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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Children Born In the Summer More Likely To Be Healthy Adults

Women who were born in the summer are more likely to be healthy adults, suggests new research published in the journal Heliyon. The authors of the study, which involved almost half a million people in the UK, say more sunlight - and therefore higher vitamin D exposure - in the second trimester of pregnancy could explain the effect, but more research is needed.
Credit: Ben Aveling

According to the study, birth month affects birth weight and when the girl starts puberty, both of which have an impact on overall health in women as adults.

The environment in the womb leads to differences in early life - including before birth - that can influence health in later life. This effect, called programming, has consequences for development throughout childhood and into adulthood.

The researchers behind the new study, from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit, University of Cambridge, UK, looked at whether birth month had an effect on birth weight, onset of puberty, and adult height. They found that children who were born in the summer were slightly heavier at birth, taller as adults and went through puberty slightly later than those born in winter months.

"When you were conceived and born occurs largely 'at random' - it's not affected by social class, your parents' ages or their health - so looking for patterns with birth month is a powerful study design to identify influences of the environment before birth," said Dr. John Perry, lead author of the study.

Previous studies have reported certain effects of the season of birth, for example on birth weight and various other health outcomes. Dr. Perry and the team thought that childhood growth and development, including the timing of puberty, is an important link between early life and later health, so decided to study more closely the impact of birth month.

The researchers compared the growth and development of around 450,000 men and women from the UK Biobank study, a major national health resource that provides data on UK volunteers to shed light on the development of diseases.

The results reveal that babies born in June, July, and August were heavier at birth and taller as adults. For the first time, the study also revealed that girls born in the summer started puberty later - an indication of better health in adult life.

"This is the first time puberty timing has been robustly linked to seasonality," said Dr. Perry. "We were surprised, and pleased, to see how similar the patterns were on birth weight and puberty timing. Our results show that birth month has a measurable effect on development and health, but more work is needed to understand the mechanisms behind this effect."

The researchers believe that the differences between babies born in the summer and the winter months could be down to how much sunlight the mother gets during pregnancy, since that in part determines her vitamin D exposure.

"We don't know the mechanisms that cause these season of birth patterns on birth weight, height, and puberty timing," said Dr. Perry. "We need to understand these mechanisms before our findings can be translated into health benefits. We think that vitamin D exposure is important and our findings will hopefully encourage other research on the long-term effects of early life vitamin D on puberty timing and health."

Contacts and sources:
Mary Beth O'Leary

Citation: "Season of birth is associated with birth weight, pubertal timing, adult body size and educational attainment" by Day et al. (doi: 10.1016/j.heliyon.2015.e00031). The article appears in Heliyon (October 2015), published by Elsevier.

Billboard of the Future: Large Scale 3-D Display

Flying cars, hoverboards and video chat - a very futuristic vision for the year 2015 was presented in the movie "Back to the Future Part II", released in 1989. Now, shortly before "Back to the Future Day" on October 21st, 2015, it is time to check whether reality has indeed kept up with the daring predictions of the 80s.

This is the billboard of the future: A large-scale glasses-free 3-D display.

Credit: TriLite

One of the technological innovations presented in this film was a huge 3D display. As far as this invention is concerned, Hollywood was almost right. Such displays will soon be possible. TU Wien and TriLite Technologies are presenting a display element which uses special micro optics and moving micro mirrors to project different pictures into different directions. This technology can be used to create 3D displays without the need for 3D glasses.

3D Pictures on Huge Outdoor Displays

Marty McFly, the protagonist of the movie "Back to the Future Part II", uses a time machine to travel from the year 1985 to October 21st, 2015. In the technological utopia of 2015 he is in for quite a few surprises. One of them is a colossal display on top of a cinema, from which a terrifying 3D shark seems to jump out to get him. Back in the 80s, no viable concepts for such a 3D display technology existed. But today, this technology is within reach.

This is the second prototype of the 3-D display module, which sends different images to different directions, enabling glasses-free 3-D.

Credit:   TriLite

A first prototype has been developed by TriLite Technologies and TU Wien a few months ago. Each 3D pixel (called "TrixelTM") consists of a laser and a moveable mirror. The mirror directs the laser beams across the field of vision, from left to right. During that movement the image information is changed. With this basic idea, different pictures can be sent to the viewer´s left and right eye, so that a 3D effect is created without the need for 3D glasses.

New Prototype, Just in Time for Back to the Future Day

Now, a much more advanced second prototype has been presented. It is now a full color display, a significant advancement over the first monochromatic version. Each Trixel has been equipped with three different lasers (red, green and blue). The module consists of 12x9 Trixels, so any number of modules can be assembled to create a large outdoor display. "The software for controlling the modules and displaying movies has already been developed", says Jörg Reitterer (from TriLite Technologies, and PhD student in Professor Ulrich Schmid's team at TU Wien). "We can use any off-the-shelf 3D movie and play it on our display."

"The basic technology was invented by TriLite Technologies in 2011. At TU Wien, three research institutes worked on different tasks such as steering the Trixels and optimizing the connection between them. The technology is now ready for the market, and we are looking for partners for mass production all over the world", says Franz Fidler, CTO of TriLite Technologies.

Contacts and sources:
Jörg Reitterer
TU Wien / TriLite Technologies GmbH

Monday, October 12, 2015

Young Male Chimpanzees Play More With Objects Than Females, But Do Not Become Better Tool Users

Research into differences between chimpanzees and bonobos in ‘preparation’ for tool use reveals intriguing sex bias in object manipulation in young chimpanzees – one that is partly mirrored in human children.   

Young chimpanzee playing with branches.

Credit: Kat Koops 

New research shows a difference between the sexes in immature chimpanzees when it comes to preparing for adulthood by practising object manipulation – considered ‘preparation’ for tool use in later life.

Researchers studying the difference in tool use between our closest living relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, found that immature bonobos have low rates of object manipulation, in keeping with previous work showing bonobos use few tools and none in foraging.

Chimpanzees, however, are the most diverse tool-users among non-human primates, and the researchers found high rates of a wide range of object manipulation among the young chimpanzees they studied.

While in adult wild chimpanzees it is females that are more avid and competent tool users, in juvenile chimpanzees the researchers conversely found it was the young males that spent more time manipulating objects, seemingly in preparation for adult tool use.

“In numerous mammalian species, sex differences in immatures foreshadow sex differences in the behaviour of adults, a phenomenon known as ‘preparation’,” said Dr Kathelijne Koops, who conducted the work at the University of Cambridge’s Division of Biological Anthropology, as well as at the Anthropological Institute and Museum at Zurich University.

Much of the time young male chimpanzees spent manipulating objects was dominated by ‘play’: with no apparent immediate goal, and often associated with a ‘play face’ – a relaxed expression of laughing or covering of upper teeth.

The sex bias for object manipulation the researchers found in juvenile chimpanzees is also found in human children. “The finding that in immature chimpanzees, like humans, object-oriented play is biased towards males may reflect a shared evolutionary history for this trait dating back to our last common ancestor,” write the researchers from Cambridge, Zurich and Kyoto, who studied communities of wild chimpanzees and bonobos in Uganda and Congo for several months, cataloguing not just all tool use, but all object manipulation.

Immature females, on the other hand, showed lower rates of object manipulation, especially in play, but displayed a much greater diversity of manipulation types than males – such as biting, breaking or carrying objects – rather than the play-based repetition seen in the object manipulation of immature males.

This seems to prepare the females better for future tool use. In an earlier study at Gombe (Tanzania), immature female chimpanzees were also observed to pay closer attention to their mothers using tools and became proficient tool users at an earlier age than males.

“Immature females seem to focus their attention on relevant tool use related tasks and thus learn quicker, whereas males seem to do more undirected exploration in play,” write the researchers.

They say they believe the findings show that not all object manipulation in juvenile chimpanzees is preparation for tool use, and the different types of object manipulation need to be considered.

