye from a dark site. For observers in the Northern hemisphere, Cancer is best viewed in the spring. The 55 Cancri planetary system orbits the star labeled rho^1, which is slightly to the left of the top star that is connected by lines in this illustration to show the constellation Cancer.
Credit: Image courtesy of the International Astronomical Union and Sky and Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott and Rick Fienberg)

"This research achievement is an example of the scientific breakthroughs that come from data-intensive multidisciplinary research supported by the Penn State Institute for CyberScience," said Padma Raghavan, distinguished professor of computer science and engineering, associate vice-president for research, and director of the Penn State Institute for CyberScience.

The 55 Cancri planetary system is just 39 light years away in the constellation Cancer. The system shines brightly when viewed from Earth because it is so close, so astronomers have been able to directly measure the radius of its star -- an observation that is practical only for some of our closest stellar neighbors. Knowing the star's radius made it possible for astronomers to make precise measurements of its mass -- nearly the same mass as our Sun -- as well as the size and density of its super-Earth-size planet.

"Because 55 Cancri is so bright that it can be seen with the naked eye, astronomers have been able to measure the velocity of this star from four different observatories over a thousand times, giving the planets in this system much more attention than most exoplanets receive," said Penn State assistant professor Jason Wright, who led a program to scrutinize this and several other planetary systems.

Astronomers first discovered that 55 Cancri is orbited by a giant planet in 1997. Long-term observations by Wright and colleagues later made possible the detection of five planets orbiting the star, ranging from a cold giant planet with an orbit very similar to that of Jupiter to a scorching-hot "super-Earth" -- a type of planet with a mass higher than Earth's but substantially below that of Neptune, which has a mass 17 times greater than Earth.

Penn State Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics Alexander Wolszczan and his colleague Dale Frail discovered the first planets ever detected outside our solar system. These planets orbit a distant pulsar star and were the first-known super-Earth-mass planets. Recent observaions by NASA's Kepler mission demonstrate that super-Earth-size planets are common around sun-like stars.

The study led by Nelson is part of a larger effort to develop techniques that will help with the analysis of future observations in the search for Earth-like planets. Penn State astronomers plan to search for Earth-mass planets around other bright nearby stars, using a combination of new observatories and instruments such as the MINERVA project and the Habitable Zone Planet Finder being built at Penn State for the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. "Astronomers are developing state-of-the-art instrumentation for the world's largest telescopes to detect and characterize potentially Earth-like planets. We are pairing those efforts with the development of state-of-the-art computational and statistical tools," Ford said.


###

Nelson will present the results of the new study at a meeting of the International Astronomical Union in Namur, Belgium in July 2014. In addition to astronomers at Penn State, the study's coauthors include scientists at the University of Florida, Yale University, the Max-Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, the University of Hawaii, and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds is supported by Penn State University, the Penn State Eberly College of Science, and the Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium. Calculations were performed at the Penn State Research Computing and Cyberinfrastructure unit and at the University of Florida High Performance Computing Center. This research was supported by a NASA Origins of Solar Systems grant (NNX09AB35G) and a NASA Applied Information Systems Research Program grant (NNX09AM41G).




Contacts and sources:
Barbara K. Kennedy
Penn State

Monday, April 21, 2014

Firm Uses 3D Printing To Make Synthetic Tissues And Organs

A University of Oxford spin-out, OxSyBio, will develop 3D printing techniques to produce tissue-like synthetic materials for wound healing and drug delivery. In the longer term the company aims to print synthetic tissues for organ repair or replacement.
 
Isis Innovation, the University's research commercialization company, announced today that OxSyBio has raised £1 million from IP Group plc, the developer of intellectual property based businesses, subject to the achievement of milestones. The new company will refine and advance the 3D droplet printing technology devised by Professor Hagan Bayley's group at Oxford University’s Department of Chemistry. 
 
Professor Bayley's group has developed a technique to print synthetic tissue-like materials from thousands of tiny water droplets each coated in a thin film mimicking a living cell's external membrane, and studding these membranes with protein pores so they act like simplified cells. The group's research was featured on the cover page of Science in April 2013.

Professor Hagan Bayley said: 'We have been able to print networks of droplets through which electrical impulses can be transmitted in a manner similar to the way cells in the nervous system communicate: the signal moves rapidly and in a specific direction. We also aim to integrate printed tissue-like materials with living tissues, and to print materials that themselves contain living cells.

'Our long-term goal is to develop a synthetic-tissue printer that a surgeon can use in the operating theatre. In ten years' time, the use of pieces of synthetic tissue will be commonplace. The fabrication of complex synthetic organs is a more distant prospect.

'I am delighted to be working with Isis and IP Group to accelerate the development of our new company, OxSyBio. Our goal is to establish ourselves at the frontline of regenerative medicine.'

Prototype droplet network printer built by Oxford scientists. 
Photo: OU/G Villar

Tom Hockaday, managing director of Isis Innovation, said: 'This is the type of technology where science fiction can become science fact and Isis is proud to have been involved in creating a company around Professor Bayley's vision.'

Alan Aubrey, Chief Executive Officer of IP Group, said: 'Synthetic biology and regenerative medicine will be central to the development of healthcare in the 21st century and IP Group is pleased to support OxSyBio as it seeks to develop products that will help to realise the potential of these exciting and growing areas.'

Video: shows a droplet network created by the team folding up into a hollow ball.



Contacts and sources:
University of Oxford
Renate Krelle
Isis Innovation Ltd

What Your Sleeping Position Says About Your Relationship

Research carried out at the Edinburgh International Science Festival has discovered what people’s preferred sleeping position reveals about their relationships and personality.

The work, carried out by University of Hertfordshire psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman, involved asking over 1000 people to describe their preferred sleeping position and to rate their personality and quality of their relationship.

Richard Wiseman photo 
Photo credit Brian Fischbacher

The research revealed the most popular sleep positions for couples, with 42% sleeping back to back, 31% sleeping facing the same direction and just 4% spending the night facing one another. In addition, 12% of couples spend the night less than an inch apart whilst 2% sleep over 30 inches apart.

Professor Wiseman commented: “One of the most important differences involved touching, with 94% of couples who spent the night in contact with one another were happy with their relationship, compared to just 68% of those that didn't touch.”

In addition, the further apart the couple spent the night, the worse their relationship, with 86% of those who slept less than an inch apart from their partner being happy with their relationship, compared to only 66% of those who slept more than 30 inches apart.

The work also revealed that extroverts tended to spend the night close to their partners, and more creative types tended to sleep on their left hand side.

