Unseen Is Free

Unseen Is Free
Try It Now

Google Translate

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Most Detailed Life History of Any Known Dinosaur

Decades of research on Montana's state fossil -- the "good mother lizard" Maiasaurapeeblesorum - has resulted in the most detailed life history of any dinosaur known and created a model to which all other dinosaurs can be compared, according to new research published recently in the journal Paleobiology.

Research published in the journal Paleobiology is showing more about the life history of Maiasaura peeblesorum than any other known dinosaur.

Courtesy Holly Woodward

Researchers from Oklahoma State University, Montana State University and Indiana Purdue University used fossils collected from a huge bonebed in western Montana for their study.

"This is one of the most important pieces of paleontology involving MSU in the past 20 years," said Jack Horner, curator of the Museum of the Rockies at MSU. "This is a dramatic step forward from studying fossilized creatures as single individuals to understanding their life cycle. We are moving away from the novelty of a single instance to looking at a population of dinosaurs in the same way we look at populations of animals today."

The study was led by Holly Woodward, who did the research as her doctoral thesis in paleontology at MSU. Woodward is now professor of anatomy at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences.

The Paleobiology study examined the fossil bone microstructure, or histology, of 50 Maiasauratibiae (shin bones). Bone histology reveals aspects of growth that cannot be obtained by simply looking at the shape of the bone, including information about growth rate, metabolism, age at death, sexual maturity, skeletal maturity and how long a species took to reach adult size.

"Histology is the key to understanding the growth dynamics of extinct animals," Woodward said. "You can only learn so much from a bone by looking at its shape. But the entire growth history of the animal is recorded within the bone."

A sample of 50 might not sound like much, but for dinosaur paleontologists dealing with an often sparse fossil record, the Maiasaura fossils are a treasure trove.

"No other histological study of a single dinosaur species approaches our sample size," Woodward said.

With it, the researchers discovered a wealth of new information about how Maiasaura grew up: it had bird-level growth rates throughout most of its life, and its bone tissue most closely resembled that of modern day warm-blooded large mammals such as elk.

Decades of research on Montana's state fossil -- the 'good mother lizard' Maiasaura peeblesorum -- has resulted in the most detailed life history of any dinosaur known and created a model to which all other dinosaurs can be compared, according to new research published today in the journal Paleobiology. Researchers from Oklahoma State University, Montana State University and Indiana Purdue University used fossils collected from a huge bonebed in western Montana for their study.

Photo courtesy of Holly Woodward.

Major life events are recorded in the growth of the bones and the rates at which different-aged animals died.

"By studying the clues in the bone histology, and looking at patterns in the death assemblage, we found multiple pieces of evidence all supporting the same timing of sexual and skeletal maturity," said Elizabeth Freedman Fowler, curator of paleontology at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta and adjunct professor at MSU, who performed the mathematical analyses for the study.

Sexual maturity occurred within the third year of life, and Maiasaura reached an average adult mass of 2.3 tonnes in eight years. Life was especially hard for the very young and the old. The average mortality rate for those less than a year of age was 89.9 percent, and 44.4 percent for individuals 8 years and older.

If Maiasaura individuals could survive through their second year, they enjoyed a six-year window of peak physical and reproductive fitness, when the average mortality rate was just 12.7 percent.

Holly Woodward points at a Maiasaura fossil. Decades of research on Montana's state fossil -- the 'good mother lizard' Maiasaura peeblesorum - has resulted in the most detailed life history of any dinosaur known and created a model to which all other dinosaurs can be compared, according to new research published today in the journal Paleobiology. The study was led by Woodward, who did the research as her doctoral thesis in paleontology at MSU. 
Photo courtesy of Karen Chin.

"By looking within the bones, and by synthesizing what previous studies revealed, we now know more about the life history of Maiasaura than any other dinosaur and have the sample size to back up our conclusions," Woodward said. "Our study makes Maiasaura a model organism to which other dinosaur population biology studies will be compared."

The 50 tibiae also highlighted the extent of individual size variation within a dinosaur species. Previous dinosaur studies histologically examined a small subset of dinosaur bones and assigned ages to the entire sample based on the lengths of the few histologically aged bones.

"Our results suggest you can't just measure the length of a dinosaur bone and assume it represents an animal of a certain age," Woodward said. "Within our sample, there is a lot of variability in the length of the tibia in each age group. It would be like trying to assign an age to a person based on their height because you know the height and age of someone else. Histology is the only way to quantify age in dinosaurs."

Horner, a coauthor on the research and curator of the Museum of the Rockies at MSU where the Maiasaura fossils are reposited, discovered and named Maiasaura in 1979. He made headlines by announcing the world's first discovery of fossil dinosaur embryos and eggs. Based on the immature development of the baby dinosaur fossils found in nests, Horner hypothesized that they were helpless upon hatching and had to be cared for by parents, so naming the dinosaur Maiasaura, Latin for "good mother lizard."

Studies that followed revealed aspects of Maiasaura biology including that they were social and nested in colonies; Maiasaura walked on two legs when young and shifted to walking on all four as they got bigger; their preferred foods included rotting wood; and that their environment was warm and semi-arid, with a long dry season prone to drought.

The tibiae included in the Paleobiology study came from a single bonebed in western Montana covering at least two square kilometers. More than 30 years of excavation and thousands of fossils later, the bonebed shows no signs of running dry. Woodward plans to lead annual summer excavations of the Maiasaura bonebed to collect more data.

"Our study kicks off The Maiasaura Life History Project, which seeks to learn as much as possible about Maiasaura and its environment 76 million years ago by continuing to collect and histologically examine fossils from the bonebed, adding statistical strength to the sample," she said.

"We plan to examine other skeletal elements to make a histological 'map' of Maiasaura, seeing if the different bones in its body grew at different rates, which would allow us to study more aspects of its biology and behavior. We also want to better understand the environment in which Maiasaura lived, including the life histories of other animals in the ecosystem," she added.

The Maiasaura Life History Project will also provide opportunities for college-aged students accompanying Woodward in her excavations to learn about the fields of ecology, biology and geology, thereby encouraging younger generations to pursue careers in science.

Contacts and sources:
Holly WoodwardMontana State University

Can a Pill Replace Exercise?

Everyone knows that exercise improves health, and ongoing research continues to uncover increasingly detailed information on its benefits for metabolism, circulation, and improved functioning of organs such as the heart, brain, and liver. With this knowledge in hand, scientists may be better equipped to develop "exercise pills" that could mimic at least some of the beneficial effects of physical exercise on the body. But a review of current development efforts, publishing October 2 in Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, ponders whether such pills will achieve their potential therapeutic impact, at least in the near future.

Credit: Slashme/Wikipedia 

"We have recognized the need for exercise pills for some time, and this is an achievable goal based on our improved understanding of the molecular targets of physical exercise," says coauthor Ismail Laher, of the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Several laboratories are developing exercise pills, which at this early stage are being tested in animals to primarily target skeletal muscle performance and improve strength and energy use--essentially producing stronger and faster muscles. But of course the benefits of exercise are far greater than its effects on only muscles.

"Clearly people derive many other rewarding experiences from exercise--such as increased cognitive function, bone strength, and improved cardiovascular function," says Laher. "It is unrealistic to expect that exercise pills will fully be able to substitute for physical exercise--at least not in the immediate future."

While exercise pills may provide some benefits for people in the general population, they might be especially helpful for those who are unable to exercise for a variety of reasons, as the review by Laher and his coauthor Shunchang Li notes. "For example, a pill for people with spinal cord injury could be very appealing given the difficulties that these individuals face in exercising due to paralysis--in such patients, a large number of detrimental changes occur in cardiovascular and skeletal muscle function," explains Laher.

Much more research is needed to fully understand the side effects of candidate exercise pills, in addition to determining their optimal dosages, and the potential for misuse in humans and animals (e.g., races). (The first doping case regarding one candidate pill was reported in a cycling competition in 2013.)