Credit: Kat Koops 

The researchers say that the apparent similarity between human children and young chimpanzees in the observed male bias in object manipulation, and manipulation during play in particular, may suggest that object play functions as motor skill practice for male-specific behaviours such as dominance displays, which sometimes involve the aimed throwing of objects, rather than purely to develop tool use skills.

However, the researchers also point out that further work is needed to disentangle possible functions of object manipulation during development.

“We found that young chimpanzees showed higher rates and, importantly, more diverse types of object manipulation than bonobos. Despite being so closely related on the evolutionary tree, as well as to us, these species differ hugely in the way they use tools, and clues about the origins of human tool mastery could lie in the gulf between chimpanzees and bonobos,” Koops said.

“We found that male chimpanzees showed higher object manipulation rates than females, but their object manipulation was dominated by play. Young female chimpanzees showed much more diverse object manipulation types,” she said.

“We suggest that the observed male bias in young chimpanzees may reflect motor skill practice for male-specific behaviours, such as dominance displays, rather than for tool use skills. It seems that not all object manipulation in immatures prepares for subsistence tool use. It is important to take the types of manipulation into consideration.”

The researchers also found that in chimpanzees, but not bonobos, the types of objects manipulated became more tool-like as the apes age. “As young chimpanzees get older they switch to manipulating predominantly sticks, which in this community is the tool type used by adults to harvest army ants,” Koops explained.

This practice of ant ‘dipping’, when chimpanzees lure streams of insects onto a stick, then scoop them up by running a hand along the stick and into the mouth, provides a quick source of protein.

Koops added: “Given the close evolutionary relationship between chimpanzees, bonobos and humans, insights into species and sex differences in ‘preparation’ for tool use between chimpanzees and bonobos can help us shed light on the functions of the highly debated gender differences among children.”

The research is published October 7 in the journal PLOS ONE 

Contacts and sources:
Fred Lewsey
University of Cambridge

Ancient Genome Shows Neolithic Eurasians Migrations Back To Africa

DNA from 4,500-year-old Ethiopian skull reveals a huge migratory wave of West Eurasians into the Horn of Africa around 3,000 years ago had a genetic impact on modern populations right across the African continent.

Archaeologists outside the entrance to the Mota cave in the Ethiopian highlands, where the remains containing the ancient genome were discovered.

  Credit: Matthew Curtis

The first ancient human genome from Africa to be sequenced has revealed that a wave of migration back into Africa from Western Eurasia around 3,000 years ago was up to twice as significant as previously thought, and affected the genetic make-up of populations across the entire African continent.

The genome was taken from the skull of a man buried face-down 4,500 years ago in a cave called Mota in the highlands of Ethiopia – a cave cool and dry enough to preserve his DNA for thousands of years. Previously, ancient genome analysis has been limited to samples from northern and arctic regions.

The latest study is the first time an ancient human genome has been recovered and sequenced from Africa, the source of all human genetic diversity. The findings are published in the journal Science.

The ancient genome predates a mysterious migratory event which occurred roughly 3,000 years ago, known as the ‘Eurasian backflow’, when people from regions of Western Eurasia such as the Near East and Anatolia suddenly flooded back into the Horn of Africa.

The genome enabled researchers to run a millennia-spanning genetic comparison and determine that these Western Eurasians were closely related to the Early Neolithic farmers who had brought agriculture to Europe 4,000 years earlier.

By comparing the ancient genome to DNA from modern Africans, the team have been able to show that not only do East African populations today have as much as 25% Eurasian ancestry from this event, but that African populations in all corners of the continent – from the far West to the South – have at least 5% of their genome traceable to the Eurasian migration.

Researchers describe the findings as evidence that the ‘backflow’ event was of far greater size and influence than previously thought. The massive wave of migration was perhaps equivalent to over a quarter of the then population of the Horn of Africa, which hit the area and then dispersed genetically across the whole continent.

“Roughly speaking, the wave of West Eurasian migration back into the Horn of Africa could have been as much as 30% of the population that already lived there – and that, to me, is mind-blowing. The question is: what got them moving all of a sudden?” said Dr Andrea Manica, senior author of the study from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

Previous work on ancient genetics in Africa had involved trying to work back through the genomes of current populations, attempting to eliminate modern influences. “With an ancient genome, we have a direct window into the distant past. One genome from one individual can provide a picture of an entire population,” said Manica.

The cause of the West Eurasian migration back into Africa is currently a mystery, with no obvious climatic reasons. Archaeological evidence does, however, show the migration coincided with the arrival of Near Eastern crops into East Africa such as wheat and barley, suggesting the migrants helped develop new forms of agriculture in the region.

The researchers say it’s clear that the Eurasian migrants were direct descendants of, or a very close population to, the Neolithic farmers that had had brought agriculture from the Near East into West Eurasia around 7,000 years ago, and then migrated into the Horn of Africa some 4,000 years later. “It’s quite remarkable that genetically-speaking this is the same population that left the Near East several millennia previously,” said Eppie Jones, a geneticist at Trinity College Dublin who led the laboratory work to sequence the genome.

While the genetic make-up of the Near East has changed completely over the last few thousand years, the closest modern equivalents to these Neolithic migrants are Sardinians, probably because Sardinia is an isolated island, says Jones. “The famers found their way to Sardinia and created a bit of a time capsule. Sardinian ancestry is closest to the ancient Near East.” 

View looking out from the Mota cave in the Ethiopian highlands

  Credit: Matthew Curtis/Cambridge University 

“Genomes from this migration seeped right across the continent, way beyond East Africa, from the Yoruba on the western coast to the Mbuti in the heart of the Congo – who show as much as 7% and 6% of their genomes respectively to be West Eurasian,” said Marcos Gallego Llorente, first author of the study, also from Cambridge’s Zoology Department.

“Africa is a total melting pot. We know that the last 3,000 years saw a complete scrambling of population genetics in Africa. So being able to get a snapshot from before these migration events occurred is a big step,” Gallego Llorente said.

The ancient Mota genome allows researchers to jump to before another major African migration: the Bantu expansion, when speakers of an early Bantu language flowed out of West Africa and into central and southern areas around 3,000 years ago. Manica says the Bantu expansion may well have helped carry the Eurasian genomes to the continent’s furthest corners.

The researchers also identified genetic adaptations for living at altitude, and a lack of genes for lactose tolerance – all genetic traits shared by the current populations of the Ethiopian highlands. In fact, the researchers found that modern inhabitants of the area highlands are direct descendants of the Mota man.

Finding high-quality ancient DNA involves a lot of luck, says Dr Ron Pinhasi, co-senior author from University College Dublin. “It’s hard to get your hands on remains that have been suitably preserved. The denser the bone, the more likely you are to find DNA that’s been protected from degradation, so teeth are often used, but we found an even better bone – the petrous.” The petrous bone is a thick part of the temporal bone at the base of the skull, just behind the ear.

“The sequencing of ancient genomes is still so new, and it’s changing the way we reconstruct human origins,” added Manica. “These new techniques will keep evolving, enabling us to gain an ever-clearer understanding of who our earliest ancestors were.”

The study was conducted by an international team of researchers, with permission from the Ethiopia’s Ministry of Culture and Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage.

Contacts and sources:
Fred Lewsey
University of Cambridge 

How Hallucinations Emerge From Trying To Make Sense of an Ambiguous World

Take a look at the black and white image. It probably looks like a meaningless pattern of black and white blotches. But now take a look at the image below and then return to the picture: it's likely that you can now make sense of the black and white image. It is this ability that scientists at Cardiff University and the University of Cambridge believe could help explain why some people are prone to hallucinations.

A bewildering and often very frightening experience in some mental illnesses is psychosis - a loss of contact with external reality. This often results in a difficulty in making sense of the world, which can appear threatening, intrusive and confusing. Psychosis is sometimes accompanied by drastic changes in perception, to the extent that people may see, feel, smell and taste things that are not actually there - so-called hallucinations. These hallucinations may be accompanied by beliefs that others find irrational and impossible to comprehend.