Professor Wiseman noted: "This is the first survey to examine couples' sleeping positions, and the results allow people to gain an insight into someone's personality and relationship by simply asking them about their favourite sleeping position."

Professor Richard Wiseman is the author of Night School, which examines the science of sleep and dreaming. 

He returned to the Edinburgh International Science Festival on Thursday 17 April, 2014 to talk about the power of the sleeping mind.



Contacts and sources:
University of Hertfordshire

Inherited Trauma

Extreme and traumatic events can change a person – and often, years later, even affect their children. Researchers of the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich have now unmasked a piece in the puzzle of how the inheritance of traumas may be mediated.

The consequences of traumatic experiences can be passed on from one generation to the next.
Photo: Isabelle Mansuy / UZH / ETH Zurich

The phenomenon has long been known in psychology: traumatic experiences can induce behavioural disorders that are passed down from one generation to the next. It is only recently that scientists have begun to understand the physiological processes underlying hereditary trauma. 

"There are diseases such as bipolar disorder, that run in families but can’t be traced back to a particular gene”, explains Isabelle Mansuy, professor at ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich. With her research group at the Brain Research Institute of the University of Zurich, she has been studying the molecular processes involved in non-genetic inheritance of behavioural symptoms induced by traumatic experiences in early life (see ETH Life ).

Mansuy and her team have succeeded in identifying a key component of these processes: short RNA molecules. These RNAs are synthetized from genetic information (DNA) by enzymes that read specific sections of the DNA (genes) and use them as template to produce corresponding RNAs. Other enzymes then trim these RNAs into mature forms. Cells naturally contain a large number of different short RNA molecules called microRNAs. They have regulatory functions, such as controlling how many copies of a particular protein are made.

Small RNAs with a huge impact

The researchers studied the number and kind of microRNAs expressed by adult mice exposed to traumatic conditions in early life and compared them with non-traumatized mice. They discovered that traumatic stress alters the amount of several microRNAs in the blood, brain and sperm – while some microRNAs were produced in excess, others were lower than in the corresponding tissues or cells of control animals. These alterations resulted in misregulation of cellular processes normally controlled by these microRNAs.

After traumatic experiences, the mice behaved markedly differently: they partly lost their natural aversion to open spaces and bright light and had depressive-like behaviours. These behavioural symptoms were also transferred to the next generation via sperm, even though the offspring were not exposed to any traumatic stress themselves.
Even passed on to the third generation

The metabolism of the offspring of stressed mice was also impaired: their insulin and blood-sugar levels were lower than in the offspring of non-traumatized parents. “We were able to demonstrate for the first time that traumatic experiences affect metabolism in the long-term and that these changes are hereditary”, says Mansuy. The effects on metabolism and behaviour even persisted in the third generation.

“With the imbalance in microRNAs in sperm, we have discovered a key factor through which trauma can be passed on,” explains Mansuy. However, certain questions remain open, such as how the dysregulation in short RNAs comes about. “Most likely, it is part of a chain of events that begins with the body producing too much stress hormones.”

Importantly, acquired traits other than those induced by trauma could also be inherited through similar mechanisms, the researcher suspects. “The environment leaves traces on the brain, on organs and also on gametes. Through gametes, these traces can be passed to the next generation.”

Mansuy and her team are currently studying the role of short RNAs in trauma inheritance in humans. As they were also able to demonstrate the microRNAs imbalance in the blood of traumatized mice and their offspring, the scientists hope that their results may be useful to develop a blood test for diagnostics.



Contacts and sources:
ETH Zurirch

Gapp K, Jawaid A, Sarkies P, Bohacek J, Pelczar P, Prados J, Farinelli L, Miska E, Mansuy IM: Implication of sperm RNAs in transgenerational inheritance of the effects of early trauma in mice. Nature Neuroscience, April 13, 2014:http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nn.3695

Future ATM Machines To Strike Back If Attacked

Hot foam may soon send criminals running if they damage ATM. ETH researchers have developed a special film that triggers an intense reaction when destroyed. The idea originates from a beetle that uses a gas explosion to fend off attackers.

The bombardier beetle inspired the researchers of ETH Zurich.
 
Photo: jayvee18 – Fotolia

Its head and pronotum are usually rusty red, and its abdomen blue or shiny green: the bombardier beetle is approximately one centimetre long and common to Central Europe. At first glance, it appears harmless, but it possesses what is surely the most aggressive chemical defence system in nature. When threatened, the bombardier beetle releases a caustic spray, accompanied by a popping sound. This spray can kill ants or scare off frogs. The beetle produces the explosive agent itself when needed. Two separately stored chemicals are mixed in a reaction chamber in the beetle's abdomen. An explosion is triggered with the help of catalytic enzymes.

“When you see how elegantly nature solves problems, you realise how deadlocked the world of technology often is,” says Wendelin Jan Stark, a professor from the ETH Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences. He and his team therefore looked to the bombardier beetle for inspiration and developed a chemical defence mechanism designed to prevent vandalism – a self-defending surface composed of several sandwich-like layers of plastic. If the surface is damaged, hot foam is sprayed in the face of the attacker. This technology could be used to prevent vandalism or protect valuable goods. “This could be used anywhere you find things that shouldn't be touched,” said Stark. In agriculture and forestry, for example, it could be used to keep animals from gnawing on trees.
Like a fuse

The researchers use plastic films with a honeycomb structure for their self-defending surface. The hollow spaces are filled with one of two chemicals: hydrogen peroxide or manganese dioxide. The two separate films are then stuck on top of each another. A layer of clear lacquer separates the two films filled with the different chemicals. When subjected to an impact, the interlayer is destroyed, causing the hydrogen peroxide and manganese dioxide to mix. This triggers a violent reaction that produces water vapour, oxygen and heat. Whereas enzymes act as catalysts in the bombardier beetle, manganese dioxide has proven to be a less expensive alternative for performing this function in the lab.

The researchers report that the product of the reaction in the film is more of a foam than a spray when compared to the beetle, as can be seen in slow motion video footage. Infrared images show that the temperature of the foam reaches 80 degrees. Just as in nature, very little mechanical energy is required in the laboratory to release a much greater amount of chemical energy – quite similar to a fuse or an electrically ignited combustion cycle in an engine.

 Photo: ETH Zürich 

The series of images of the destruction tests in the laboratory shows how the foam is released by the self-defending film. The infrared images show a temperature rise to 80 degrees.

