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Friday, March 24, 2017

'Super Halos' Enveloped Milky Way-Like Galaxies in Early Universe

By harnessing the extreme sensitivity of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), astronomers have directly observed a pair of Milky Way-like galaxies seen when the universe was only eight percent of its current age. These progenitors of today’s giant spiral galaxies are surrounded by "super halos" of hydrogen gas that extend many tens of thousands of light-years beyond their dusty, star-filled disks.

Astronomers initially detected these galaxies by studying the intense light from even-more-distant quasars. As this light travels through an intervening galaxy on its way to Earth, it can pick up the unique spectral signature from the galaxy’s gas. This technique, however, normally prevents astronomers from seeing the actual light emitted by the galaxy, which is overwhelmed by the much brighter emission from the background quasar.

Artist impression of a progenitor of Milky Way-like galaxy in the early universe with a background quasar shinning through a 'super halo' of hydrogen gas surrounding the galaxy. New ALMA observations of two such galaxies reveal that these vast halos extend well beyond the galaxies' dusty, star-forming disks. The galaxies were initially found by the absorption of background quasar light passing through the galaxies. ALMA was able to image the ionized carbon in the galaxies' disks, revealing crucial details about their structures. 
Credit: A. Angelich (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

"Imagine a tiny firefly next to a high-power search light. That’s what astronomers are up against when it comes to observing these youthful versions of our home galaxy," said Marcel Neeleman a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and lead author on a paper appearing in the journal Science. "We can now see the galaxies themselves, which gives us an amazing opportunity to learn about the earliest history of our own galaxy and others like it."

With ALMA, the astronomers were finally able to observe the natural millimeter-wavelength "glow" emitted by ionized carbon in the dense and dusty star-forming regions of the galaxies. This carbon signature, however, is considerably offset from the gas first detected by quasar absorption. This extreme separation indicates that the galaxies’ gas content extends well beyond their star-filled disks, suggesting that each galaxy is embedded in a monstrous halo of hydrogen gas.

"We had expected we would see faint emission right on top of the quasar, and instead we saw bright galaxies at large separations from the quasar," said J. Xavier Prochaska, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and coauthor of the paper. The separation from the quasar to the observed galaxy is about 137,000 light-years for one galaxy and about 59,000 light-years for the other.

Credit: Produced by Alexandra Angelich (NRAO/AUI/NSF); Written and narrated by Charles Blue (NRAO/AUI/NSF); Animations and footage courtesy of Alexandra Angelich (NRAO/AUI/NSF); NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Cruz deWilde and the Advanced Visualization Laboratory at the National Center for Supercomputing and B. O'Shea, M. Norman; ESO/C.Malin; Science images courtesy of M. Neeleman & J. Xavier Prochaska; Keck Observatory; Music by Geodesium

According to the researchers, the neutral hydrogen gas revealed by its absorption of quasar light is most likely part of a large halo or perhaps an extended disk of gas around the galaxy. "It's not where the star formation is, and to see so much gas that far from the star-forming region means there is a large amount of neutral hydrogen around the galaxy," Neeleman said.

Composite ALMA and optical image of a young Milky Way-like galaxy 12 billion light-years away and a background quasar 12.5 billion light-years away. Light from the quasar passed through the galaxy's gas on its way to Earth, revealing the presence of the galaxy to astronomers. New ALMA observations of the galaxy's ionized carbon (green) and dust continuum (blue) emission show that the dusty, star-forming disk of the galaxy is vastly offset from the gas detected by quasar absorption at optical wavelengths (red). This indicates that a massive halo of gas surrounds the galaxy. The optical data are from the Keck I Telescope at the W.M. Keck Observatory. 
Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), M. Neeleman & J. Xavier Prochaska; Keck Observatory

The new ALMA data show that these young galaxies are already rotating, which is one of the hallmarks of the massive spiral galaxies we see in the universe today. The ALMA observations further reveal that both galaxies are forming stars at moderately high rates: more than 100 solar masses per year in one galaxy and about 25 solar masses per year in the other.

"These galaxies appear to be massive, dusty, and rapidly star-forming systems, with large, extended layers of gas," Prochaska said.