"We are at the early stages of this exciting new field," says Laher. "Further development of exercise pills that act in combination may be more effective than single compounds. We just don't know anything about their long-term use in humans yet."

Contacts and sources:
Joseph Caputo
Cel Press

Citation: Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, Li and Laher: "Exercise Pills: At the Starting Line?" http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tips.2015.08.014

Micro Photosynthetic Power Cells May Be the Green Energy Source for the Next Generation

A team of researchers from the Optical Bio Microsystem lab at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, have invented and developed micro-photosynthetic cell technology that can harness electrical power from the photosynthesis and respiration of blue-green algae. 

This image shows: (a) Main components of micro PSC; (b) unassembled micro PSC model; (c) assembled proposed micro PSC model; (d) schematic of micro PSC tested; (e) schematic of experimental set up; and (f) experimental measurement set up.

This novel, scalable technology enables economical ways of generating clean energy, and may be the superlative, carbon-free power source for the future of mankind. The team headed by Dr. Muthukumaran Packirisamy, research Chair of the Optical Bio Microsystem lab at Concordia, has conceived and developed such a contraption. The report is featured in the September 2015 issue of the journal TECHNOLOGY.

Clean and green carbon-free energy is globally anticipated as the potential solution for the mitigation and eventual erasure of global warming. The main source of clean energy comes from the sun, which emits more energy to the earth every hour than mankind depletes in one year. Hence, technologies that derive energy from the sun are instrumental to the worldwide conversion of power sources to eco-friendly auxiliaries. This constitutes a large part of the incentive for the team of researchers at Concordia University, who have come up with an effective method for harnessing photosynthetic power from algae.

Both photosynthesis and respiration, which take place in plants cells, involve electron transfer chains. The main concept herein involves trapping these electrons that are released by blue-green algae. The electron transfer chains of photosynthesis and respiration are constructive in harnessing the electrical energy from blue-green algae. This photosynthetic power cell consists of an anode, cathode and proton exchange membrane. The anode chamber consists of cyanobacteria and it releases electrons to the electrode surface from a redox agent that is present at the cathode. An external load is connected to extract the electrons. The fabricated cell could produce an open circuit voltage of 993mV and a power density of 36.23W/cm2. 

The more detailed report is available in the journal TECHNOLOGY. The performance of the power cell can be increased by reducing the electrode spacing between the two electrodes of proton exchange membrane and efficient design of the cell.

These micro photosynthetic power cells may entail significant military and wireless applications. They can also be good power sources for Bio MEMS devices. However, challenges still exists for MEMS researchers to fabricate the small scale anode-cathode chambers that are suitable for generating the high current density and high power density from the cell. Of course, much work needs to be done in scaling the power cell and making this commercial. The team of researchers in Optical Bio Micro Systems is working to fabricate the high power density and high current density power cell in economical ways.

Contacts and sources:
Philly Lim
World Scientific

Disney Research Uses Augmented Reality to Turn Coloring Books Into 3-D Experience

A coloring book and a box of crayons may give kids an early opportunity for creative expression but, next to TV and video games, coloring can sometimes seem unexciting. A coloring book app devised by Disney Research, however, can cause characters to leap from the page in 3-D glory with the help of augmented reality.

A child colors a character, such as an elephant, on the book page normally, while a tablet or smartphone running the app monitors the drawing. Based on the child's coloring, the app fills in colors in real-time on an animated 3-D version of the elephant that is visible on the device's screen and integrated into the video.
Credit: Disney Research

The app keeps the core focus on the traditional activity of coloring while offering a magical digital overlay that enhances engagement.

In user testing - performed with adults rather than children in this early study - the researchers found that most users said the app increased their motivation to draw in coloring books and 80 percent said the app increased their feeling of connection to a character.

Researchers from Disney, ETH Zurich and the Swiss university EPFL presented the augmented reality app at the IEEE International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality (ISMAR 2015) in Fukuoka, Japan. Although the research work is just now being presented to scientific audiences, it has already gone through the tech transfer process, inspiring the commercial product called "Disney Color and Play" launched earlier this year by Disney Publishing Worldwide and Bendon.

This work fits into a larger initiative at Disney Research called Augmented Creativity, which focuses on using augmented reality to enhance creative play.

"Augmented reality holds unique and promising potential to bridge between real-world activities and digital experiences, allowing users to engage their imagination and boost their creativity," said Robert W. Sumner, a principal research scientist who leads the group on animation and interactive graphics at Disney Research. "We are thrilled to have the opportunity to present the scientific advances behind this technology," continued Sumner, "and are especially happy that it is available to consumers, thanks to our cooperation with Disney Publishing."

To create this new experience, the researchers first created animated 3-D virtual characters and then use custom software to generate 2-D line-art representations of the characters for a coloring book. The app, operating on a device with a camera viewing the user and the coloring book, automatically detects the character the user is coloring and displays the 3-D version.

As the child applies color to the 2-D drawing, the app applies the same color to the 3-D character - both to the areas visible in the 2-D drawing and to the remainder of the 3-D form not visible in the book. Because the coloring occurs in real-time, the illusion is created that the user is also coloring the occluded areas, with similar texturing of the color.

Determining how to apply color to the occluded areas was one of the tougher problems to solve, Sumner said. Simply mirroring the user's colored strokes doesn't work because the pattern of colors used for, say, a character's face will not be appropriate for the back of the character's head. The color also has to be continuous, so no seams can be seen between the visible areas and the occluded areas or where disparate portions of the textures meet.

Their approach was to create a "lookup map" for each character, which matches pixels in the occluded parts with corresponding pixels in the portion visible to the user. User testing showed that this method provides better results than "naïve" approaches such as mirroring. Most importantly, the lookup map method enables the coloring to be performed instantly.

Because paper books don't lie perfectly flat and can flex as a user colors, the team developed a deformable surface tracking method to monitor surface changes and to keep the virtual character displayed on the device screen correctly oriented with the book's page.

Contacts and sources:
Disney Research

Citation: "Live Texturing of Augmented Reality Characters from Colored Drawings-Paper"[PDF, 1.72 MB]

Signs of Ancient 800 Foot Mega-Tsunami Portends Modern Hazard

Scientists working off west Africa in the Cape Verde Islands have found evidence that the sudden collapse of a volcano there tens of thousands of years ago generated an ocean tsunami that dwarfed anything ever seen by humans. The researchers say an 800-foot wave engulfed an island more than 30 miles away. The study could revive a simmering controversy over whether sudden giant collapses present a realistic hazard today around volcanic islands, or even along more distant continental coasts. The study appears today in the journal Science Advances.
 Credit:  Earth Institute on Vimeo.

"Our point is that flank collapses can happen extremely fast and catastrophically, and therefore are capable of triggering giant tsunamis," said lead author Ricardo Ramalho, who did the research as a postdoctoral associate at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, where he is now an adjunct scientist. "They probably don't happen very often. But we need to take this into account when we think about the hazard potential of these kinds of volcanic features."

The tsunami generated by Fogo's collapse apparently swept boulders like this one from the shoreline up into the highlands of Santiago island. Here, a researcher chisels out a sample.

Credit: Ricardo Ramalho

The apparent collapse occurred some 73,000 years ago at the Fogo volcano, one of the world's largest and most active island volcanoes. Nowadays, it towers 2,829 meters (9,300 feet) above sea level, and erupts about every 20 years, most recently last fall. Santiago Island, where the wave apparently hit, is now home to some 250,000 people.