Attacks on ATMs on the rise

The newly developed film may be particularly well suited to protecting ATMs or cash transports, write the researchers in their paper published in the Journal of Materials Chemistry A. In ATMs, banknotes are kept in cash boxes, which are exchanged regularly. The Edinburgh-based European ATM Security Team reports that the number of attacks on ATMs has increased in recent years. During the first half of 2013, more than 1,000 attacks on ATMs took place in Europe, resulting in losses of EUR 10 million.

While protective devices that can spray robbers and banknotes already exist, these are mechanical systems, explains Stark. “A small motor is set in motion when triggered by a signal from a sensor. This requires electricity, is prone to malfunctions and is expensive.” The objective of his research group is to replace complicated control systems with cleverly designed materials.
Rendering banknotes useless

Front and back of a EUR 5 banknote, dyed blue by the self-defending surface.  
Photo: ETH Zurich 

This is precisely the goal of the self-defending surface. To protect the cash boxes, the researchers prepare the film by adding manganese dioxide. They then add a dye along with DNA enveloped in nanoparticles. If the film is destroyed, both the foam and the dye are released, thereby rendering the cash useless. The DNA nanoparticles that are also released mark the banknotes so that their path can be traced. Laboratory experiments with 5 euro banknotes have shown that the method is effective. The researchers write that the costs are also reasonable and expect one square meter of film to cost approximately USD 40.

In a similar earlier project, ETH researchers developed a multi-layer protective envelope for seed that normally undergoes complex chemical treatment. Researchers emulated the protective mechanism of peaches and other fruit, which releases toxic hydrogen cyanide to keep the kernels from being eaten. Wheat seeds are coated with substances that also form hydrocyanic acid when they react. However, the base substances are separated from each other in different layers and react only when the seeds are bitten by a herbivore. Stark describes the successful research method as “imitating nature and realising simple ideas with high-tech methods.”


 
Contacts and sources:
Barbara Vonarburg 

Citation: Halter JG, Cohrs NH, Hild N, Paunescu D, Grass RN,  Stark WJ: Self-defending anti-vandalism surfaces based on mechanically triggered mixing of reactants in polymer foils. J. Mater. Chem. A, Online-Publikation 7. März 2014, DOI:10.1039/C3TA15326F

Halter JG, Chen WD, Hild N, Mora CA, Stoessel PR, Koehler FM, Grass RN, Stark WJ: Induced cyanogenesis from hydroxynitrile lyase and mandelonitrile on wheat with polylactic acid multilayer-coatings produces self-defending seeds, J. Mat. Chem. A, 2014, 2: 853-858, DOI: 10.1039/C3TA14249C .

World's Thinnest Membrane For Filtration Is Thinner Than A Billionth Of A Meter

Researchers have produced a stable porous membrane that is thinner than a nanometer. This is a 100,000 times thinner than the diameter of a human hair. The membrane consists of two layers of the much exalted ”super material” graphene, a two-dimensional film made of carbon atoms, on which the team of researchers, led by Professor Hyung Gyu Park at the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering at ETH Zurich, etched tiny pores of a precisely defined size.


Credit: ETH Zurich 

The membrane can thus permeate tiny molecules. Larger molecules or particles, on the other hand, can pass only slowly or not at all. “With a thickness of just two carbon atoms, this is the thinnest porous membrane that is technologically possible to make,” says PhD student Jakob Buchheim, one of the two lead authors of the study, which was conducted by ETH-Zurich researchers in collaboration with scientists from Empa and a research laboratory of LG Electronics. The study has just been published in journal Science.

The ultra-thin graphene membrane may one day be used for a range of different purposes, including waterproof clothing. “Our membrane is not only very light and flexible, but it is also a thousand fold more breathable than Goretex,” says Kemal Celebi, a postdoc in Park’s laboratory and also one of the lead authors of the study. The membrane could also potentially be used to separate gaseous mixtures into their constituent parts or to filter impurities from fluids. 

The researchers were able to demonstrate for the first time that graphene membranes could be suitable for water filtration. The researchers also see a potential use for the membrane in devices used for the accurate measurement of gas and fluid flow rates that are crucial to unveiling the physics around mass transfer at nanoscales and separation of chemical mixtures.

Breakthrough in nanofabrication

The researchers not only succeeded in producing the starting material, a double-layer graphene film with a high level of purity, but they also mastered a technique called focused ion beam milling to etch pores into the graphene film. In this process, which is also used in the production of semiconductors, a beam of helium or gallium ions is controlled with a high level of precision in order to etch away material. 

The researchers were able to etch pores of a specified number and size into the graphene with unprecedented precision. This process, which could easily take days to complete, took only a few hours in the current work. “This is a breakthrough that enables the nanofabrication of the porous graphene membranes,” explains Ivan Shorubalko, a scientist at Empa that also contributed to the study.

In order to achieve this level of precision, the researchers had to work with double-layer graphene. “It wouldn’t have been possible for this method to create such a membrane with only one layer because graphene in practice isn't perfect,” says Park. The material can exhibit certain irregularities in the honeycomb structure of the carbon atoms. Now and again, individual atoms are missing from the structure, which not only impairs the stability of the material but also makes it impossible to etch a high-precision pore onto such a defect. The researchers solved this problem by laying two graphene layers on top of each other. The probability of two defects settling directly above one another is extremely low, explains Park.

Fastest possible filtration

A key advantage of the tiny dimensions is that the thinner a membrane, the lower its permeation resistance. The lower the resistance, the higher the energy-efficiency of the filtration process. “With such atomically thin membranes we can reach maximal permeation for a membrane of a given pore size and we believe that they allow the fastest feasible rate of permeation,” says Celebi. 

However, before these applications are ready for use on an industrial scale or for the production of functional waterproof clothing, the manufacturing process needs to be further developed. To investigate the fundamental science, the researchers worked with tiny pieces of membrane with a surface area of less than one hundredth of a square millimeter. Objectives from now on will be to produce larger membrane surfaces and impose various filtering mechanisms.


Contacts and sources:

Citation:  Celebi K, Buchheim J, Wyss RM, Droudian A, Gasser P, Shorubalko I, Kye JI, Lee C,
Park HG: Ultimate Permeation Across Atomically Thin Porous Graphene. Science, 2014, 344: 289-344, doi: 10.1126/science.1249097

Sunday, April 20, 2014

How Plants Evolved And What It Means For Our Food Supply

An EU-funded project investigating how oxygen in the air millions of years ago might have affected the evolution of plants is making important discoveries that could inform our approach to climate change, space exploration and ensuring future food supplies.