Credit: Christoph Teufel

In research published today in the journal Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a team of researchers based at Cardiff University and the University of Cambridge explore the idea that hallucinations arise due to an enhancement of our normal tendency to interpret the world around us by making use of prior knowledge and predictions.

In order to make sense of and interact with our physical and social environment, we need appropriate information about the world around us, for example the size or location of a nearby object. However, we have no direct access to this information and are forced to interpret potentially ambiguous and incomplete information from our senses. This challenge is overcome in the brain - for example in our visual system - by combining ambiguous sensory information with our prior knowledge of the environment to generate a robust and unambiguous representation of the world around us. For example, when we enter our living room, we may have little difficulty discerning a fast-moving black shape as the cat, even though the visual input was little more than a blur that rapidly disappeared behind the sofa: the actual sensory input was minimal and our prior knowledge did all the creative work.

"Vision is a constructive process - in other words, our brain makes up the world that we 'see'," explains first author Dr Christoph Teufel from the School of Psychology at Cardiff University. "It fills in the blanks, ignoring the things that don't quite fit, and presents to us an image of the world that has been edited and made to fit with what we expect."

Credit: August Natterer

"Having a predictive brain is very useful - it makes us efficient and adept at creating a coherent picture of an ambiguous and complex world," adds senior author Professor Paul Fletcher from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge. "But it also means that we are not very far away from perceiving things that aren't actually there, which is the definition of a hallucination.

"In fact, in recent years we've come to realise that such altered perceptual experiences are by no means restricted to people with mental illness. They are relatively common, in a milder form, across the entire population. Many of us will have heard or seen things that aren't there."

In order to address the question of whether such predictive processes contribute to the emergence of psychosis, the researchers worked with 18 individuals who had been referred to a mental health service run by the NHS Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Foundation Trust, and led by Dr Jesus Perez, one of the co-authors on the study, and who suffered from very early signs of psychosis. They examined how these individuals, as well as a group of 16 healthy volunteers, were able to use predictions in order to make sense of ambiguous, incomplete black and white images, similar to the one shown above.

Credit: Christoph Teufel

The volunteers were asked to look at a series of these black and white images, some of which contained a person, and then to say for a given image whether or not it contained a person. Because of the ambiguous nature of the images, the task was very difficult at first. Participants were then shown a series of full colour original images, including those from which the black and white images had been derived: this information could be used to improve the brain's ability to make sense of the ambiguous image. The researchers reasoned that, since hallucinations may come from a greater tendency to superimpose one's predictions on the world, people who were prone to hallucinations would be better at using this information because, in this task, such a strategy would be an advantage.

The researchers found a larger performance improvement in people with very early signs of psychosis in comparison to the healthy control group. This suggested that people from the clinical group were indeed relying more strongly on the information that they had been given to make sense of the ambiguous pictures.

When the researchers presented the same task to a larger group of 40 healthy people, they found a continuum in task performance that correlated with the participants' scores on tests of psychosis-proneness. In other words, the shift in information processing that favours prior knowledge over sensory input during perception can be detected even before the onset of early psychotic symptoms.

"These findings are important because, not only do they tell us that the emergence of key symptoms of mental illness can be understood in terms of an altered balance in normal brain functions," says Naresh Subramaniam from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge. "Importantly, they also suggest that these symptoms and experiences do not reflect a 'broken' brain but rather one that is striving - in a very natural way - to make sense of incoming data that are ambiguous."

Contacts and sources:
Craig Brierley

Friday, October 9, 2015

History of Tectonic and Climate Evolution May Need Rewriting Says Evidence From China's Yellow River

By meticulously examining sediments in China's Yellow River, a Swedish-Chinese research group are showing that the history of tectonic and climate evolution on Earth may need to be rewritten. Their findings are published today in the highly reputed journal Nature Communications.

To reconstruct how the global climate and topography of the Earth's surface have developed over millions of years, deposits of eroded land sediment transported by rivers to ocean depths are often used. This process is assumed to have been rapid and, by the same token, not to have resulted in any major storages of this sediment as large deposits along the way.

These are thick loess deposits on the Chinese Loess Plateau showing changing Ice Age climate. Visible dark bands are fossil soils from warm intervals and lighter intervals show enhanced dustiness during full ice age conditions

Credit: Thomas Stevens

However, knowledge gaps and contradictory data in research to date are impeding an understanding of climate and landscape history. In an attempt to fill the gaps and reconcile the contradictions, the researchers have been investigating present-day and ancient sediment deposits in the world's most sediment-rich river: the Yellow River in China.

The researchers, from Uppsala University (led by Dr. Thomas Stevens) and Lanzhou University (led by Dr. Junsheng Nie), China, analysed Yellow River sediment from source to sink and determined its mineral composition. They also determined the age of mineral grains of zircon, a very hard silicate mineral that is highly resistant to weathering.

Zircon ages serve as a unique fingerprint that yields information about the sources of these sediment residues from mountain chains, according to Thomas Stevens of Uppsala University's Department of Earth Sciences who is one of the principal authors of the study.

This is a side branch of the Yellow River on the north east edge of the Tibetan plateau. Our recent work shows that the Yellow River eroded and incised the uplifting Tibetan plateau and provided the wind-blown dust material that forms the Chinese Loess Plateau, one of the worlds most important past climate archives.
Credit: Thomas Stevens

The Yellow River is believed to gain most of its sediment from wind-blown mineral dust deposits called loess, concentrated on the Chinese Loess Plateau. This plateau is the largest and one of the most important past climate archives on land, and also records past atmospheric dust activity: a major driver of climate change.

The scientists found that the composition of sediment from the Yellow River underwent radical change after passing the Chinese Loess Plateau. Contrary to their expectations, however, the windborne loess was not the main source of the sediment. Instead, they found that the Loess Plateau acts as a sink for Yellow River material eroded from the uplifting Tibetan plateau.

This finding completely changes our understanding of the origin of the Chinese Loess Plateau. It also demonstrates large scale sediment storage on land, which explains the previously contradictory findings in this area.

'Our results suggest that a major change in the monsoon around 3.6 million years ago caused the onset of Yellow River drainage, accelerated erosion of the Tibetan plateau and drove loess deposition,' Thomas Stevens writes.

Weathering of this eroded material also constitutes a further mechanism that may explain the reduced levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide at the beginning of the Ice Age. The researchers' next step will be to compare terrestrial and marine records of erosion to gauge how far sediment storage on land has impacted the marine record.

'Only then will we be able to assess the true rates of erosion and its effect on atmospheric CO2 and thus the climate in geologic time,' says Stevens.  

Contacts and sources: 
Thomas Stevens
 Uppsala University

Could 'The Day After Tomorrow' Happen? Collapse of Atlantic Circulation and Catastrophic Events

A researcher from the University of Southampton has produced a scientific study of the climate scenario featured in the disaster movie 'The Day After Tomorrow'.

In the 2004 film, climate warming caused an abrupt collapse of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC), leading to catastrophic events such as tornadoes destroying Los Angeles, New York being flooded and the nort

This is a temperature anomaly in degrees Celsius after 95 years from the onset of an AMOC collapse.

Credit: University of Southampton

Although the scientific credibility of the film drew criticism from climate scientists, the scenario of an abrupt collapse of the AMOC, as a consequence of anthropogenic greenhouse warming, was never assessed with a state-of-the-art climate model.

Using the German climate model ECHAM at the Max-Planck Institute in Hamburg, Professor Sybren Drijfhout from Ocean and Earth Science at the University of Southampton found that, for a period of 20 years, the earth will cool instead of warm if global warming and a collapse of the AMOC occur simultaneously. Thereafter, global warming continues as if the AMOC never collapsed, but with a globally averaged temperature offset of about 0.8°C.