There is no dispute that volcanic flanks present a hazard; at least eight smaller collapses have occurred in Alaska, Japan and elsewhere in the last several hundred years, and some have generated deadly tsunamis. But many scientists doubt whether big volcanoes can collapse with the suddenness that the new study suggests. Rather, they envision landslides coming in gradual stages, generating multiple, smaller tsunamis. A 2011 French study also looked at the Fogo collapse, suggesting that it took place somewhere between 124,000-65,000 years ago; but that study says it involved more than one landslide. The French researchers estimate that the resulting multiple waves would have reached only 45 feet--even at that, enough to do plenty of harm today.

Geologists think that the eastern slope of Fogo volcano crashed into the sea some 65,000 to 124,000 years ago, leaving a giant scar where a new volcano can be seen growing in this satellite image.

Credit: NASA

A handful of previous other studies have proposed much larger prehistoric collapses and resulting megatsunamis, in the Hawaiian islands, at Italy's Mt. Etna, and the Indian Ocean's Reunion Island. But critics have said these examples are too few and the evidence too thin. The new study adds a new possible example; it says the estimated 160 cubic kilometers (40 cubic miles) of rock that Fogo lost during the collapse was dropped all at once, resulting in the 800-foot wave. By comparison, the biggest known recent tsunamis, which devastated the Indian Ocean's coasts in 2004 and eastern Japan in 2011, reached only about 100 feet. (Like most other well documented tsunamis, these were generated by movements of undersea earthquake faults--not volcanic collapses.)

Santiago Island lies 55 kilometers (34 miles) from Fogo. Several years ago, Ramalho and colleagues were working on Santiago when they spotted unusual boulders lying as far as 2,000 feet inland and nearly 650 feet above sea level. Some are as big as delivery vans, and they are utterly unlike the young volcanic terrain on which they lie. Rather, they match marine-type rocks that ring the island's shoreline: limestones, conglomerates and submarine basalts. Some weigh up to 770 tons. The only realistic explanation the scientists could come up with: A gigantic wave must have ripped them from the shoreline and lofted them up. They derived the size of the wave by calculating the energy it would have taken to accomplish this feat.

To date the event, in the lab Ramalho and Lamont-Doherty geochemist Gisela Winckler measured isotopes of the element helium embedded near the boulders' surfaces. Such isotopes change depending on how long a rock has been lying in the open, exposed to cosmic rays. The analyses centered around 73,000 years--well within the earlier French estimate of a smaller event. The analysis "provides the link between the collapse and impact, which you can make only if you have both dates," said Winckler.

On a clear day, from these cliffs in northern Santiago island, it is possible to see a silhouette of Fogo, nearly 40 miles away. The geologists on this ridge believe that a tsunami generated by Fogo's sudden collapse generated a wave that swept the spot where they are standing.

Credit: Kim Martineau/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Tsunami expert Bill McGuire, a professor emeritus at University College London who was not involved in the research, said the study "provides robust evidence of megatsunami formation [and] confirms that when volcanoes collapse, they can do so extremely rapidly." Based on his own work, McGuire s says that such megatsunamis probably come only once every 10,000 years. "Nonetheless," he said, "the scale of such events, as the Fogo study testifies, and their potentially devastating impact, makes them a clear and serious hazard in ocean basins that host active volcanoes."

Ramalho cautions that the study should not be taken as a red flag that another big collapse is imminent here or elsewhere. "It doesn't mean every collapse happens catastrophically," he said. "But it's maybe not as rare as we thought."

In the early 2000s, other researchers started publishing evidence that the Cape Verdes could generate large tsunamis. Others have argued that Spain's Canary Islands have already done so. Simon Day, a senior researcher at University College London has sparked repeated controversy by warning that any future eruption of the Canary Islands' active Cumbre Vieja volcano could set off a flank collapse that might form an initial wave 3,000 feet high. This, he says, could erase more than nearby islands. Such a wave might still be 300 feet high when it reached west Africa an hour or so later he says, and would still be 150 feet high along the coasts of North and South America. So far, such studies have raised mainly tsunamis of publicity, and vigorous objections from other scientists that such events are improbable. A 2013 study of deep-sea sediments by the United Kingdom's National Oceanography Centre suggests that the Canaries have probably mostly seen gradual collapses.

Part of the controversy hangs not only on the physics of the collapses themselves, but on how efficiently resulting waves could travel. In 1792, part of Japan's Mount Unzen collapsed, hitting a series of nearby bays with waves as high as 300 feet, and killing some 15,000 people. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake shook 90 million tons of rock into Alaska's isolated Lituya Bay; this created an astounding 1,724-foot-high wave, the largest ever recorded. Two fishermen who happened to be in their boat that day were carried clear over a nearby forest; miraculously, they survived.

These events, however, occurred in confined spaces. In the open ocean, waves created by landslides are generally thought to lose energy quickly, and thus to pose mainly a regional hazard. However, this is based largely on modeling, not real-world experience, so no one really knows how fast a killer wave might decay into a harmless ripple. In any case, most scientists are more concerned with tsunamis generated by undersea earthquakes, which are more common. When seabed faults slip, as they did in 2004 and 2011, they shove massive amounts of water upward. In deep water, this shows up as a mere swell at the surface; but when the swell reaches shallower coastal areas, its energy concentrates into in a smaller volume of water, and it rears up dramatically. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami killed 230,000 people in 14 countries; the 2011 Tohoku event killed nearly 20,000 in Japan, and has caused a long-term nuclear disaster.

James Hunt, a tsunami expert at the United Kingdom's National Oceanography Centre who was not involved in the study, said the research makes it clear that "even modest landslides could produce high-amplitude anomalous tsunami waves on opposing island coastlines." The question, he said, "is whether these translate into hazardous events in the far field, which is debatable."

When Fogo erupted last year, Ramalho and other geologists rushed in to observe. Lava flows (since calmed down) displaced some 1,200 people, and destroyed buildings including a new volcano visitors' center. "Right now, people in Cape Verde have a lot more to worry about, like rebuilding their livelihoods after the last eruption," said Ramalho. "But Fogo may collapse again one day, so we need to be vigilant."

Contacts and sources:
Kevin KrajickLamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Columbia University

New Biodegradable Materials Could Replace Plastic Bags

As England gets set to start paying for plastic bags, researchers at The Open University (OU) are making inroads into developing alternative biodegradable materials that could potentially replace fossil fuel derived polyethylene single-use carrier bags in the future.

A team at the OU’s Integrated Waste Systems (IWS) research group is working on an ambitious partnership worth around £250,000 with a UK SME, and funded by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to develop a new type of biodegradable single-use plastic carrier bags that is recyclable, biodegradable and will have no harmful effects on plants or animals.

Credit:  The Open University (OU) 

From October 5 2015, all large retailers in England will have to charge customers 5p for each carrier bag they use. This charge is designed to reduce the quantity of single-use plastic carrier bags – and the tons of litter associated with them – and encourage people to reuse bags. According to Dr Boardman, the project’s lead, “the introduction of single-use carrier bag charge in England is a welcome development and follows the success of the policy in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”. For example, the data coming out from Wales shows a very encouraging c. 80 % reduction in plastic bag consumption over the last three years.

The introduction of the new single-use plastic carrier bag charge in England will potentially reduce the numbers of plastic bags going into landfill. The UK Government is also committed to investigating the possibility of exempting biodegradable carrier bags from the single-use charge in future. Dr Boardman adds “currently in the UK we still dispose of the majority of the plastic products we use in landfill sites,” which he believes “is a tragic waste of energy and resource.” Encouraging the uptake and use of biodegradable bags and materials is advantageous as this moves society away from a linear economic model based on ‘take, make, dispose’, which relies on there being an infinite supply of resources and energy, to one that enables us to maximise the limited natural resources available.

The results of this research and development are expected within the next year.

Contacts and sources:

Friday, October 2, 2015

Opioid Misuse Continues To Dominate for Treatment Use, Spread of Disease and Drug-Related Deaths

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) produces an annual report of the latest data available on drug demand and drug supply in all 28 EU Member States plus Norway and Turkey, available at http://www.emcdda.europa.eu/edr2015. The scientific journal Addiction has today published the EMCDDA's summary of the most important findings from that report.