Today, scientists in areas as varied as food security, climate change and space exploration need to know more about plants – how they live and grow and what effect environmental conditions can have on them. A key part of understanding plants is knowing how they evolved.

© Rémy MASSEGLIA fotolia

The EU-funded OXYEVOL project is investigating how variations in atmospheric oxygen levels over millions of years might have affected the appearance of new plant species.

“We are exploring the relationship between oxygen concentration and plant evolution,” says University College Dublin’s Prof. Jennifer McElwain, who received a European Research Council Starting Grant to undertake the project.

OXYEVOL’s researchers are looking closely at the plant fossil record and comparing it to the known history of atmospheric oxygen content. Meanwhile, they are also undertaking a series of highly novel ‘mini-world’ experiments, in which living plant species with diverse evolutionary histories are being exposed to different atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide concentrations in a growth chamber.

The most significant result so far is the observation that greater numbers of plant species seem to have originated when atmospheric oxygen concentrations were highest.

We already know that the appearance of complex organisms over a billion years ago was linked to a rise in atmospheric oxygen levels. OXYEVOL’s results suggest that oxygen has also been an important evolutionary driver for plants, as important perhaps as it was for the evolution of mammals.

Broader relevance

OXYEVOL is aimed at helping scientists understand the environment and the living organisms around us. Fundamental research of this type can be driven by the simple desire to know, but throughout history, ‘science for science’s sake’ has also led to important discoveries that can have a real effect on our daily lives.

For example, McElwain says: “A major challenge for the society of the future will be food production for an ever increasing population. The early results of our experiments could help direct future strategies for enhanced agricultural crops.”

Meanwhile, she says, the project’s studies of plants in super-elevated CO2 atmospheres will provide critical information on possible feedback effects of vegetation on the climate system, at a time when atmospheric CO2 is rising at the highest rate in the Earth’s history.

Finally, OXYEVOL could even have an impact on the cultivation of plants in space.

“The human exploration of planets like Mars,” she says, “will require a certain level of self-sufficiency, meaning food production will have to be undertaken during long space flights. Our experiments could help us better understand how to do this.”

The project has already made a real contribution in terms of education, providing downloadable course materials on plant science for school-age children, launching a summer programme for teachers, and providing PhD and post-doctoral training for young scientists in cutting edge technology platforms within the research project itself.

McElwain says her ERC grant has enabled her to undertake ‘big question’ research with the potential to reach people in previously unforeseen way.


Contacts and sources:
CORDIS


 

Food Intake May Affect Anger In Relationships

We know that the food we eat affects our health and energy levels, but could it also affect our relationships? A new study published this week suggests that low levels of glucose in the blood may increase anger and aggression between spouses.

Teams at Ohio State University, Columbus, the University of Kentucky and the University of North Carolina recruited 107 married couples and equipped them with blood glucose meters, voodoo dolls, and 51 pins to record their glucose and anger levels over time.


Science magazine reports that for 21 days, the couples used the meters to measure their glucose levels each morning before breakfast and each evening before bed. They also assessed how angry they were at their spouse at the end of each day, by recording how many of the 51 pins they stuck into their voodoo dolls just before bed. Additionally, after 21 days, their aggression levels were tested in the lab.

Live Science details the lab activities. 'In the second part of the experiment, the participants competed against their spouses, and the spouse who pressed a button faster once a square turned red on the computer screen won. Each time they won, participants were able to subject their spouses to noises through headphones.' These unpleasant noises included fingernails scratching a chalkboard, ambulance sirens and dentist drills.

The study found that at home and in the lab, spouses with lower evening glucose levels showed more anger and aggression toward their partners. In fact, as Live Science reports, the people in the study with the lowest glucose levels stuck more than twice as many pins in the voodoo doll as the people with the highest glucose levels.

Why is this? The study summary, published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), notes, 'Self-control of aggressive impulses requires energy, and much of this energy is provided by glucose derived from the food we eat'.

However, the findings aren't necessarily a huge shock to many in the scientific community. Previous research had identified this link between low glucose levels and poor self-control. Science magazine quotes psychologist David Benton of Swansea University in the UK who notes that the finding are 'not particularly surprising.' He adds, 'Taking a single measure of dynamic response, at different times in different people, will tell us little'.

Surprising or not, study author Brad Bushman summed up his research with some basic marital advice for Live Science readers. 'If you're going to talk about a potentially heated topic, make sure you're not hungry before you have that discussion, because hungry people are often angry people.'


Contacts and sources:
CORDIS

For more information, please visit:
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)
http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/04/09/1400619111

Friday, April 18, 2014

Laser Beams To Trigger Rain And Lightning

The adage "Everyone complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it," may one day be obsolete if researchers at the University of Central Florida's College of Optics & Photonics and the University of Arizona further develop a new technique to aim a high-energy laser beam into clouds to make it rain or trigger lightning.

 This is an illustration of the dressed filament that fuels the high-intensity laser to travel farther.
Credit: Courtesy of University of Central Florida College of Optics and Photonics

The solution? Surround the beam with a second beam to act as an energy reservoir, sustaining the central beam to greater distances than previously possible. The secondary "dress" beam refuels and helps prevent the dissipation of the high-intensity primary beam, which on its own would break down quickly. A report on the project, "Externally refueled optical filaments," was recently published in Nature Photonics.

Water condensation and lightning activity in clouds are linked to large amounts of static charged particles. Stimulating those particles with the right kind of laser holds the key to possibly one day summoning a shower when and where it is needed.

Lasers can already travel great distances but "when a laser beam becomes intense enough, it behaves differently than usual – it collapses inward on itself," said Matthew Mills, a graduate student in the Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers (CREOL). "The collapse becomes so intense that electrons in the air's oxygen and nitrogen are ripped off creating plasma – basically a soup of electrons."

At that point, the plasma immediately tries to spread the beam back out, causing a struggle between the spreading and collapsing of an ultra-short laser pulse. This struggle is called filamentation, and creates a filament or "light string" that only propagates for a while until the properties of air make the beam disperse.


"Because a filament creates excited electrons in its wake as it moves, it artificially seeds the conditions necessary for rain and lightning to occur," Mills said. Other researchers have caused "electrical events" in clouds, but not lightning strikes.

But how do you get close enough to direct the beam into the cloud without being blasted to smithereens by lightning?

"What would be nice is to have a sneaky way which allows us to produce an arbitrary long 'filament extension cable.' It turns out that if you wrap a large, low intensity, doughnut-like 'dress' beam around the filament and slowly move it inward, you can provide this arbitrary extension," Mills said.