"ALMA has solved a decades-old question on galaxy formation," said Chris Carilli, an astronomer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, N.M., and co-author on the paper. "We now know that at least some very early galaxies have halos that are much more extended that previously considered, which may represent the future material for galaxy growth."

The galaxies, which are officially designated ALMA J081740.86+135138.2 and ALMA J120110.26+211756.2, are each about 12 billion light-years from Earth. The background quasars are each roughly 12.5 billion light-years from Earth.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

Contacts and sources:
Charles Blue
National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO)

This research is presented in a paper titled "[C II] 158-μm emission from the host galaxies of damped Lyman alpha systems," by M. Neeleman et al., scheduled for publication in the journal Science on 24 March 2017.

Sea Ice Reaches Record Lows at Both Poles

Arctic sea ice appears to have reached on March 7 a record low wintertime maximum extent, according to scientists at NASA and the NASA-supported National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado. And on the opposite side of the planet, on March 3 sea ice around Antarctica hit its lowest extent ever recorded by satellites at the end of summer in the Southern Hemisphere, a surprising turn of events after decades of moderate sea ice expansion.

The March 7, 2017, Arctic sea ice maximum extent was a record low, due to warmer-than-average temperatures, winds unfavorable to ice expansion, and a series of storms. Antarctic sea ice also broke a record with its annual minimum extent on March 3.

Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

On Feb. 13, the combined Arctic and Antarctic sea ice numbers were at their lowest point since satellites began to continuously measure sea ice in 1979. Total polar sea ice covered 6.26 million square miles (16.21 million square kilometers), which is 790,000 square miles (2 million square kilometers) less than the average global minimum extent for 1981-2010 – the equivalent of having lost a chunk of sea ice larger than Mexico.

These line graphs plot monthly deviations and overall trends in polar sea ice from 1979 to 2017 as measured by satellites. The top line shows the Arctic; the middle shows Antarctica; and the third shows the global, combined total. The graphs depict how much the sea ice concentration moved above or below the long-term average. (They do not plot total sea ice concentration.) Arctic and global sea ice totals have moved consistently downward over 38 years. Antarctic trends are more muddled, but they do not offset the great losses in the Arctic.

Credits: Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory
More information from NASA's Earth Observatory

The ice floating on top of the Arctic Ocean and surrounding seas shrinks in a seasonal cycle from mid-March until mid-September. As the Arctic temperatures drop in the autumn and winter, the ice cover grows again until it reaches its yearly maximum extent, typically in March. The ring of sea ice around the Antarctic continent behaves in a similar manner, with the calendar flipped: it usually reaches its maximum in September and its minimum in February.

This winter, a combination of warmer-than-average temperatures, winds unfavorable to ice expansion, and a series of storms halted sea ice growth in the Arctic. This year’s maximum extent, reached on March 7 at 5.57 million square miles (14.42 million square kilometers), is 37,000 square miles (97,00 square kilometers) below the previous record low, which occurred in 2015, and 471,000 square miles (1.22 million square kilometers) smaller than the average maximum extent for 1981-2010.

On March 7, 2017, Arctic sea ice hit a record low wintertime maximum extent in 2017. At 5.57 million square miles, it is the lowest maximum extent in the satellite record, and 455,600 square miles below the 1981 to 2010 average maximum extent. 
Credits: NASA Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio/L. Perkins

“We started from a low September minimum extent,” said Walt Meier, a sea ice scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “There was a lot of open ocean water and we saw periods of very slow ice growth in late October and into November, because the water had a lot of accumulated heat that had to be dissipated before ice could grow. The ice formation got a late start and everything lagged behind – it was hard for the sea ice cover to catch up.”

The Arctic’s sea ice maximum extent has dropped by an average of 2.8 percent per decade since 1979. The summertime minimum extent losses are nearly five times larger: 13.5 percent per decade. Besides shrinking in extent, the sea ice cap is also thinning and becoming more vulnerable to the action of ocean waters, winds and warmer temperatures.

This year’s record low sea ice maximum extent might not necessarily lead to a new record low summertime minimum extent, since weather has a great impact on the melt season’s outcome, Meier said. “But it’s guaranteed to be below normal.”