The spread of HIV: (Figure 1.) Drug use, principally through injecting, continues to play an important role in the transmission of blood-borne infections in Europe, mainly HIV and hepatitis C virus. In 2013, the average rate of newly reported HIV diagnoses attributed to injecting drug use was 2.5 per million population, with the three Baltic States showing rates 8 to 22 times higher than the EU average.

This figure shows newly diagnosed HIV cases related to injecting drug use: trends in number of cases.

Credit: ECDC

Treatment: (Table 1.) The most recent analysis of treatment data highlights the burden that opioid drugs continue to place on the drug treatment system, although both new entrants to heroin treatment and injecting have declined in importance. In 2013, opioids -- mainly heroin -- were reported as a 'primary drug' by only 20% of those entering treatment for the first time, and the number of new heroin treatment clients has more than halved since 2007. The illicit use of opioids remains responsible for a disproportionately large share of the morbidity and mortality resulting from drug use in Europe.

National data on opioids, prevalence, treatment demand and substitution treatment are shown.

Credit: European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction

Drug-related mortality: (Table 2.) National estimates of drug-induced mortality rates vary considerably, from 2.2 per million population in Romania to 70 per million in Norway and Sweden, and 127 per million in Estonia. Drug overdose continues to be the main cause of death among problem drug users, and over three-quarters of overdose victims are male (78 %). Between 2006 and 2013, a pattern has emerged of decreasing numbers of overdose deaths among younger drug users and increasing numbers among older users. This reflects the ageing nature of Europe's opioid-using population, who are at greatest risk of drug overdose death.

This table shows reported drug-induced deaths by country, 2013 or most recent data.
Credit:  European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction

New psychoactive substances (NPS): (Figure 2.) More 100 new substances were reported to the European Early Warning System (EWS) in 2014, bringing the number of substances being monitored by the EWS to over 450.

Number and categories of new psychoactive substances notified to the EU Early Warning System.

Credit: European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction

Contacts and sources:
Jean O'Reilly

Mechanism of Explosions and Plasma Jets Associated With Sunspot Formation Revealed

Sunspots are planet-sized conglomerates of bundles of intense magnetic field lines on the surface of the Sun. They are known to cause explosions (solar flares) which can directly impact our technological infrastructure. What astrophysical mechanisms are responsible for the formation of sunspots and how do they drive explosive events are important questions in our quest to understand the Sun's activity and its magnetic effect on Earth.

Field lines extend from the solar interior and appear at the solar surface. The horizontal fields of the bridge (sky-blue) are pressed between the vertical fields of the pores (red). The magnetic flux splits into two parts, which appear as two pores at the surface. Weakly-magnetized plasma is sandwiched between the two flux bundles.


To tackle these questions, an international research team led by Shin Toriumi (Specially Appointed Assistant Professor at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan) analyzed observations of sunspots as they formed taken by Hinode, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) satellites. The team modeled the observations using state-of-the-art numerical simulations performed on the Pleiades supercomputer at the NASA Ames Research Center.

The study reveals how during the course of sunspot formation the territorial struggles between magnetic bundles emerging onto the Sun's surface drive the formation of so-called 'light bridges' and the generation of plasma jets and explosions. This study reveals, for the first time, the intimate relationship between the magnetism hidden in the solar interior, sunspot formation at the surface, and the dynamism of the Sun's atmosphere. The peer-reviewed results will appear in "The Astrophysical Journal."

(Left) Hinode observation of a developing sunspot is shown. An elongated bright feature called a 'light bridge' appears between the merging pores (darkest parts). (Right) Computer simulation of sunspot formation. A light bridge resembling the one observed is formed between the pores. 

Sunspots, mysterious dark speckles on the Sun's luminous surface, have been observed and monitored by astronomers for centuries. However, it was only in the early 20th century that George Ellery Hale at Mt. Wilson Observatory discovered their true nature. Using the newly discovered atomic physics, Hale attributed the polarized light from sunspots to the existence of intense magnetic fields. With field strengths of 0.3 Teslas and above, sunspots have magnetic fields stronger than those generated inside the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines in hospitals. Sunspots are so large that several Earths could fit into each one. In a sense, sunspots are like planet-sized MRIs.

The intense magnetic fields of sunspots energize the Sun's atmosphere, often triggering solar flares and ejections that have a direct impact on the space environment around the Earth. How sunspots are born, how they evolve, and how they impact space weather are questions central to our understanding of the Sun and the magnetic relation between the Sun and the Earth. Space missions such as Hinode, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) allow scientists to witness the birth of sunspots in unprecedented detail. These combined observations reveal how magnetic field lines in the Sun's interior emerge onto the surface. First, the magnetic fields appear as 'small' bundles the size of cities and states. Sometimes, when two neighboring 'proto-spots' (known as pores) approach each other, they squeeze the intervening weakly magnetized plasma into an elongated structure called a light bridge. As the coalescence progresses, the light bridges are eventually squeezed out of existence and fully-fledged sunspots are formed. The power struggles of the magnetic field during this amalgamation process triggers repeated episodes of plasma jets and explosions.

Upper left) NASA/IRIS observation of the atmosphere above the light bridge is shown. Explosions and jet ejections are caused by a mechanism called 'magnetic reconnection.' (Lower left) Hinode observation of magnetic fields on the solar surface. Color indicates the inclination of the magnetic fields. The pores have vertical magnetic fields (red), while the bridge has horizontal fields (blue). (Right) Illustration summarizing the observational results. Magnetic reconnection between the bridge's horizontal fields and the pores' vertical fields produces explosions and jet ejections. 

Dr. Toriumi and his colleagues tracked the formation of a sunspot in unprecedented detail using data from Japan's Hinode satellite as well as data from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory and the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph. By combining this data with a detailed computer model of sunspot formation performed on the Pleiades supercomputer at NASA Ames, their work explains how the pores merge, how sunspots are created, and why explosions and jets occur between the merging pores.

First, they analyzed the satellite observation data and determined the detailed magnetic structures of the pores and bridge as well as the mechanism for the explosions and jet ejections. High-resolution observations of the surface magnetic fields by Hinode revealed that the two merging pores have strong, vertical magnetic fields while the sandwiched light bridge harbors weak, horizontal fields. In addition, IRIS observations of the atmosphere above the light bridge showed that explosions and jet ejections take place repeatedly and intermittently as a result of magnetic reconnection. This means that the horizontal fields of the bridge repeatedly snap and establish new connections with the vertical fields of the surrounding pores. This results in sudden, repetitive bursts of activity (explosions and jet ejections).

What drives the formation of the light bridge and the misalignment between adjacent magnetic fields? The team answered this question with the help of NASA's Pleiades supercomputer. Their computer model showed how streams of magnetism in the solar interior bursts onto the surface of the Sun. The emerging magnetic flux first appears as small bundles, but self-organizes into larger conglomerates to eventually form a sunspot. The model reproduces the light bridge and pores found in the observations and offers the following explanation. As two walls of magnetic flux approach each other during sunspot formation, plasma with weaker magnetic fields is sandwiched between the walls. As this trapped material is squeezed, it appears as a light bridge at the surface. The magnetic field of this trapped plasma is misaligned relative to the neighboring strong fields, which results in magnetic reconnection causing repeated eruptions and plasma jets.

This research reveals that subsurface motions in the Sun are the ultimate driving force of bursty activity in the Sun's atmosphere. The solar interior serves as the reservoir of energy that gives birth to sunspots, which structure the magnetic field of the Sun's corona and determine how the Sun affects the Earth magnetically. The similarities between observations and numerical simulations suggest that we are beginning to understand the fundamental processes operating in the Sun's interior and atmosphere. These physical principles, which dictate the evolution of magnetic plasmas, also operate in the heliosphere, in other astrophysical objects, and in fusion devices in the laboratory. Missions including Hinode, SDO, and IRIS observe the Sun, turning it into a natural laboratory for studying plasma physics.