"Since we have control over the length of a filament with our method, one could seed the conditions needed for a rainstorm from afar. Ultimately, you could artificially control the rain and lightning over a large expanse with such ideas."

So far, Mills and fellow graduate student Ali Miri have been able to extend the pulse from 10 inches to about 7 feet. And they're working to extend the filament even farther.

"This work could ultimately lead to ultra-long optically induced filaments or plasma channels that are otherwise impossible to establish under normal conditions," said professor Demetrios Christodoulides, who is working with the graduate students on the project.

"In principle such dressed filaments could propagate for more than 50 meters or so, thus enabling a number of applications. This family of optical filaments may one day be used to selectively guide microwave signals along very long plasma channels, perhaps for hundreds of meters."

Other possible uses of this technique could be used in long-distance sensors and spectrometers to identify chemical makeup. Development of the technology was supported by a $7.5 million grant from the Department of Defense.


Contacts and sources: 
University of Central Florida

How The Brain Pays Attention

Neuroscientists identify a brain circuit that’s key to shifting our focus from one object to another.

Picking out a face in the crowd is a complicated task: Your brain has to retrieve the memory of the face you’re seeking, then hold it in place while scanning the crowd, paying special attention to finding a match.

Screen shots from a video of overlapping images of faces and houses, shown to subjects who were asked to pay attention to one or the other.
Video by Daniel Baldauf, screen shots colorized by MIT News

A new study by MIT neuroscientists reveals how the brain achieves this type of focused attention on faces or other objects: A part of the prefrontal cortex known as the inferior frontal junction (IFJ) controls visual processing areas that are tuned to recognize a specific category of objects, the researchers report in the April 10 online edition of Science.

A video of overlapping images of faces and houses was shown to subjects who were asked to pay attention to one or the other.

Video: Daniel Baldauf

Scientists know much less about this type of attention, known as object-based attention, than spatial attention, which involves focusing on what’s happening in a particular location. However, the new findings suggest that these two types of attention have similar mechanisms involving related brain regions, says Robert Desimone, the Doris and Don Berkey Professor of Neuroscience, director of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and senior author of the paper.

“The interactions are surprisingly similar to those seen in spatial attention,” Desimone says. “It seems like it’s a parallel process involving different areas.”

In both cases, the prefrontal cortex — the control center for most cognitive functions — appears to take charge of the brain’s attention and control relevant parts of the visual cortex, which receives sensory input. For spatial attention, that involves regions of the visual cortex that map to a particular area within the visual field.

In the new study, the researchers found that IFJ coordinates with a brain region that processes faces, known as the fusiform face area (FFA), and a region that interprets information about places, known as the parahippocampal place area (PPA). The FFA and PPA were first identified in the human cortex by Nancy Kanwisher, the Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT.

The IFJ has previously been implicated in a cognitive ability known as working memory, which is what allows us to gather and coordinate information while performing a task — such as remembering and dialing a phone number, or doing a math problem.

For this study, the researchers used magnetoencephalography (MEG) to scan human subjects as they viewed a series of overlapping images of faces and houses. Unlike functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which is commonly used to measure brain activity, MEG can reveal the precise timing of neural activity, down to the millisecond. The researchers presented the overlapping streams at two different rhythms — two images per second and 1.5 images per second — allowing them to identify brain regions responding to those stimuli.

“We wanted to frequency-tag each stimulus with different rhythms. When you look at all of the brain activity, you can tell apart signals that are engaged in processing each stimulus,” says Daniel Baldauf, a postdoc at the McGovern Institute and the lead author of the paper.

Each subject was told to pay attention to either faces or houses; because the houses and faces were in the same spot, the brain could not use spatial information to distinguish them. When the subjects were told to look for faces, activity in the FFA and the IFJ became synchronized, suggesting that they were communicating with each other. When the subjects paid attention to houses, the IFJ synchronized instead with the PPA.

The researchers also found that the communication was initiated by the IFJ and the activity was staggered by 20 milliseconds — about the amount of time it would take for neurons to electrically convey information from the IFJ to either the FFA or PPA. The researchers believe that the IFJ holds onto the idea of the object that the brain is looking for and directs the correct part of the brain to look for it.

The MEG scanner, as well as the study’s “elegant design,” were critical to discovering this relationship, says Robert Knight, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California at Berkeley who was not part of the research team.

“Functional MRI gives hints of connectivity,” Knight says, “but the time course is way too slow to show these millisecond-scale frequencies and to establish what they show, which is that the inferior frontal lobe is the prime driver.”

Further bolstering this idea, the researchers used an MRI-based method to measure the white matter that connects different brain regions and found that the IFJ is highly connected with both the FFA and PPA.

Members of Desimone’s lab are now studying how the brain shifts its focus between different types of sensory input, such as vision and hearing. They are also investigating whether it might be possible to train people to better focus their attention by controlling the brain interactions involved in this process.

“You have to identify the basic neural mechanisms and do basic research studies, which sometimes generate ideas for things that could be of practical benefit,” Desimone says. “It’s too early to say whether this training is even going to work at all, but it’s something that we’re actively pursuing.”

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.


Contacts and sources: 
By Anne Trafton 
MIT News Office

Alien Life Confirmed In Anuradhapura Meteorite

The discovery of biological structures in the Anuradhapura meteorite confirm life as a cosmic phenomenon. 

Unmistakably biological structures on the micrometre scale were discovered as an integral part of the
interior structure of a meteorite that fell near Anuradhapura Sri Lanka (Thambuttegama) on 8
December 2013.

Credit: Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology

Carbonaceous structures of the type shown on the top left were discovered by Ms A.D.M.  Damayanthi using equipment at Sri Lanka’s modern scientific research centre – The Sri Lanka Institute Of Nanotechnology (SLINTEC) currently headed by Professor Gehan Amaratunga  of Cambridge University.

The present work was carried out in collaboration with Keerthi Wickramarathne at the Medical Research Institute of Sri Lanka, and the project was conducted under the direction of Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe, Director of the Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology. A preliminary report of this work has been published in the Journal of Cosmology (http://journalofcosmology.com/JOC23/Anuradhapura.pdf).

Professor Wickramasinghe said that the new results give further support to the Hoyle –
Wickramasinghe theory of panspermia, showing that extraterrestrial life exists on a cosmic scale

Asteroid Impact Glass Stores Biodata For Millions Of Years

Bits of plant life encapsulated in molten glass by asteroid and comet impacts millions of years ago give geologists information about climate and life forms on the ancient Earth. Scientists exploring large fields of impact glass in Argentina suggest that what happened on Earth might well have happened on Mars millions of years ago. Martian impact glass could hold traces of organic compounds.