This image shows recovery time in years, defined as the time needed for surface air temperature to recover its values from 1990-2000

Credit: University of Southampton

Professor Drijfhout said: "The planet earth recovers from the AMOC collapse in about 40 years when global warming continues at present-day rates, but near the eastern boundary of the North Atlantic (including the British Isles) it takes more than a century before temperature is back to normal."

Interestingly, the effect of atmospheric cooling due to an AMOC collapse is associated with heat flow from the atmosphere into the ocean, which has been witnessed during the climate hiatus of the last 15 years.

Professor Drijfhout added: "When a similar cooling or reduced heating is caused by volcanic eruptions or decreasing greenhouse emissions the heat flow is reversed, from the ocean into the atmosphere. A similar reversal of energy flow is also visible at the top of the atmosphere. These very different fingerprints in energy flow between atmospheric radiative forcing and internal ocean circulation processes make it possible to attribute the cause of a climate hiatus period."

However, the study, which appears in Scientific Reports, says that the recent period of very weak warming cannot be attributed to one single cause. Most probably El Niño plays a role and possibly also changes in the Southern Ocean due to shifting and increasing westerlies.

Professor Sybren said: "It can be excluded, however, that this hiatus period was solely caused by changes in atmospheric forcing, either due to volcanic eruptions, more aerosols emissions in Asia, or reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Changes in ocean circulation must have played an important role. Natural variations have counteracted the greenhouse effect for a decade or so, but I expect this period is over now."

Contacts and sources: 
Glenn Harris
University of Southampton 

‘Psychic Robot’ Will Know Better Than Know You What To Do

What if software could steer a car back on track if the driver swerves on ice? Or guide a prosthesis to help a shaky stroke patient smoothly lift a cup?

Bioengineers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have developed a mathematical algorithm that can “see” your intention while performing an ordinary action like reaching for a cup or driving straight up a road -- even if the action is interrupted.

Amazing Stories January 1939.jpg
 Credit: "Amazing Stories January 1939" by Robert Fuqua,

“Say you’re reaching for a piece of paper and your hand is bumped mid-reach -- your eyes take time to adjust; your nerves take time to process what has happened; your brain takes time to process what has happened and even more time to get a new signal to your hand,” said Justin Horowitz, UIC graduate student research assistant and first author of the study.

“So, when something unexpected happens, the signal going to your hand can’t change for at least a tenth of a second -- if it changes at all,” Horowitz said.

In a first test of this concept, Horowitz employed exactly the scenario he described -- he analyzed the movement of research subjects as they reached for an object on a virtual desk, but had their hand pushed in the wrong direction. He was able to develop an advanced mathematical algorithm that analyzed the action and estimated the subject’s intent, even when there was a disturbance and no follow through.

The algorithm can predict the way you wanted to move, according to your intention, Horowitz said. The car’s artificial intelligence would use the algorithm to bring the car’s course more in line with what the driver wanted to do.

“If we hit a patch of ice and the car starts swerving, we want the car to know where we meant to go,” he said. “It needs to correct the car’s course not to where I am now pointed, but [to] where I meant to go.”

Justin Horowitz, UIC graduate research assistant in bioengineering, developed a mathematical algorithm that can “see” intention.

The study is published online in the journal PLOS ONE.

“The computer has extra sensors and processes information so much faster than I can react," Horowitz said. "If the car can tell where I mean to go, it can drive itself there. But it has to know which movements of the wheel represent my intention, and which are responses to an environment that’s already changed.”

For a stroke patient, a "smart" prosthesis must be able to interpret what the person means to do even as the person's own body corrupts their actions (due to muscle spasms or tremors.) The algorithm may make it possible for a device to discern the person's intent and help them complete the task smoothly.

Superman: The Mechanical Monsters (1941), a Fleischer Brothers Superman cartoon.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons '

“We call it a psychic robot,” Horowitz said. “If you know how someone is moving and what the disturbance is, you can tell the underlying intent -- which means we could use this algorithm to design machines that could correct the course of a swerving car or help a stroke patient with spasticity.”

"Maria from the film Metropolis, on display at the Robot Hall of Fame" by Jiuguang Wang from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States - Maria from the film Metropolis, on display at the Robot Hall of Fame.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

James Patton, professor of bioengineering, is principal investigator on the PLOS ONE research article. The study was performed at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and supported by National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke grant NS053606.

Contacts and sources:
Jeanne Galatzer-Levy
University of Illinois at Chicago 

Wild American Crows Use Funerals to Learn About Danger

Wild American crows use funerals to learn about danger

According to University of Washington Kaeli Swift and Dr. John Marzluff School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, a growing number of animals demonstrate seemingly ritualistic behaviors around the death or body of a conspecific, the evolutionary basis for this behavior remains unclear. 

The two researchers demonstrated that wild American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) are using funeral gatherings as an opportunity to engage in social learning, inform future resource use, infer novel predators, and that this behavior is not shared by another urban bird: the rock pigeon (Columba livia).

Credit: Walter Siegmund

Novel humans paired with a dead crow, a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), and a hawk with a dead crow all evoked mobbing and decreased foraging by crows, while pairing with a dead pigeon did not. These findings suggest that dead conspecifics, but not heterospecifics, represent a salient danger akin to observation of a predator. Mobbing and decreased foraging immediately after stimulus removal were strongest when crows were presented a hawk with a dead crow. 

Over the next 3 days they found that crows avoided food in areas associated with these dangerous events. However, site avoidance was uniform across stimuli suggesting that crow sensitivity to the identity of the threat dissipates after 24 hours. 

In addition, they demonstrated that crows use proximity to predators, dead conspecifics and predators with conspecific remains as a cue to learn and subsequently scold the associated human after only 1 training event, and that this association could last 6 weeks. Together, these data provide important insights into the nature of crow funeral gatherings and how crows navigate the threatening landscape.

Citation: Swift, Kaeli N. : Thesis (Master's)--University of Washington, 2015 http://hdl.handle.net/1773/33178

Bio-Inspired Robotic Finger Looks, Feels and Works Like the Real Thing

Most robotic parts used today are rigid, have a limited range of motion and don’t really look lifelike. Inspired by both nature and biology, a scientist from Florida Atlantic University has designed a novel robotic finger that looks and feels like the real thing. 

This new technology used both a heating and then a cooling process to operate the robotic finger. Results from the study showed a more rapid flexing and extending motion of the finger as well as its ability to recover its trained shape more accurately and more completely, confirming the biomechanical basis of its trained shape.
Credit:  Florida Atlantic University 

In an article recently published in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, Erik Engeberg, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Ocean and Mechanical Engineering within the College of Engineering and Computer Science at FAU, describes how he has developed and tested this robotic finger using shape memory alloy (SMA), a 3D CAD model of a human finger, a 3D printer, and a unique thermal training technique.

“We have been able to thermomechanically train our robotic finger to mimic the motions of a human finger like flexion and extension,” said Engeberg. “Because of its light weight, dexterity and strength, our robotic design offers tremendous advantages over traditional mechanisms, and could ultimately be adapted for use as a prosthetic device, such as on a prosthetic hand.”

In the study, Engeberg and his team used a resistive heating process called “Joule” heating that involves the passage of electric currents through a conductor that releases heat. Using a 3D CAD model of a human finger, which they downloaded from a website, they were able to create a solid model of the finger. With a 3D printer, they created the inner and outer molds that housed a flexor and extensor actuator and a position sensor. The extensor actuator takes a straight shape when it’s heated, whereas the flexor actuator takes a curved shape when heated. They used SMA plates and a multi-stage casting process to assemble the finger. An electrical chassis was designed to allow electric currents to flow through each SMA actuator. Its U-shaped design directed the electric current to flow the SMAs to an electric power source at the base of the finger.

This new technology used both a heating and then a cooling process to operate the robotic finger. As the actuator cooled, the material relaxed slightly. Results from the study showed a more rapid flexing and extending motion of the finger as well as its ability to recover its trained shape more accurately and more completely, confirming the biomechanical basis of its trained shape.