Solar flares: Massive explosions which occur on the solar surface. These are the largest explosions in the Solar System today. The intensities of electromagnetic waves of various wavelengths increase suddenly, sometimes ejecting high-speed plasma clouds into space. Therefore, the sunspots may affect the Earth by producing exceedingly vigorous flares.

Light bridges: Bright, elongated structures that divide sunspot umbrae (the darkest parts in the spot centers). Light bridges are seen in the developing and decaying stages of the sunspot life cycle. This research focuses on the bridges that appear during the merging of pores to form sunspots.

Magnetic reconnection: The physical process where magnetic fields with different orientations approach and reconnect to each other. This process converts magnetic energy to kinetic and thermal energy. This is thought to be the energy-release mechanism in solar flares.

Contacts and sources:
Masaaki Hiramatsu
The National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS)

Thursday, October 1, 2015

How Much Radioactivity Is In Infant Formula?

Based on measurements of radioactivity in samples of infant formula manufactured and sold around the world, researchers estimate that infants 1 year of age or younger who consume these formulas would ingest a significantly higher radioactivity dose than reported levels, but lower than internationally recommended limits. 

The researchers report the radioactivity levels for each brand of formula in an article published in Environmental Engineering Science, a peer-reviewed journal from Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers. The article is available free on the Environmental Engineering Sciencewebsite until November 1, 2015.

Credit: ©Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers

In "Measurement of Natural and Artificial Radioactivity in Infant's Powdered Milk and Estimation of the Corresponding Annual Effective Dose," Onoshohwo Bemigho Uwatse and coauthors, University of Malaya (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), University of Surrey (U.K.), and King Saud University (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia), determined the levels of radioactive radium, potassium, radium, and thorium in 14 brands of powdered infant milk prepared and sold in various regions around the world. Levels of radioactivity in the formula may vary depending on several factors including radioactivity in the soil, grass, or hay from which the cows were fed, in other raw materials used in processing the formula, or due to processing conditions.

"This paper focuses on a topic that has not drawn significant attention but, nonetheless, has important health implications," says Domenico Grasso, PhD, Editor-in-Chief of Environmental Engineering Science and Provost, University of Delaware.

Contacts and sources:
Kathryn Ryan
Environmental Engineering Science,   Mary Ann Liebert, Inc 

Bacteria in 20 Million Year Old Flea May Be Ancestor of the Black Death

About 20 million years ago a single flea became entombed in amber with tiny bacteria attached to it, providing what researchers believe may be the oldest evidence on Earth of a dreaded and historic killer - an ancient strain of the bubonic plague.

If indeed the fossil bacteria are related to plague bacteria, Yersinia pestis, the discovery would show that this scourge, which killed more than half the population of Europe in the 14th century, actually had been around for millions of years before that, traveled around much of the world, and predates the human race.

This flea preserved about 20 million years ago in amber may carry evidence of an ancestral strain of the bubonic plague.
Photo by George Poinar, Jr., courtesy of Oregon State University

Findings on this extraordinary amber fossil have been published in the Journal of Medical Entomology by George Poinar, Jr., an entomology researcher in the College of Science at Oregon State University, and a leading expert on plant and animal life forms found preserved in this semi-precious stone.

It can't be determined with certainty that these bacteria, which were attached to the flea's proboscis in a dried droplet and compacted in its rectum, are related to Yersinia pestis, scientists say. But their size, shape and characteristics are consistent with modern forms of those bacteria. They are a coccobacillus bacteria; they are seen in both rod and nearly spherical shapes; and are similar to those of Yersinia pestis. Of the pathogenic bacteria transmitted by fleas today, only Yersinia has such shapes.

"Aside from physical characteristics of the fossil bacteria that are similar to plague bacteria, their location in the rectum of the flea is known to occur in modern plague bacteria," Poinar said. "And in this fossil, the presence of similar bacteria in a dried droplet on the proboscis of the flea is consistent with the method of transmission of plague bacteria by modern fleas."

The arrow points at bacteria on the proboscis of this flea preserved in amber, which researchers believe may be an ancestral strain of the bacteria that causes bubonic plague.
Credit: Oregon State University

These findings are in conflict with modern genomic studies indicating that the flea-plague-vertebrate cycle evolved only in the past 20,000 years, rather than 20 million. However, today there are several strains of Yersinia pestis, and there is evidence that past outbreaks of this disease were caused by still different strains, some of which are extinct today.

While human strains of Yersinia could well have evolved some 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, Poinar said, ancient Yersinia strains that evolved as rodent parasites could have appeared long before humans existed. These ancient strains would certainly be extinct by now, he said.

The complex mode of transmission of plague is also reflected in the flea seen in this fossil.

When a flea feeds on a plague-infected animal, the Yersinia pestis bacteria taken up with the blood often form a viscous mass in the flea's proventriculus, located between the stomach and esophagus. When this happens, the fleas can't obtain enough blood, and as they attempt to feed again, bacteria are often forced back out through the proboscis and into the wound.

This blockage is in part what makes them effective vectors of the plague, and the dried droplets on the proboscis of the fossil flea could represent a sample of the sticky bacterial mass that was regurgitated.

"If this is an ancient strain of Yersinia, it would be extraordinary," Poinar said. "It would show that plague is actually an ancient disease that no doubt was infecting and possibly causing some extinction of animals long before any humans existed. Plague may have played a larger role in the past than we imagined."

The fossil flea originated from amber mines in what is now the Dominican Republic, between Puerto Plata and Santiago. Millions of years ago the area was a tropical moist forest.

Very few fleas of any type have been found preserved in amber, Poinar said, and none have been reported with associated microorganisms, as in this case. This specimen had some other unique morphological features that indicate it's a species that long ago went extinct.

But it was the associated bacteria that fascinated the researchers.

"Since the dried droplet with bacteria is still attached to the tip of the proboscis, the flea may have become entrapped in resin shortly after it had fed on an infected animal," Poinar said. "This might have been one of the rodents that occurred in the Dominican amber forest. Rodent hair has been recovered from that amber source."

Flea-like creatures found in conventional stone fossils date back to the time of the dinosaurs, Poinar said, and the role of insects in general, and as carriers of disease, may have played a role in the demise of the ancient reptiles.

In 2008, Poinar and his wife, Roberta Poinar, wrote a book "What Bugged the Dinosaurs? Insects, Disease and Death in the Cretaceous." It explored the evolutionary rise of insects around the same time that dinosaurs went extinct. The thesis developed in the book added insect-borne diseases as a likely component, that, along with other biotic and abiotic factors such as climate change, asteroid impacts and volcanic eruptions, led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Some modern diseases such as leishmaniasis and malaria clearly date to those times.

Bubonic plague in modern times can infect and kill a wide range of animals, in addition to humans. It is still endemic in many countries, including the United States where it's been found in prairie dogs and some other animals. Even though today it is treatable with antibiotics, in the U.S. four people have died from plague so far this year.

During the Middle Ages, however, three phases of the disease - bubonic, septicemic and pneumonic plague - earned a feared reputation. Periodic waves of what was called the Black Death, for the gruesome condition in which it left its victims, swept through Europe and Asia, altogether killing an estimated 75 to 200 million people.

Scholars say that religious, social and economic changes caused by the plague altered the course of world history.

Contacts and sources:
George Poinar, Jr.
Oregon State University

Mummification Was Widespread in Bronze Age Britain

Ancient Britons may have intentionally mummified some of their dead during the Bronze Age, according to archaeologists at the University of Sheffield.

The study is the first to provide indications that mummification may have been a wide-spread funerary practice in Britain.

Credit: University of Sheffield.