Asteroid and comet impacts can cause widespread ecological havoc, killing off plants and animals on regional or even global scales. But new research from Brown University shows that impacts can also preserve the signatures of ancient life at the time of an impact.

A snapshot of ancient environmental conditions: The scorching heat produced by asteroid or comet impacts can melt tons of soil and rock, some of which forms glass as it cools. Some of that glass preserves bits of ancient plant material.
Credit: Brown University

A research team led by Brown geologist Pete Schultz has found fragments of leaves and preserved organic compounds lodged inside glass created by a several ancient impacts in Argentina. The material could provide a snapshot of environmental conditions at the time of those impacts. The find also suggests that impact glasses could be a good place to look for signs of ancient life on Mars.

The work is published in the latest issue of Geology Magazine.

The scorching heat produced by asteroid or comet impacts can melt tons of soil and rock, some of which forms glass as it cools. The soil of eastern Argentina, south of Buenos Aires, is rife with impact glass created by at least seven different impacts that occurred between 6,000 and 9 million years ago, according to Schultz. One of those impacts, dated to around 3 million years ago, coincides with the disappearance of 35 animal genera, as reported in the journal Science a few years back.

“We know these were major impacts because of the shocked minerals trapped inside with plant materials,” Schultz said. “These glasses are present in different layers of sediment throughout an area about the size of Texas.”

Within glass associated with two of those impacts — one from 3 million years ago and one from 9 million years ago — Schultz and his colleagues found exquisitely preserved plant matter. “These glasses preserve plant morphology from macro features all the way down to the micron scale,” Schultz said. “It’s really remarkable.”

The glass samples contain centimeter-size leaf fragments, including intact structures like papillae, tiny bumps that line leaf surfaces. Bundles of vein-like structures found in several samples are very similar to modern pampas grass, a species common to that region of Argentina.

Chemical analysis of the samples also revealed the presence of organic hydrocarbons, the chemical signatures of living matter.

To understand how these structures and compounds could have been preserved, Schultz and his colleagues tried to replicate that preservation in the lab. They mixed pulverized impact glass with fragments of pampas grass leaves and heated the mixture at various temperatures for various amounts of time. The experiments showed that plant material was preserved when the samples were quickly heated to above 1,500 degrees Celsius.

It appears, Schultz says, that water in the exterior layers of the leaves insulates the inside layers, allowing them to stay intact. “The outside of the leaves takes it for the interior,” he said. “It’s a little like deep frying. The outside fries up quickly but the inside takes much longer to cook.”

Implications for Mars

If impact glass can preserve the signatures of life on Earth, it stands to reason that it could do the same on Mars, Schultz says. And the soil conditions in Argentina that contributed to the preservation of samples in this study are not unlike soils found on Mars.

The Pampas region of Argentina is covered with thick layers of windblown sediment called loess. Schultz believes that when an object impacts this sediment, globs of melted material roll out from the edge of the impact area like molten snowballs. As they roll, they collect material from the ground and cool quickly — the dynamics that the lab experiments showed were important for preservation. After the impact, those glasses are slowly covered over as dust continues to accumulate. That helps to preserve both the glasses and the stowaways within them for long periods — in the Argentine case, for millions of years.

Much of the surface of Mars is covered in a loess-like dust, and the same mechanism that preserved the Argentine samples could also work on Mars.

“Impact glass may be where the 4 billion-year-old signs of life are hiding,” Schultz said. “On Mars they’re probably not going to come out screaming in the form of a plant, but we may find traces of organic compounds, which would be really exciting.”

Landscape Frozen In Time For Three Million Years

NSF-funded researchers say the massive ice sheet has fixed the landscape in place, rather than scouring it away
Some of the landscape underlying the massive Greenland ice sheet may have been undisturbed for almost 3 million years, ever since the island became completely ice-covered, according to researchers funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Basing their discovery on an analysis of the chemical composition of silts recovered from the bottom of an ice core more than 3,000 meters long, the researchers argue that the find suggests "pre-glacial landscapes can remain preserved for long periods under continental ice sheets."

A camp at the edge of the Greenland ice sheet.
A camp at the edge of the Greenland ice sheet
Credit: Paul Bierman, University of Vermont
In the time since the ice sheet formed "the soil has been preserved and only slowly eroded, implying that an ancient landscape underlies 3,000 meters of ice at Summit, Greenland," they conclude.

They add that "these new data are most consistent with [the concept of] a continuous cover of Summit… by ice … with at most brief exposure and minimal surface erosion during the warmest or longest interglacial [periods]."

They also note that fossils found in northern Greenland indicated there was a green and forested landscape prior to the time that the ice sheet began to form. The new discovery indicates that even during the warmest periods since the ice sheet formed, the center of Greenland remained stable, allowing the landscape to be locked away, unmodified, under ice through millions of years of cyclical warming and cooling.

The ice edge meets the landscape in modern Greenland.
Credit: Paul Bierman, University of Vermont

"Rather than scraping and sculpting the landscape, the ice sheet has been frozen to the ground, like a giant freezer that's preserved an antique landscape", said Paul R. Bierman, of the Department of Geology and Rubenstein School of the Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont and lead author of the paper.

Bierman's work was supported by two NSF grants made by its Division of Polar Programs, 1023191 and 0713956. Thomas A. Neumann, also of the University of Vermont, but now at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, a co-author on the paper, also was a co-principal investigator on the latter grant.

Researchers from Idaho State University, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre at the University of Glasgow also contributed to the paper.

The research also included contributions from two graduate students, both supported by NSF, one of whom was supported by the NSF Graduate Research Fellowships Program.

The team's analysis was published on line on April 17 and will appear in Science magazine the following week.

Understanding how Greenland's ice sheet behaved in the past, and in particular, how much of the ice sheet melted during previous warm periods as well as how it re-grew is important to developing a scientific understanding of how the ice sheet might behave in the future.

As global average temperatures rise, scientists are concerned about how the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica will respond. Vast amounts of freshwater are stored in the ice and may be released by melting, which would raise sea levels, perhaps by many meters.

The magnitude and rate of sea level rise are unknown factors in climate models.

The team based its analysis on material taken from the bottom of an ice core retrieved by the NSF-funded Greenland Ice Sheet Project Two (GISP2), which drilled down into the ice sheet near NSF's Summit Station. An ice core is a cylinder of ice in which individual layers of ice, compacted from snowfall, going back over millennia can be observed and sampled.