“Because SMAs require a heating process and cooling process, there are challenges with this technology such as the lengthy amount of time it takes for them to cool and return to their natural shape, even with forced air convection,” said Engeberg. “To overcome this challenge, we explored the idea of using this technology for underwater robotics, because it would naturally provide a rapidly cooling environment.”

Since the initial application of this finger will be used for undersea operations, Engeberg used thermal insulators at the fingertip, which were kept open to facilitate water flow inside the finger. As the finger flexed and extended, water flowed through the inner cavity within each insulator to cool the actuators.

“Because our robotic finger consistently recovered its thermomechanically trained shape better than other similar technologies, our underwater experiments clearly demonstrated that the water cooling component greatly increased the operational speed of the finger,” said Engeberg.

Undersea applications using Engeberg’s new technology could help to address some of the difficulties and challenges humans encounter while working in the ocean depths.
The focus of Engeberg’s BioRobotics Laboratory at FAU is investigating robotics and prosthetics, controller design, bioinspiration and biomemetics.

Contacts and sources:
Florida Atlantic University

Why Elephants Rarely Get Cancer

Why elephants rarely get cancer is a mystery that has stumped scientists for decades. A study led by researchers at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at the University of Utah and Arizona State University, and including researchers from the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation, may have found the answer.

Investigators at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah analyzed cells in blood from elephants, obtained during routine wellness checks, to learn why the animals rarely get cancer. The studies were made possible by collaborations with Utah's Hogle Zoo and the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation.
Credit: University of Utah Health Sciences

According to the results, published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), and determined over the course of several years and a unique collaboration between HCI, Primary Children’s Hospital, Utah’s Hogle Zoo, and the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation, elephants have 38 additional modified copies (alleles) of a gene that encodes p53, a well-defined tumor suppressor, as compared to humans, who have only two. Further, elephants may have a more robust mechanism for killing damaged cells that are at risk for becoming cancerous. In isolated elephant cells, this activity is doubled compared to healthy human cells, and five times that of cells from patients with Li-Fraumeni Syndrome, who have only one working copy of p53 and more than a 90 percent lifetime cancer risk in children and adults. The results suggest extra p53 could explain elephants’ enhanced resistance to cancer.

“Nature has already figured out how to prevent cancer. It’s up to us to learn how different animals tackle the problem so we can adapt those strategies to prevent cancer in people,” says co-senior author Joshua Schiffman, M.D., pediatric oncologist at Huntsman Cancer Institute, University of Utah School of Medicine, and Primary Children’s Hospital.

Joshua Schiffman, M.D., pediatric oncologist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah, has led a study that could explain why elephants rarely get cancer. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the results show that elephants have extra copies of a gene that encodes a well-defined tumor suppressor, p53. Further, elephants may have a more robust mechanism for killing damaged cells that are at risk for becoming cancerous. The findings could lead to new strategies for treating cancer in people.
Credit: University of Utah Health Sciences

According to Schiffman, elephants have long been considered a walking conundrum. Because they have 100 times as many cells as people, they should be 100 times more likely to have a cell slip into a cancerous state and trigger the disease over their long life span of 50 to 70 years. And yet it’s believed that elephants get cancer less often, a theory confirmed in this study. Analysis of a large database of elephant deaths estimates a cancer mortality rate of less than 5 percent compared to 11 to 25 percent in people.

In search of an explanation, the scientists combed through the African elephant genome and found at least 40 copies of genes that code for p53, a protein well known for its cancer-inhibiting properties. DNA analysis provides clues as to why elephants have so many copies, a substantial increase over the two found in humans. The vast majority, 38 of them, are so-called retrogenes, modified duplicates that have been churned out over evolutionary time.

Schiffman’s team collaborated with Utah’s Hogle Zoo and Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation to test whether the extra gene copies may protect elephants from cancer. They extracted white blood cells from blood drawn from the animals during routine wellness checks and subjected the cells to treatments that damage DNA, a cancer trigger. In response, the cells reacted to damage with a characteristic p53-mediated response: they committed suicide.

“It’s as if the elephants said, ‘It’s so important that we don’t get cancer, we’re going to kill this cell and start over fresh,’” says Schiffman. “If you kill the damaged cell, it’s gone, and it can’t turn into cancer. This may be more effective of an approach to cancer prevention than trying to stop a mutated cell from dividing and not being able to completely repair itself.”

With respect to cancer, patients with inherited Li-Fraumeni Syndrome are nearly the opposite of elephants. They have just one active copy of p53 and more than a 90 percent lifetime risk for cancer. Less p53 decreases the DNA damage response in patients with Li-Fraumeni Syndrome, and Schiffman’s team wondered if more p53 could protect against cancer in elephants by heightening the response to damage. To test this, the researchers did a side-by-side comparison with cells isolated from elephants (n=8), healthy humans (n=10), and from patients with Li-Fraumeni Syndrome (n=10). They found that elephant cells exposed to radiation self-destruct at twice the rate of healthy human cells and more than five times the rate of Li-Fraumeni cells (14.6%, 7.2%, and 2.7%, respectively). These findings support the idea that more p53 offers additional protection against cancer.

“By all logical reasoning, elephants should be developing a tremendous amount of cancer, and in fact, should be extinct by now due to such a high risk for cancer,” says Schiffman. “We think that making more p53 is nature’s way of keeping this species alive.” Additional studies will be needed to determine whether p53 directly protects elephants from cancer.

“Twenty years ago, we founded the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation to preserve the endangered Asian elephant for future generations. Little did we know then that they may hold the key to cancer treatment,” said Kenneth Feld, Chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment.

“The incredible bond our staff has with these majestic animals, and the hands-on care provided at the Center for Elephant Conservation, allows us to easily provide the blood samples Dr. Schiffman needs to further his research,” said Alana Feld, executive vice president of Feld Entertainment and producer of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. “We look forward to the day when there is a world with more elephants and less cancer.”

The elephant story represents one way that evolution may have overcome cancer. Other evidence suggests that naked mole rats and bowhead whales have evolved different approaches to the problem. Schiffman plans to use what he’s learned in elephants as a strategy for developing novel cancer-fighting therapies.

Schiffman and co-authors, Lisa Abegglen, Ashley Chan, Kristy Lee, Rosann Robinson, Michael Campbell, and Srividya Bhaskara are from Huntsman Cancer Institute and the University of Utah, Aleah Caulin and Shane Jensen are from the University of Pennsylvania, Wendy Kiso and Dennis Schmitt are from the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation, Peter Waddell is from the Ronin Institute in West Lafayette, Indiana, and Carlo Maley, senior co-author, is from Arizona State University. Also contributing to the research was Eric Peterson, elephant manager at Utah’s Hogle Zoo.

“Participating in the research is not only amazing but a win-win for humans and elephants,” said Peterson. “If elephants can hold the key to unlocking some of the mysteries of cancer, then we will see an increased awareness of the plight of elephants worldwide. What a fantastic benefit: elephants and humans living longer, better lives.”

“The animal kingdom undoubtedly holds information that could help lead to cures for many human illnesses,” said Craig Dinsmore, executive director, Utah’s Hogle Zoo. “The blood samples from our elephants at Utah’s Hogle Zoo are aiding Dr. Schiffman in his research, and we are proud to be a part of his ground-breaking work.”

“Potential mechanisms for cancer resistance in elephants and comparative cellular response to DNA damage in humans” will be published in JAMA online on October 8, 2015.

Contacts and sources:
Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Homo naledi Hand and Foot: New Species of Human Relative

The second set of papers related to the remarkable discovery of Homo naledi, a new species of human relative, have been published in scientific journal, Nature Communications, on Tuesday, 6 October 2015.

The two papers, titled: The foot of Homo naledi and The hand of Homo naledi, describe the structure and function of the H. naledi hand and foot. Taken together, the findings indicate H. naledi may have been uniquely adapted for both tree climbing and walking as dominant forms of movement, while also being capable of precise manual manipulation.
The Homo naledi hand and foot were uniquely adapted for both tree climbing and walking upright.