Working with colleagues from the University of Manchester and University College London, Dr Tom Booth analysed skeletons at several Bronze Age burial sites across the UK. The team from the University of Sheffield's Department of Archaeology found that the remains of some ancient Britons are consistent with a prehistoric mummy from northern Yemen and a partially mummified body recovered from a sphagnum peat bog in County Roscommon, Ireland.

Building on a previous study conducted at a single Bronze Age burial site in the Outer Hebrides, Dr Booth used microscopic analysis to compare the bacterial bioerosion of skeletons from various sites across the UK with the bones of the mummified bodies from Yemen and Ireland.

Archaeologists widely agree that the damp British climate is not favourable to organic materials and all prehistoric mummified bodies that may be located in the UK will have lost their preserved tissue if buried outside of a preservative environment such as a bog.

Dr Booth, who is now based at the Department of Earth Sciences at London's Natural History Museum, said: "The problem archaeologists face is finding a consistent method of identifying skeletons that were mummified in the past - especially when they discover a skeleton that is buried outside of a protective environment.

"To help address this, our team has found that by using microscopic bone analysis archaeologists can determine whether a skeleton has been previously mummified even when it is buried in an environment that isn't favourable to mummified remains.

"We know from previous research that bones from bodies that have decomposed naturally are usually severely degraded by putrefactive bacteria, whereas mummified bones demonstrate immaculate levels of histological preservation and are not affected by putrefactive bioerosion."

Earlier investigations have shown that mummified bones found in the Outer Hebrides were not entirely consistent with mummified remains found elsewhere because there wasn't a complete absence of bacterial bioerosion.

However, armed with a new technique, the team were able to re-visit the remains from the Outer Hebrides and use microscopic analysis to test the relationship between bone bioerosion and the extent of soft tissue preservation in bone samples from the Yemeni and Irish mummies.

Their examinations revealed that both the Yemeni and Irish mummies showed limited levels of bacterial bioerosion within the bone and therefore established that the skeletons found in the Outer Hebrides as well as other sites across Britain display levels of preservation that are consistent with mummification.

The research team also found that the preservation of Bronze Age skeletons at various sites throughout the UK is different to the preservation of bones dating to all other prehistoric and historic periods, which are generally consistent with natural decomposition. Furthermore, the Sheffield-led researchers also found that Bronze Age Britons may have used a variety of techniques to mummify their dead.

Dr Booth added, "Our research shows that smoking over a fire and purposeful burial within a peat bog are among some of the techniques ancient Britons may have used to mummify their dead. Other techniques could have included evisceration, in which organs were removed shortly after death.

"The idea that British and potentially European Bronze Age communities invested resources in mummifying and curating a proportion of their dead fundamentally alters our perceptions of funerary ritual and belief in this period."

The research also demonstrates that funerary rituals that we may now regard as exotic, novel and even bizarre were practised commonly for hundreds of years by our predecessors.

Also, this method of using microscopic bone analysis to identify formerly-mummified skeletons means that archaeologists can continue searching for Bronze Age mummies throughout Europe.

"It's possible that our method may allow us to identify further ancient civilisations that mummified their dead," Dr Booth concluded.

Contacts and sources:
Sean BartonUniversity of Sheffield.

It’s The Golden Anniversary of Black-Hole Singularity

When a star collapses forming a black hole, a space-time singularity is created wherein the laws of Physics no longer work. In 1965 Sir Roger Penrose presented a theorem where he associated that singularity with so-called ''trapped surfaces'' that shrink over time. That hypothesis -one of the results of the general theory of relativity- is now celebrating its anniversary.

Black Hole Milky Way is shown
Credit: Ute Kraus, Universität Hildesheim

Exactly 50 years ago, the physicist and mathematician Sir Roger Penrose, currently Professor Emeritus at the University of Oxford (United Kingdom), formulated a theorem in which he associated two concepts related to relativity. One of these concepts is gravitational singularity, an 'error' in space-time where physical quantities cannot be defined.

The other concept is that of so-called ''trapped surfaces'', areas that inevitably shrink over time. These surfaces are formed by the explosion of a star at the end of its life, thus causing its collapse and the subsequent formation of a black hole. At that moment, a gravitational singularity is created where time ceases to exist and the laws of known Physics can no longer be applied.

Penrose's theorem relates both concepts and is considered the first major mathematically rigorous result of Einstein's general theory. Shortly after presenting his theorem, Penrose and the acclaimed Stephen Hawking tested another theorem which indicates that an expanding universe -such as ours- must have its origin in an instantaneous singularity: the Big Bang, the mysterious initial state which has infinite density.

''What these two theorems are saying is that the general theory of relativity predicts the existence of singular and catastrophic occurrences, such as that which happens inside a black hole or the great initial expansion of the universe, under certain physically reasonable conditions," explains José M. M. Senovilla, theoretical physicist at the University of the Basque Country and co-author of a study concerning these theorems.

"But they also indicate that Einstein's theory includes and describes its own limitations -he adds-, since said theory no longer seems valid in certain situations under extreme conditions due to the occurrence of totally unacceptable 'infinite' singularities".

The theorems in and of themselves do not imply that catastrophic events such as black holes have to occur. Singularity could be averted if the hypotheses of the theorem were nullified. "An example in which this would occur would be if the energy density of the entire Universe were, on average, null; but the problem is that this case seems to be highly unrealistic, so singularities prevail," the researcher notes. 

Senovilla's study on Penrose's singularity theorem has been published in the journal 'Classical and Quantum Gravity' along with 12 other articles highlighting the milestones that mark 100 years of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, the one-hundredth anniversary of which is also celebrated in 2015.

Contacts and sources:
FECYT - Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology

Citation:  José M. M. Senovilla and David Garfinkle. "The 1965 Penrose singularity theorem". Classical and Quantum Gravity 32: 124008, 2015.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Flood Risk on Rise for New York City and New Jersey Coast, Study Finds

Flood risk for New York City and the New Jersey coast has increased significantly during the last 1,000 years due to hurricanes and accompanying storm surges, according to a study by Penn State University, Rutgers University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University and Tufts University.

For the first time, climate researchers compared both sea-level rise rates and storm surge heights in prehistoric and modern eras and found that the combined increases of each have raised the likelihood of a devastating 500-year flood occurring as often as every 25 years.

Flood heights increased 1.2 meters from the prehistoric era to the modern era, mainly due to rising sea level, researchers found.
Credit: PNAS

"A storm that occurred once in seven generations is now occurring twice in a generation," said Benjamin Horton, a Rutgers marine and coastal sciences professor. Horton also is the principal investigator on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Science Foundation grants funding the research.

The study, "Increased Threat of Tropical Cyclones and Coastal Flooding During the Anthropogenic Era," was published today in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). This study is unique because researchers combined sea-level records, hurricane and storm surge models to look at flooding in the New York City region in the two time periods - prehistoric (pre-anthropogenic, A.D. 850 to 1800) and modern (anthropogenic, 1970 - 2005).

Flooding heights increased 1.2 meters from the prehistoric era to the modern era, researchers found. "This is mainly due to the rising sea level. Sea levels have been rising in the modern era because of human activity," Horton said. "Sea-level rise between hurricanes raises the 'baseline' water level and makes flooding more likely."

Flood heights increased 1.2 meters from the prehistoric era to the modern era, mainly due to rising sea level, researchers found.

In the new study, researchers provided a continuous sea-level reconstruction since A.D 850. They showed that since the late 19th century sea level has risen at its steepest rate for more than 1,000 years. What does that mean for residents along the New York/New Jersey coast? "An extra 100,000 people flooded in the region during Hurricane Sandy who would not have flooded if sea level had not been rising," Horton said of the 2012 storm.

Climate researchers compared sea-level rise rates and storm surge heights in prehistoric and modern eras and found that the combined increases of each have dramatically increased the likelihood of major storms that cause excessive flooding. Above, Hurricane Sandy damage in Lavallette, N.J.