Summit is situated at an elevation of 3,216 meters (10,551 feet) above sea level.

In the case of GISP2, the core itself, taken from the center of the present-day Greenland ice sheet, was 3,054 meters (10,000 feet) deep. It provides a history of the balance of gases that made up the atmosphere at time the snow fell as well as movements in the ice sheet stretching back more than 100,000 years. It also contains a mix of silts and sediments at its base where ice and rock come together.

The scientists looked at the proportions of the elements carbon, nitrogen and Beryllium-10, the source of which is cosmic rays, in sediments taken from the bottom 13 meters (42 feet) of the GISP2 ice core.

They also compared levels of the various elements with soil samples taken in Alaska, leading them to the conclusion that the landscape under the ice sheet was indeed an ancient one that predates the advent of the ice sheet. The soil comparisons were supported by two NSF grants: 0806394 and 0806399.



Contacts and sources:
Joshua Brown, University of Vermont

Principal Investigators
Paul Bierman, University of Vermont 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Food Shortages Coming Warns Top Scientist

The world is less than 40 years away from a food shortage that will have serious implications for people and governments, according to a top scientist at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"For the first time in human history, food production will be limited on a global scale by the availability of land, water and energy," said Dr. Fred Davies, senior science advisor for the agency's bureau of food security. "Food issues could become as politically destabilizing by 2050 as energy issues are today."

This is Dr. Fred Davies, US Agency for International Development senior science advisor for the agency's bureau of food security and a Texas A&M AgriLife Regents Professor of Horticultural Sciences.
Credit: Texas A&M AgriLife Research photo by Kathleen Phillips

Davies, who also is a Texas A&M AgriLife Regents Professor of Horticultural Sciences, addressed the North American Agricultural Journalists meeting in Washington, D.C. on the "monumental challenge of feeding the world."

He said the world population will increase 30 percent to 9 billion people by mid-century. That would call for a 70 percent increase in food to meet demand.

"But resource limitations will constrain global food systems," Davies added. "The increases currently projected for crop production from biotechnology, genetics, agronomics and horticulture will not be sufficient to meet food demand." Davies said the ability to discover ways to keep pace with food demand have been curtailed by cutbacks in spending on research.

"The U.S. agricultural productivity has averaged less than 1.2 percent per year between 1990 and 2007," he said. "More efficient technologies and crops will need to be developed -- and equally important, better ways for applying these technologies locally for farmers -- to address this challenge." Davies said when new technologies are developed, they often do not reach the small-scale farmer worldwide.

"A greater emphasis is needed in high-value horticultural crops," he said. "Those create jobs and economic opportunities for rural communities and enable more profitable, intense farming." Horticultural crops, Davies noted, are 50 percent of the farm-gate value of all crops produced in the U.S.

He also made the connection between the consumption of fruits and vegetables and chronic disease prevention and pointed to research centers in the U.S. that are making links between farmers, biologists and chemists, grocers, health care practitioners and consumers. That connection, he suggested, also will be vital in the push to grow enough food to feed people in coming years.

"Agricultural productivity, food security, food safety, the environment, health, nutrition and obesity -- they are all interconnected," Davies said. One in eight people worldwide, he added, already suffers from chronic undernourishment, and 75 percent of the world's chronically poor are in the mid-income nations such as China, India, Brazil and the Philippines.

"The perfect storm for horticulture and agriculture is also an opportunity," Davies said. "Consumer trends such as views on quality, nutrition, production origin and safety impact what foods we consume. Also, urban agriculture favors horticulture." For example, he said, the fastest growing segment of new farmers in California, are female, non-Anglos who are "intensively growing horticultural crops on small acreages," he said.
 

Contacts and sources:
Kathleen Phillips
Texas A&M AgriLife Communications

Ebola Outbreak Focuses Need For Global Surveillance Strategies

EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit organization that focuses on conservation and global public health issues, published a comprehensive review today examining the current state of knowledge of the deadly Ebola and Marburg virus. 

The review calls for improved global surveillance strategies to combat the emergence of infectious diseases such as the recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa that has claimed the lives of 122 people in the countries of Guinea and Liberia. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the deadly Ebola virus can cause mortality rates up to 90 percent of those individuals who contract the disease. No cure or vaccine exists for Ebola hemorrhagic fever and public health officials are concerned about further spread of the virus in the region.

Bushmeat being prepared for cooking in Ghana. Human consumption of equatorial animals in Africa in the form of bushmeat has been linked to the transmission of diseases to people, including ebola
File:Bushmeat - Buschfleisch Ghana.JPG
Credit: Wikipedia

The virus is transmitted from person to person through contact with infected blood or bodily fluids, but the origin of each outbreak is ultimately linked to wildlife. The consumption of bushmeat in Guinea may possibly serve as the transmission point from wildlife to human populations for the disease. Guinea has forbidden the sale and consumption of bats, which serve as natural reservoirs of the virus, and warned against eating rats and monkeys in its effort to keep the illness from spreading.

Since the late 1970s, Ebola outbreaks have sporadically erupted in various parts of Africa, and experts report this is the worst outbreak in the past 7 years. Historically, Ebola outbreaks have been contained through quarantine and public health measures, but where and when the next outbreak will emerge still remains a mystery. 

"Our scientists have developed a strategy to predict where the next new viruses from wildlife will emerge and affect people. These zoonotic viruses cause significant loss in life, create panic and disrupt the economics of an entire region," said Dr. Peter Daszak, Disease Ecologist and President of EcoHealth Alliance. "Our research shows that focusing surveillance on viruses in bats, rodents and non-human primates (a "SMART surveillance approach), and understanding what's disrupting these species' ecology is the best strategy to predict and prevent local outbreaks and pandemic disease," Daszak continued. 

Electron micrograph of an Ebola virus virion
File:Ebola virus virion.jpg
Credit: Wikipedia

The study, published by EcoHealth Alliance's Dr. Kevin Olival and Dr. David Hayman from Massey University, reviewed all of the current literature on filoviruses - the class of viruses that include both Ebola and Marburg virus - and took a critical look at the ecological and virological methods needed to understand these viruses to protect human health. 

 As part of the study, EcoHealth Alliance's modeling team mapped the geographic distribution of all known bat hosts for these viruses, and found that Guinea and Liberia lie within the expected range of Zaire Ebola - the strain responsible for the current outbreak. The team highlighted the need for more unified and improved global surveillance strategies to monitor outbreak events around the globe in wildlife. 