Credit: Peter Schmid and William Harcourt-Smith | Wits University

The research were conducted by a team of international scientists associated with the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, home of the Rising Star Expedition team that have since the 2013-discovery of the largest hominin find yet made on the African continent, recovered some 1 550 numbered fossil elements from a cave in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, some 50 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg.

According to the researchers, when considered together, these papers indicate a decoupling of upper and lower limb function in H. naledi, and provide an important insight into the skeletal form and function that may have characterised early members of the Homo genus.

The foot of Homo naledi

Lead author William Harcourt-Smith and colleagues describe the H. naledi foot based on 107 foot elements from the Denaldi Chamber, including a well preserved adult right foot. They show the H. naledi foot shares many features with a modern human foot, indicating it is well-adapted for standing and walking on two feet. However, the authors note it differs in having more curved toe bones (proximal phalanges).

The hand of Homo naledi

Lead author Tracey Kivell and colleagues describe the H. naledi hand based on nearly 150 hand bones from the Denaldi Chamber, including a nearly complete adult right hand (missing only one wrist bone) of a single individual, which is a rare find in the human fossil record.

The H. naledi hand reveals a unique combination of anatomy that has not been found in any other fossil human before. The wrist bones and thumb show anatomical features that are shared with Neandertals and humans and suggest powerful grasping and the ability to use stone tools.

However, the finger bones are more curved than most early fossil human species, such as Lucy's species Australopithecus afarensis, suggesting that H. naledi still used their hands for climbing in the trees. This mix of human-like features in combination with more primitive features demonstrates that the H. naledi hand was both specialised for complex tool-use activities, but still used for climbing locomotion.

"The tool-using features of the H. naledi hand in combination with its small brain size has interesting implications for what cognitive requirements might be needed to make and use tools, and, depending on the age of these fossils, who might have made the stone tools that we find in South Africa," says Kivell.


Contacts and sources:
Erna van Wyk
The Evolutionary Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Mysterious Ripples Found Racing Through Planet-Forming Disk

Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope in Chile have discovered never-before-seen moving features within the dusty disk surrounding the young, nearby star AU Microscopii (AU Mic). The fast-moving, wave-like structures are unlike anything ever observed in a circumstellar disk, said researchers of a new analysis. This new, unexplained phenomenon may provide valuable clues about how planets form inside these star-surrounding disks.

This set of images of a 40-billion-mile-diameter edge-on disk encircling the young star AU Microscopii reveals a string of mysterious wave-like features. When astronomers compared images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, taken in 2010 and 2011, to a 2014 image from the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope, they discovered the ripples are moving across the disk at a speed of 22,000 miles per hour. Such high velocities rule out the possibility that these features are caused by planets or smaller objects in the disk. Pending further research, the phenomenon remains unknown. Such structures have never before been seen in stellar gas and dust disks. The images are false-colored to bring out structural details in the disk.

Credit for Top Panel: NASA, ESA, G. Schneider (Steward Observatory), and the HST GO 12228 team
Credit for Bottom Panels: NASA, ESA, ESO, and A. Boccaletti (Paris Observatory)

AU Mic is located 32 light-years away in the southern constellation Microscopium. It is an optimal star to observe because its circumstellar disk is tilted edge on to our view from Earth. This allows for certain details in the disk to be better seen.

Astronomers have been searching AU Mic's disk for any signs of clumpy or warped features that might offer evidence for planet formation. They discovered some very unusual, apparently outward-moving features near the star by using ESO's SPHERE (Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet Research) instrument, mounted on the Very Large Telescope.

AU Microscopii Debris Disk
Credit: NASA, ESA, G. Schneider (Steward Observatory), and the HST GO 12228 team

"The images from SPHERE show a set of unexplained features in the disk, which have an arc-like, or wave-like structure, unlike anything that has ever been observed before," said Anthony Boccaletti of the Paris Observatory, the paper's lead author.

The images reveal a train of wave-like arches, resembling ripples in water. After spotting the features in the SPHERE data the team turned to earlier Hubble images of the disk, taken in 2010 and 2011. The wave-like nature of some of these features were not recognized in the initial Hubble observations. But once astronomers reprocessed the Hubble images they not only identified the features but realized that they had changed over time. The researchers report that these ripples are moving — and they are moving very fast.

"We ended up with enough information to track the movement of these strange features over a 3- to 4-year period," explained team member Christian Thalmann of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. "By doing this, we found that the arches are racing away from the star at speeds of up to 10 kilometers per second (22,000 miles per hour)!" Co-investigator Carol Grady of Eureka Scientific in Oakland, California, added, "Because nothing like this has been observed or predicted in theory we can only hypothesize when it comes to what we are seeing and how it came about."

AU Microscopii Scale and Compass
Credit: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay (STScI)

The ripples farther away from the star seem to be moving faster than those closer to it. At least three of the features are moving so fast that they are likely escaping from the gravitational attraction of the star. Such high speeds rule out the possibility that these features are caused by objects, like planets, gravitationally disturbing material in the disk. The team has also ruled out a series of phenomena as explanations, including the collision of two massive and rare asteroid-like objects releasing large quantities of dust and spiral waves triggered by instabilities in the system's gravity.

"One explanation for the strange structure links them to the star's flares. AU Mic is a star with high flaring activity. This is typical for such young, relatively cool, low-mass stars. AU Mic often lets off huge and sudden bursts of energy from on or near its surface,” said co-author and leader of the Hubble team Glenn Schneider of Steward Observatory in Tucson, Arizona. "One of these flares could perhaps have triggered something on one of the planets — if there are planets — like a violent stripping of material, which could now be propagating through the disk, propelled by the flare's force."

The team plans to continue to observe the AU Mic system to try to understand what is happening. But, for now, these curious features remain an unsolved mystery.

The results will be published Oct. 8 in the British science journal Nature.

Contacts and sources:
Ray Villard, Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland
Felicia Chou, NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.
Mathias Jäger, ESA/Hubble, Garching, Germany
Anthony Boccaletti, Paris Observatory, CNRS, Paris, France
Glenn Schneider, Steward Observatory, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Pluto’s Big Moon Charon Reveals a Colorful and Violent History

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has returned the best color and the highest resolution images yet of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon – and these pictures show a surprisingly complex and violent history.

Charon in Enhanced Color NASA's New Horizons captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Charon just before closest approach on July 14, 2015. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the spacecraft’s Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC); the colors are processed to best highlight the variation of surface properties across Charon. Charon’s color palette is not as diverse as Pluto’s; most striking is the reddish north (top) polar region, informally named Mordor Macula. Charon is 754 miles (1,214 kilometers) across; this image resolves details as small as 1.8 miles (2.9 kilometers).


At half the diameter of Pluto, Charon is the largest satellite relative to its planet in the solar system. Many New Horizons scientists expected Charon to be a monotonous, crater-battered world; instead, they’re finding a landscape covered with mountains, canyons, landslides, surface-color variations and more.

“We thought the probability of seeing such interesting features on this satellite of a world at the far edge of our solar system was low,” said Ross Beyer, an affiliate of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team from the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, “but I couldn't be more delighted with what we see."

High-resolution images of Charon were taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, shortly before closest approach on July 14, 2015, and overlaid with enhanced color from the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). Charon’s cratered uplands at the top are broken by series of canyons, and replaced on the bottom by the rolling plains of the informally named Vulcan Planum. The scene covers Charon’s width of 754 miles (1,214 kilometers) and resolves details as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers).

High-resolution images of the Pluto-facing hemisphere of Charon, taken by New Horizons as the spacecraft sped through the Pluto system on July 14 and transmitted to Earth on Sept. 21, reveal details of a belt of fractures and canyons just north of the moon’s equator. This great canyon system stretches more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) across the entire face of Charon and likely around onto Charon’s far side. Four times as long as the Grand Canyon, and twice as deep in places, these faults and canyons indicate a titanic geological upheaval in Charon’s past.