Credit: Glynis Jones/Shutterstock

Climate scientists have established that two types of storms cause the most damage - big, slow-moving storms and smaller but higher-intensity storms - and this study found that both have significantly increased in the modern era. "What we do know is that as sea level rise accelerates into the future, we are going to have more frequent flooding," Horton said.

To reconstruct sea level, the research team used microfossils called foraminifera preserved in sediment cores from coastal salt marshes in New Jersey. The age of these cores was estimated using radiocarbon dating and several other complementary techniques. "Every inch deeper in a core takes you further back in time," Horton explained. "We can stretch this technique back hundreds of years and thousands of years."

Researchers have established that the drivers of climate changes in the prehistoric era were natural causes, while in the later period human actions have driven increases in sea-level heights and other climate measures that affect storm activity.

The paper found that flood heights have increased during the modern era not only because of relative sea-level rise but also due to changing hurricane characteristics, leading to an increased risk of coastal inundation. "The increasing flood risk projected for the coming decades presents a hazard to New York City's and New Jersey's intense concentrations of population, economic production, and static infrastructure, and indicates the necessity for risk management solutions," Horton said.

As sea levels continue to rise at an accelerated pace, the risk of coastal flooding will rise as well. That's why the next phase of this research, led by doctoral candidate Andra Reed at Penn State University, will use the data gathered to make models to predict future sea levels and hurricane activity and when major storms like Hurricane Sandy will strike.

"We need to do this so we can provide better information to residents of New York and New Jersey and to policymakers, insurance industries and the states to prepare for how often an event as severe as Hurricane Sandy will occur," Horton said.

Contacts and sources: 
Ken Branson
Rutgers University

Researchers ID Pigment from Fossils, Revealing Color of Extinct Animals

Scientists from Virginia Tech and the University of Bristol have revealed how pigment can be detected in mammal fossils, a discovery that may end the guesswork in determining the colors of extinct species.

Scientists were able to determine the reddish brown color of a bat species known as Palaeochiropteryx from fossils found in Messel, Germany. The fossil is estimated to about 49 million years old.
Photo by Jakob Vinther/University of Bristol.

The researchers discovered the reddish brown color of two extinct species of bat from fossils dating back about 50 million years, marking the first time the colors of extinct mammals have been described through fossil analysis.

The techniques can be used to determine color from well-preserved animal fossils that are up to 300 million years old, researchers said.

"We have now studied the tissues from fish, frogs, and tadpoles, hair from mammals, feathers from birds, and ink from octopus and squids," said Caitlin Colleary, a doctoral student of geosciences in the College of Science at Virginia Tech and lead author of the study. "They all preserve melanin, so it's safe to say that melanin is really all over the place in the fossil record. Now we can confidently fill in some of the original color patterns of these ancient animals."

The research involved scientists from the U.S., the United Kingdom, Germany, Ethiopia, and Denmark. It is being published this week (Sept. 28) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers said microscopic structures traditionally believed to be fossilized bacteria are in fact melanosomes -- organelles within cells that contain melanin, the pigment that gives colors to hair, feathers, skin, and eyes.

Fossil melanosomes were first described in a fossil feather in 2008 by Jakob Vinther, a molecular paleobiologist at the University of Bristol and the senior author of the current study.

Since then, the shapes of melanosomes have been used to look at how marine reptiles are related and identify colors in dinosaurs and, now, mammals.

"Very importantly, we see that the different melanins are found in organelles of different shapes: reddish melanosomes are shaped like little meatballs, while black melanosomes are shaped like little sausages and we can see that this trend is also present in the fossils," Vinther said. "This means that this correlation of melanin color to shape is an ancient invention, which we can use to easily tell color from fossils by simply looking at the melanosomes shape."

Caitlin Colleary, a doctoral student of geosciences in the College of Science at Virginia Tech, says the original color patterns of ancient animals can be determined through fossils.
Credit: Virginia Tech

In addition to shape, melanosomes are chemically distinct.

Using an instrument called a time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometer, scientists identified the molecular makeup of the fossil melanosomes to compare with modern melanosomes.

In addition, researchers replicated the conditions under which the fossils formed to identify the chemical alteration of melanin, subjecting modern feathers to high temperatures and pressures to better understand how chemical signatures changed during millions of years of burial.

"By incorporating these experiments, we were able to see how melanin chemically changes over millions of years, establishing a really exciting new way of unlocking information previously inaccessible in fossils, Colleary said.

The work was carried out at the University of Bristol, where Colleary was a master's student working with Vinther, and the University of Texas at Austin. It was supported by funds from UT Austin, National Geographic, and the University of Bristol.

"It was important to bring microchemistry into the debate, because discussion has been going on for years over whether these structures were just fossilized bacteria or specific bodies where melanin is concentrated," said Roger Summons, the Schlumberger Professor of Earth Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the research. "These two things have very different chemical compositions."

Summons, who was part of a research team that studied fossils of squid to show that ink from the Jurassic period was chemically indistinguishable from modern cuttlefish ink, said the study further helps demonstrate how all living things on Earth have evolved in concert.

"How color is imparted and how we characterize it in fossils are important, because they inform us about a very specific aspect of the history of life on our planet," Summons said. "For complex animal life, color is a factor in how individuals recognize and respond to others, determine friend or foe, and find mates. This research provides another thread to understand how ancient life evolved. Color recognition was an important part of that process, and it goes far back in the history of animals."

Contacts and sources:
John Pastor
Virginia Tech

Microsnails Defy Current Understanding, World's Smallest Land Snail Crawls in Eye of a Needle

"Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." Matthew 19:24.

For a newly discovered and nearly microscopic snail passing through the eye of a needle is no problem. 

Perhaps the world's smallest land snail species, Angustopila dominikae, in the eye of a sewing needle.

Credit: Dr. Barna Páll-Gergely and Nikolett Szpisjak.

Minuscule snails defy current knowledge and scientific terminology about terrestrial "microsnails". While examining soil samples collected from the base of limestone rocks in Guangxi Province, Southern China, scientists Barna Páll-Gergely and Takahiro Asami from Shinshu University, Adrienne Jochum, University and Natural History Museum of Bern, and András Hunyadi, found several minute empty light grey shells, which measured an astounding height of less than 1 mm.
New snail species, Angustopila dominikae, the only known specimen measuring the astounding 0.86 mm in shell height.
Credit:  Dr. Barna Páll-Gergely

The single known shell of Angustopila dominikae, named after the wife of the first author, was measured a mere 0.86 mm in shell height. Thus, it is considered to be perhaps the World's smallest land snail species when focusing on the largest diameter of the shell. With very few reported instances of species demonstrating this degree of tininess, the team have described a total of seven new land snail species in their paper, published in the open access journal ZooKeys.
Another of the herein described new species, called Angustopila subelevata, measured 0.83-0.91 mm (mean = 0.87 mm) in height.

Two of the authors have previously described other species of tiny land snails from China andKorea in the same journal.
New snail species, Angustopila subelevata, measuring from 0.83 to 0.91 mm in shell height of different specimens (average of 0.87 mm).

Credit: Dr. Barna Páll-Gergely

In their present paper, Dr. Pall-Gergely and his team also discuss the challenges faced by scientists surveying small molluscs, since finding living specimens is still very difficult. Thus, the evolutionary relationships between these species, as well as the number of existing species are yet little known.

"Extremes in body size of organisms not only attract attention from the public, but also incite interest regarding their adaptation to their environment," remind the researchers. "Investigating tiny-shelled land snails is important for assessing biodiversity and natural history as well as for establishing the foundation for studying the evolution of dwarfism in invertebrate animals."

"We hope that these results provide the taxonomic groundwork for future studies concerning the evolution of dwarfism in invertebrates," they finished up.