 "We are in the beginning stages of developing early warning systems to identify disease "spillover" events from wildlife to humans before they occur, but much work remains to be done. It's an exciting time where ecology, disease surveillance, mathematical modeling, and policy are all critically converging towards the goal of pandemic prevention," said Dr. Kevin Olival, Senior Research Scientist at EcoHealth Alliance. "Our work on bat ecology is specifically important since we know that they are reservoirs for a number of viruses, including Ebola and Marburg. Bat species are critical to the health of ecosystems and disease studies must be conducted with conservation as a integral component," he continued.

EcoHealth Alliance continues to work around the globe to study and uncover the ecological drivers of disease emergence. It is estimated that 15 million people die from infectious disease each year with more than half of those afflicted being children. For that reason alone, EcoHealth Alliance's research to find the reservoirs of potentially deadly diseases in wildlife and its research to discover how disease spillovers occur make it crucially important conservation-focused work.

The journal, Viruses, published the paper entitled, Filoviruses in Bats: Current Knowledge and Future Directions, and can be accessed online for download at http://www.mdpi.com/1999-4915/6/4/1759.




Contacts and sources:
Anthony M. Ramos
EcoHealth Alliance

Earth-Sized Planet In Habitable Zone Discovered

Notre Dame astrophysicist Justin R. Crepp and researchers from NASA working with the Kepler space mission have detected an Earth-like planet orbiting the habitable zone of a cool star. The planet which was found using the Kepler Space Telescope has been identified as Kepler-186f and is 1.11 times the radius of the Earth. Their research titled, "An Earth-sized Planet in the Habitable Zone of a Cool Star" will be published in the journal Sciencetoday.



Kepler-186f is part of a multi-planet system around the star Kepler-186 which has five planets, one of which is in the center of the habitable zone—the region around a star within which a planet can sustain liquid water on its surface. While there have been other discoveries of Earth-sized and smaller planets, those planets have been found in orbits that are too close to their host stars for water to exist in liquid form. Findings taken from three years of data show that the intensity and spectrum of radiation from Kepler-186f indicate that the planet could have an Earth-like atmosphere and water at its surface which is likely to be in liquid form.

Credit: Notre Dame

“The host star, Kepler 186, is an M1-type dwarf star, which means it will burn hydrogen forever, so there is ample opportunity to develop life around this particular star. And because it has just the right orbital period, water may exist in a liquid phase on this planet,” said Crepp, who is the Frank M. Freimann Assistant Professor of Physics in the College of Science.

"What makes this finding particularly compelling is that this Earth-sized planet, one of five orbiting this star, which is cooler than the Sun, resides in a temperate region where water could exist in liquid form," says Elisa Quintana of the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center who led the paper published in the current issue of the journal Science. The region in which this planet orbits its star is called the habitable zone, as it is thought that life would most likely form on planets with liquid water.

Steve Howell, Kepler's Project Scientist and a co-author on the paper, adds that neither Kepler (nor any telescope) is currently able to directly spot an exoplanet of this size and proximity to its host star. "However, what we can do is eliminate essentially all other possibilities so that the validity of these planets is really the only viable option."

With such a small host star, the team employed a technique that eliminated the possibility that either a background star or a stellar companion could be mimicking what Kepler detected. To do this, the team obtained extremely high spatial resolution observations from the eight-meter Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawai`i using a technique called speckle imaging, as well as adaptive optics (AO) observations from the ten-meter Keck II telescope, Gemini's neighbor on Mauna Kea. Together, these data allowed the team to rule out sources close enough to the star's line-of-sight to confound the Kepler evidence, and conclude that Kepler's detected signal has to be from a small planet transiting its host star.

The artistic concept of Kepler-186f is the result of scientists and artists collaborating to help imagine the appearance of these distant worlds.

Credit: Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-CalTech.

"The Keck and Gemini data are two key pieces of this puzzle," says Quintana. "Without these complementary observations we wouldn't have been able to confirm this Earth-sized planet."

The Gemini "speckle" data directly imaged the system to within about 400 million miles (about 4 AU, approximately equal to the orbit of Jupiter in our solar system) of the host star and confirmed that there were no other stellar size objects orbiting within this radius from the star. Augmenting this, the Keck AO observations probed a larger region around the star but to fainter limits. According to Quintana,

"These Earth-sized planets are extremely hard to detect and confirm, and now that we've found one, we want to search for more. Gemini and Keck will no doubt play a large role in these endeavors."

The host star, Kepler-186, is an M1-type dwarf star relatively close to our solar system, at about 500 light years and is in the constellation of Cygnus. The star is very dim, being over half a million times fainter than the faintest stars we can see with the naked eye. Five small planets have been found orbiting this star, four of which are in very short-period orbits and are very hot. 

This animation depicts Kepler-186f, the first validated Earth-size planet orbiting a distant star in the habitable zone -- a range of distances from a star where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet. The discovery of Kepler-186f confirms that Earth-size planets exist in the habitable zone of other stars and signals a significant step closer to finding a world similar to Earth. Kepler-186f is less than ten percent larger than Earth in size, but its mass and composition are not known.
 Credit: Sean Raymond. 

The planet designated Kepler-186f, however, is earth-sized and orbits within the star's habitable zone. The Kepler evidence for this planetary system comes from the detection of planetary transits. These transits can be thought of as tiny eclipses of the host star by a planet (or planets) as seen from the Earth. When such planets block part of the star's light, its total brightness diminishes. Kepler detects that as a variation in the star's total light output and evidence for planets. So far more than 3,800 possible planets have been detected by this technique with Kepler.
Crepp is building an instrument at Notre Dame named the iLocater that will be the first ultra-precise Doppler spectrometer to be fiber-fed and operated behind an adaptive optics system. His instrument, to be installed at the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona, will identify terrestrial planets orbiting in the habitable zone of nearby M-dwarf stars, much closer to the Sun than Kepler-186, by achieving unprecedented radial velocity precision at near-infrared wavelengths. He and his research collaborators will also probe nearby terrestrial planets to determine what their atmospheres are made of.

“Professor Justin Crepp’s outstanding exoplanet research is helping us comprehend our complex universe and in particular those planets that are in the habitable zone. This much-anticipated discovery is shedding new light on planetary systems and their composition,” said Greg Crawford, dean of the College of Science at the University of Notre Dame.

Crepp is one of only 11 Kepler Participating Scientists in the country. He and his colleagues are advancing the goals of the Kepler Mission by seeking to find terrestrial planets comparable in size to Earth, especially those in the habitable zone of their stars where


Contacts and sources:
Justin Crepp
University of Notre Dame

Peter Michaud
Gemini Observatory