“It looks like the entire crust of Charon has been split open,” said John Spencer, deputy lead for GGI at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “With respect to its size relative to Charon, this feature is much like the vast Valles Marineris canyon system on Mars.”

This composite of enhanced color images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left), was taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it passed through the Pluto system on July 14, 2015. This image highlights the striking differences between Pluto and Charon. The color and brightness of both Pluto and Charon have been processed identically to allow direct comparison of their surface properties, and to highlight the similarity between Charon’s polar red terrain and Pluto’s equatorial red terrain. Pluto and Charon are shown with approximately correct relative sizes, but their true separation is not to scale. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the spacecraft’s Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC).


The team has also discovered that the plains south of the Charon’s canyon -- informally referred to as Vulcan Planum -- have fewer large craters than the regions to the north, indicating that they are noticeably younger. The smoothness of the plains, as well as their grooves and faint ridges, are clear signs of wide-scale resurfacing.

One possibility for the smooth surface is a kind of cold volcanic activity, called cryovolcanism. “The team is discussing the possibility that an internal water ocean could have frozen long ago, and the resulting volume change could have led to Charon cracking open, allowing water-based lavas to reach the surface at that time,” said Paul Schenk, a New Horizons team member from the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

Images from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft were used to create this flyover video of Pluto's largest moon, Charon. The “flight” starts with the informally named Mordor (dark) region near Charon’s north pole. The camera then moves south to a vast chasm, descending from 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) to just 40 miles (60 kilometers) above the surface to fly through the canyon system. From there it’s a turn to the south to view the plains and "moat mountain," informally named Kubrick Mons, a prominent peak surrounded by a topographic depression. New Horizons Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) photographs showing details at up to 400 meters per pixel were used to create the basemap for this animation. Those images, along with pictures taken from a slightly different vantage point by the spacecraft’s Ralph/ Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), were used to create a preliminary digital terrain (elevation) model. The images and model were combined and super-sampled to create this animation.

Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Stuart Robbins

Even higher-resolution Charon images and composition data are still to come as New Horizons transmits data, stored on its digital recorders, over the next year – and as that happens, “I predict Charon’s story will become even more amazing!” said mission Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

The New Horizons spacecraft is currently 3.1 billion miles (5 billion kilometers) from Earth, with all systems healthy and operating normally.

New Horizons is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. APL designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. SwRI leads the science mission, payload operations, and encounter science planning.

Contacts and sources: 
Tricia Talbert

Are Fish The Greatest Athletes On The Planet?

When you think of the world's greatest athletes, names like Usain Bolt generally spring to mind, but scientists have discovered the best athletes could well be found in the water, covered in scales.

Scientists have discovered that fish are far more effective at delivering oxygen throughout their body than almost any other animal, giving them the athletic edge over other species.

Fish are far more effective at delivering oxygen throughout their body than almost any other animal.

Credit: Ilan Ruhr

"Fish exploit a mechanism that is up to 50-times more effective in releasing oxygen to their tissues than that found in humans," says study lead author, Dr Jodie Rummer from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.

"This is because their haemoglobin, the protein in blood that transports oxygen, is more sensitive to changes in pH than ours and more than the haemoglobins in other animals."

This is especially important for fish during times of stress, to escape from predators, or when they are living in water that is low in oxygen. They can double or even triple oxygen delivery to their tissues during these critical times.

For the past decade researchers have been using rainbow trout to investigate oxygen delivery in fish. They first discovered and tested this mechanism by monitoring muscle oxygen levels in real-time in trout.

Now they have determined just how powerful that system can be and have compared the results with medical studies on humans.

"This information tells us how fish have adapted this very important process of getting oxygen and delivering it to where it needs to be so that they can live in all kinds of conditions, warm or cold water, and water with high or low oxygen levels," says Dr Rummer.

"This trait may be particularly central to performance in athletic species, such as long distance swimming salmon or fast swimming tuna," adds co-author, Dr Colin Brauner from the University of British Columbia.

"For fish, enhanced oxygen delivery may be one of the most important adaptations of their 400 million year evolutionary history," Dr Brauner says.

Contacts and sources:
Eleanor Gregory
Arc Centre Of Excellence In Coral Reef Studies

Citation: Root effect haemoglobins in fish may greatly enhance general oxygen delivery relative to other vertebrates in published in the journal, Plos One.

Magnetic Contraption Tricks Migrating Songbirds into Changing Direction

When researchers captured Eurasian reed warblers along the Russian coast during their spring migrations and flew them 1,000 kilometers east to Zvenigorod, the birds weren't fazed; they simply re-oriented themselves toward their original destination. Now, the researchers who first demonstrated the birds' navigational skill in the Cell Press journal Current Biology several years ago are back with new evidence that reed warblers rely on a geomagnetic map to point them in the right direction.

This is a photograph of the research setup with a scenic view of the dune at the Courish spit in the Baltic (the study site).

Credit: Dominik Heyers

In fact, the researchers show in Current Biology on October 5 that the birds will respond as though they've been sent to Zvenigorod when they are captured and exposed to a geomagnetic field that matches that location.

"The most amazing part of our finding is that the same birds sitting on the same dune of Courish Spit on the Baltic coast shifted their orientation from their normal migratory direction--northeast--to the northwest after we slightly turned current control knobs on our power supplies," says Dmitry Kishkinev of Queen's University Belfast. "All the other sensory cues remained the same for the birds."

To test the role of magnetic fields, Kishkinev, together with Nikita Chernetsov at the Biological Station Rybachy and their colleagues, had a special magnetic coil system built that allowed them to create a homogeneous magnetic field out on their coastal field site, where it's very easy to catch migratory reed warblers. The system allowed them to manipulate the magnetic field without obscuring the birds' ability to pick up on other cues, including the sun, stars, landmarks, and scents.

This is a photograph of a Eurasian reed warbler.
Credit:  Andy Morffew

The birds were housed inside the magnetic coil system for several days. In that time, they were virtually displaced with a change in magnetic field only once to avoid confusion. The data show that this change in the magnetic parameters led the birds to re-orient toward their breeding destinations just as they would if they'd been physically displaced.

The researchers now suspect that reed warblers track changes in the geomagnetic parameters as they travel during their first fall migration--for example, from the Baltic down to West Africa--to establish certain "rules of thumb." Those rules then guide the birds on future migrations and make it possible for them to re-orient themselves if they find they've gotten off track.

The study provides some of the strongest evidence yet that at least some birds rely on a geomagnetic map for long-distance navigation, as spiny lobsters and sea turtles also do. Although the idea of magnetic navigation in birds was first proposed back in the 19th century, it has been a challenge to prove, the researchers say.

Further work is needed to understand how birds sense magnetic fields and which portions of the magnetic field are most important to them. The researchers are also curious to know whether reed warblers rely on their sense of smell, as some seabirds and homing pigeons do.

Contacts and sources:
Joseph Caputo
Cell Press

Citation:  Current Biology, Kishkinev and Chernetsov et al.: "Eurasian reed warblers compensate for virtual magnetic displacement" http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.08.012

Researchers Discover How Genetic Mutations Rewire Cancer Cells

An international team of researchers, led by ERC grantee Prof Rune Linding, discovered how genetic cancer mutations attack the networks controlling human cells. This knowledge is critical for the future development of personalized precision cancer treatments.

Credit: © ugreen - fotolia.com

The human genome was decoded more than a decade ago. Since then scientists have been successful at identifying genetic mutations in individual patients and tumours. However, using this knowledge to develop improved cancer therapies was hampered because researchers were not able to link the mutations in genes to their corresponding proteins, the targets of most pharmaceutical drugs.

ERC grantee and lead researcher Prof. Rune Linding from the Biotech Research and Innovation Centre (BRIC) at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), together with researchers from the universities of Yale, Zurich, Rome and Tottori, unravelled how disease mutations in genes damage kinases, the enzymes which are key to protein signalling networks within human cells.