Contacts and sources:
Dr. Barna Páll-Gergely
Pensoft Publishers

Citation:  Páll-Gergely B, Hunyadi A, Jochum A, Asami T (2015) Seven new hypselostomatid species from China, including some of the world's smallest land snails (Gastropoda, Pulmonata, Orthurethra). ZooKeys 523: 31-62. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.523.6114

NASA Lays the Groundwork for Homesteading in Space with 3D Printing

When moving from one city to another, people rarely bring their house with them -- they just rent, buy or build a new one. Astronauts don't have the luxury of a realtor on other planets, or even a hardware store in space. They generally bring everything they might need on their journey, no matter how small, which increases cargo mass – and mission cost.

Rather than loading all their materials or waiting for a resupply mission, scientists and engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, are asking -- what if astronauts could simply use what they found when they arrived on a new destination like Mars? What if they could live off the land, make tools, equipment and even habitats with Martian dirt or a recyclable material?

Additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, can help do just that. This developing field is rapidly changing the way space systems are designed and manufactured, reducing cost and production time.

An artist's rendition of what building a structure using on-site regolith and additive manufacturing might look like. This is a technology under development for use in deep space exploration.
Credit: NASA

In November 2014, crew members aboard the International Space Station began testing a 3-D printer that layers a heated plastic filament to create a variety of three-dimensional test designs, including a wrench. The Marshall Center is managing the on-orbit development of this technology and is now analyzing and testing the durability of the first items made in space by comparing them to similar items manufactured on Earth.

Marshall became involved in additive manufacturing when it was still an emerging technology, and purchased one of the first printers in 1990, primarily for rapid prototyping. Today, the Marshall team is using state-of-the-art 3-D printers that work with a variety of plastics and metals, including titanium, aluminum, nickel, and other alloys widely used in aerospace manufacturing.

The ability to print a replacement part or tool in orbit means NASA doesn’t have to send the parts, just the computer data file of the design, saving that mass for other important items that may be needed on a deep space mission. Proving this technology is also the next step toward manufacturing with resources found on planetary surfaces to build what humans need to survive there.

Engineers at Marshall are working on methods to bind or mold raw building materials out of regolith -- the soil or dirt found on planets, asteroids, or moons. The process would involve special mobile machines that work much like a 3-D printer, only they extrude materials made from mixing soil and a binder to “print" bricks, or even walls and other structures, to make houses for astronauts and equipment on another planet. These rovers could be controlled remotely from Earth or from space, so the shelters could be set up well in advance of a human setting foot on the surface.

An early prototype of such a machine is proving effective in building small structures on Earth out of sand. The next step is to make bricks and walls with simulated Mars regolith that has the same characteristics as real Martian dirt. With this technology under development, astronauts could arrive at new destinations and already have a home that is move-in ready.

Contacts and sources:
Tracy McMahan
Marshall Space Flight Center

NASA Confirms Liquid Water on Mars Now

New findings from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) provide the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows intermittently on present-day Mars.

Using an imaging spectrometer on MRO, researchers detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes where mysterious streaks are seen on the Red Planet. These darkish streaks appear to ebb and flow over time. They darken and appear to flow down steep slopes during warm seasons, and then fade in cooler seasons. They appear in several locations on Mars when temperatures are above minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 Celsius), and disappear at colder times.

These dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars are inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water. Recently, planetary scientists detected hydrated salts on these slopes at Hale crater, corroborating their original hypothesis that the streaks are indeed formed by liquid water. The blue color seen upslope of the dark streaks are thought not to be related to their formation, but instead are from the presence of the mineral pyroxene. The image is produced by draping an orthorectified (Infrared-Red-Blue/Green(IRB)) false color image (ESP_030570_1440) on a Digital Terrain Model (DTM) of the same site produced by High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (University of Arizona). Vertical exaggeration is 1.5.

Credits: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

“Our quest on Mars has been to ‘follow the water,’ in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we’ve long suspected,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water -- albeit briny -- is flowing today on the surface of Mars.”

These downhill flows, known as recurring slope lineae (RSL), often have been described as possibly related to liquid water. The new findings of hydrated salts on the slopes point to what that relationship may be to these dark features. The hydrated salts would lower the freezing point of a liquid brine, just as salt on roads here on Earth causes ice and snow to melt more rapidly. Scientists say it’s likely a shallow subsurface flow, with enough water wicking to the surface to explain the darkening.

Dark narrow streaks called recurring slope lineae emanating out of the walls of Garni crater on Mars. The dark streaks here are up to few hundred meters in length. They are hypothesized to be formed by flow of briny liquid water on Mars. The image is produced by draping an orthorectified (RED) image (ESP_031059_1685) on a Digital Terrain Model (DTM) of the same site produced by High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (University of Arizona). Vertical exaggeration is 1.5.
Dark narrow streaks, called "recurring slope lineae," emanate from the walls of Garni Crater on Mars
Credits: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona 

"We found the hydrated salts only when the seasonal features were widest, which suggests that either the dark streaks themselves or a process that forms them is the source of the hydration. In either case, the detection of hydrated salts on these slopes means that water plays a vital role in the formation of these streaks," said Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, lead author of a report on these findings published Sept. 28 by Nature Geoscience.

Ojha first noticed these puzzling features as a University of Arizona undergraduate student in 2010, using images from the MRO's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE). HiRISE observations now have documented RSL at dozens of sites on Mars. The new study pairs HiRISE observations with mineral mapping by MRO’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM).

This animation simulates a fly-around look at one of the places on Mars where dark streaks advance down slopes during warm seasons, possibly involving liquid water. This site is within Hale Crater. The streaks are roughly the length of a football field.

The spectrometer observations show signatures of hydrated salts at multiple RSL locations, but only when the dark features were relatively wide. When the researchers looked at the same locations and RSL weren't as extensive, they detected no hydrated salt.

Ojha and his co-authors interpret the spectral signatures as caused by hydrated minerals called perchlorates. The hydrated salts most consistent with the chemical signatures are likely a mixture of magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate and sodium perchlorate. Some perchlorates have been shown to keep liquids from freezing even when conditions are as cold as minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 70 Celsius). On Earth, naturally produced perchlorates are concentrated in deserts, and some types of perchlorates can be used as rocket propellant.

Perchlorates have previously been seen on Mars. NASA's Phoenix lander and Curiosity rover both found them in the planet's soil, and some scientists believe that the Viking missions in the 1970s measured signatures of these salts. However, this study of RSL detected perchlorates, now in hydrated form, in different areas than those explored by the landers. This also is the first time perchlorates have been identified from orbit.

MRO has been examining Mars since 2006 with its six science instruments.

"The ability of MRO to observe for multiple Mars years with a payload able to see the fine detail of these features has enabled findings such as these: first identifying the puzzling seasonal streaks and now making a big step towards explaining what they are," said Rich Zurek, MRO project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

For Ojha, the new findings are more proof that the mysterious lines he first saw darkening Martian slopes five years ago are, indeed, present-day water.

"When most people talk about water on Mars, they're usually talking about ancient water or frozen water," he said. "Now we know there’s more to the story. This is the first spectral detection that unambiguously supports our liquid water-formation hypotheses for RSL."

The discovery is the latest of many breakthroughs by NASA’s Mars missions.

“It took multiple spacecraft over several years to solve this mystery, and now we know there is liquid water on the surface of this cold, desert planet,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “It seems that the more we study Mars, the more we learn how life could be supported and where there are resources to support life in the future.”

There are eight co-authors of the Nature Geoscience paper, including Mary Beth Wilhelm at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California and Georgia Tech; CRISM Principal Investigator Scott Murchie of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland; and HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona. Others are at Georgia Tech, the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and Laboratoire de Planétologie et Géodynamique in Nantes, France.

The agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin built the orbiter and collaborates with JPL to operate it.

Contacts and sources:
Guy Webster
Jet Propulsion Laboratory