In two studies, published back-to-back in CELL journal on 17 September, scientists demonstrate that kinases, affected by genetic cancer mutations, can drift in their fidelity and thereby disturb other proteins driving normal cells to a more cancerous state. The team has also developed new software that helps interpret the data from genetic sequencing and translate the effects of cancer mutations on the function of proteins in individual patients.

“The identification of distinct changes within our tissues that help predict and treat cancer is a major step forward and we are confident it can aid in the development of novel therapies and screening techniques,” said Prof Linding.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the genetic basis for each tumour is subtly different. This realization has led to healthcare centres spending millions of dollars sequencing individual patients and their tumours with the aim of using this patient specific information to develop tailored, personalized therapies, with much greater efficacy. The novel tools described in these studies may provide much needed assistance to clinicians and researchers worldwide in interpreting this data.

Contacts and sources:
EC Research & Innovation 

High-Tech Electronics Help the Search for Space Life

The TeraComp project has developed a state-of-the-art 'terahertz receiver' that may help detect traces of life in space. The technology could be used in a 'sub-millimetre spectrometer' for measuring wavelengths of light during the first ESA mission to Jupiter's moons, planned for launch in 2022.

Credit; © Andrey Armyagov - fotolia.com

Exploration of the solar system features regularly in the news. Recent achievements include a ‘rendez-vous’ between European Space Agency (ESA) probe Rosetta and the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, while its lander, Philae, successfully made it to the comet’s surface. On Mars, NASA probes have found new evidence for free-flowing water and living organisms in the planet’s past, and spotted the UK’s long-lost Beagle-2 probe on the surface. Meanwhile, further exploratory missions – NASA’s Dawn and New Horizon probes – promise to send even more new discoveries from the dwarf planets Ceres and Pluto in the first half of 2015.

Such exploratory probes need highly sensitive sensors to gather data for scientists on Earth. The EU-funded TeraComp project has developed a new ‘terahertz receiver’ that could help to detect traces of life in space – especially if used for the first ESA mission to Jupiter’s moons, planned for launch in 2022.

“If Europe is going to send instruments into space, we need to be able to produce some of the key technologies in Europe,” says Jan Stake, project leader at the Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden. “Building the capacity to make these instruments benefits European industry,” he explains, reducing reliance on US suppliers.
State-of-the-art space science

“We have developed a state-of-the-art receiver operating at 557gigahertz for molecular spectroscopy in space science applications,” Stake continues.

“We’re talking about wavelengths smaller than one millimetre or ‘sub-millimetre waves’,” he explains, at frequencies between microwaves and infra-red. “Many molecules have absorption spectra in this range – such as water, oxygen, carbon dioxide – the substances astronomers and planetary researchers are looking for.”

The project team focused on developing Schottky diodes – devices to detect and receive high-frequency signals. “It’s an old technology but it’s difficult to make it work at this very short wavelength,” says Stake.

The team also worked to integrate complementary circuits such as a local oscillator within the same receiver. This enabled them to push the frequency response as high as possible and optimise the components so that they work well together. “We start with microwave circuits and then multiply up the frequency until we generate a signal for the receiver and signal processing,” explains Stake.
Advancing knowledge of the planets

The end result is a compact, lightweight receiver – “state of the art, with good performance at the water-frequency range” – that could make the grade for ESA’s upcoming JUICE mission to Jupiter’s moons. The instrument can also be used in weather satellites, such as the forthcoming METOP, which measures the water content in the atmosphere for weather forecasts and for monitoring pollution and global warming. In this way, the project’s work will help push forward scientific knowledge about our own planet, and others.

“Beyond atmospheric science and planetary missions, we also have ideas for ground-based applications such as security screens and radar,” says Stake.

The main difficulty is to maintain this technology, he continues, which requires precision engineering of metal parts to guide the waves accurately. He says it is difficult to secure sustainable financing to maintain a critical mass of expertise in this technology.
Strengthening Europe’s position in the space industry

“With EU funding, we were able to bring seven partners into the project, enough to push development in different parts of a complex receiver so the components are optimised to work together,” he says. EU support is boosting Europe’s position in the space race. Thanks to the outcome of TeraComp, participating SMEs such as Omnisys Instruments AB have already received commercial contracts for further instrument development.

Contacts and sources: 
EC Research & Inovation

Future Wildfires May Burn Large Parts Of Landscapes

Wildfire history over the past 2,000 years in Colorado's mountains indicates that large fires will continue to increase in a warming climate, according to results of a new study.

"Even modest regional warming trends, like those we are currently experiencing, can cause exceptionally large areas of the Rockies to be burned by wildfires," says scientist John Calder of the University of Wyoming.

The frequency of large fires has changed over past millennia, scientists have found.

Credit: Bryan Shuman

The findings are published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The paper, "Medieval warming initiated exceptionally large wildfire outbreaks in the Rocky Mountains," is co-written by University of Wyoming researchers Dusty Parker, Cody Stopka and Bryan Shuman, along with scientist Gonzalo Jimenez-Moreno of the University of Granada in Spain.

"This project demonstrates the significance of historical records in addressing current issues," says Thomas Baerwald, National Science Foundation (NSF) program director for Geography and Spatial Sciences, which funded the research. "Scientists are working to understand the complex interactions among climate, vegetation, land use, fire and other factors. The insights gained from such relationships in the past can provide new insights for understanding these processes today."

Calder, Shuman and colleagues examined charcoal deposits in 12 lakes in and near the Mount Zirkel Wilderness of northern Colorado, finding that wildfires burned large portions of the area during a documented spike in temperatures in North America starting about 1,000 years ago.

That period, known as the Medieval Warm Period (MWP), lasted about 300 years during which temperatures rose just under 1 degree Fahrenheit. A single degree might not seem like much, but it can have a huge effect on the potential for wildfires.

Temperature increases over the past few decades have been comparable to those of the MWP, resulting in some of the largest wildfires in U.S. history.

Since the mid-1980s, starting with large fires in Yellowstone National Park in 1988, the frequency of large wildfires in the American West has increased.

Lake-bottom sediments were sampled at Lake Eileen in Colorado to study charcoal from past fires.

Credit: Bryan Shuman

If the warming trend continues as projected, the fires of recent years could be just the start of more extensive and devastating blazes, the researchers say.

The study looked at how often large areas burned in the past 2,000 years. Results show that other than the 20th century, the only time when fires burned substantially more area was during the MWP.

"When we look back in time, we only see evidence of large areas burning one time in the last 2,000 years," Calder says. "This suggests large wildfires of the magnitude we've recently seen used to be very infrequent."

The researchers estimate that 83 percent of their 385-square-mile study area burned at the beginning of the MWP when the climate warmed 0.9 degrees.

By comparison, the average increase in temperature in the Rocky Mountain region since 2000 has been about 1.25 degrees higher than during the 20th century.

"Corresponding to those higher temperatures, 12 percent of our study area burned in the large Zirkel Complex fire in 2002," Calder says. Data indicate that in the Medieval Warm Period large fires similar to the Zirkel Complex fire burned in that same wilderness area once every decade or two when the temperatures warmed by 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Seven Lakes study site in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area also has charcoal from past fires.

Credit: Bryan Shuman

"Using Yellowstone fire history as a baseline for comparison, our minimum estimate of 50 percent of Mount Zirkel sites burned within a century at the beginning of the MWP exceeds any century-scale estimate of Yellowstone burning for the past 750 years," the scientists write in their paper.

Over the century that led up to and included the massive 1988 fires, only about 30 percent of Yellowstone burned.

"The large increase in the number of sites burned by fires during the MWP highlights the risk that large portions of individual landscapes may burn as the climate continues to warm today," the researchers conclude.

Shuman's research on forest dynamics is also funded by NSF's Division of Environmental Biology.

Contacts and sources:
Cheryl Dybas, NSF
Chad Baldwin, University of Wyoming