On March 3, 2017, the sea ice cover around the Antarctic continent shrunk to its lowest yearly minimum extent in the satellite record, in a dramatic shift after decades of moderate sea ice expansion.
Credits: NASA Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio/L. Perkins

In Antarctica, this year’s record low annual sea ice minimum of 815,000 square miles (2.11 million square kilometers) was 71,000 square miles (184,000 square kilometers) below the previous lowest minimum extent in the satellite record, which occurred in 1997.

Antarctic sea ice saw an early maximum extent in 2016, followed by a very rapid loss of ice starting in early September. Since November, daily Antarctic sea ice extent has continuously been at its lowest levels in the satellite record. The ice loss slowed down in February.

This year’s record low happened just two years after several monthly record high sea ice extents in Antarctica and decades of moderate sea ice growth.

Operation IceBridge, NASA’a aerial survey of polar ice, flies over a lead, or opening in the sea ice cover, near the Alaskan coast on March 11, 2017.

Credits: NASA/Jeremy Harbeck

“There’s a lot of year-to-year variability in both Arctic and Antarctic sea ice, but overall, until last year, the trends in the Antarctic for every single month were toward more sea ice,” said Claire Parkinson, a senior sea ice researcher at Goddard. “Last year was stunningly different, with prominent sea ice decreases in the Antarctic. To think that now the Antarctic sea ice extent is actually reaching a record minimum, that’s definitely of interest.”

Meier said it is too early to tell if this year marks a shift in the behavior of Antarctic sea ice.

“It is tempting to say that the record low we are seeing this year is global warming finally catching up with Antarctica,” Meier said. “However, this might just be an extreme case of pushing the envelope of year-to-year variability. We’ll need to have several more years of data to be able to say there has been a significant change in the trend.”

Contacts and sources:
By Maria-José Viñas
NASA's Earth Science News

NSIDC announcement
Data visualization: Minimum Antarctic Sea Ice 2017
Data visualization: Arctic Daily Sea Ice Concentration from Arctic Minimum 2016 to Arctic Maximum 2017

"2016 Arctic Sea Ice Wintertime Extent Hits Another Record Low" (March 28, 2016)
"NASA Study Shows Global Sea Ice Diminishing, Despite Antarctic Gains" (Feb. 10, 2015)
"Arctic Sea Ice Annual Minimum Ties Second Lowest on Record" (Sept. 15, 2016)

Under the Dead Sea, Warnings of Dire Drought

Nearly 1,000 feet below the bed of the Dead Sea, scientists have found evidence that during past warm periods, the Mideast has suffered drought on scales never recorded by humans -- a possible warning for current times. Thick layers of crystalline salt show that rainfall plummeted to as little as a fifth of modern levels some 120,000 years ago, and again about 10,000 years ago. Today, the region is drying again as climate warms, and scientists say it will get worse. The new findings may cause them to rethink how much worse, in this already thirsty and volatile part of the world.

"All the observations show this region is one of those most affected by modern climate change, and it's predicted to get dryer. What we showed is that even under natural conditions, it can become much drier than predicted by any of our models," said lead author Yael Kiro, a geochemist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The findings were just published in an early online edition of the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Deep below the seabed, drilling revealed thick layers of salt, precipitated out during past warm, dry periods. In this specimen, transparent crystals (left) formed on what was then the bottom during winter; finer white ones (right) formed on the water surface in summer and later sank.

Credit: Yael Kiro/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

The landlocked Dead Sea, straddling Israel, Jordan and Palestinian lands, is earth's lowest spot on land. Its current shoreline lies about 1,300 feet below sea level, and its floor extends down another 900 feet. Fed mainly by the Jordan River drainage, which extends also into Syria and Lebanon, it is a dead end for water, and so is extremely salty; its Biblical name in Hebrew is Yām ha-Melah, the sea of salt. In recent years, its level has dropped about four feet a year. But hot, dry weather is not the main cause yet; rather, booming populations in the region need more water than ever, and people are sucking so much from the watershed, very little reaches the Dead Sea, where evaporation is outweighing input.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that much of the region already has per capita water availability only a tenth of the world average. Rainfall has declined about 10 percent since 1950, and existing climate models say it could sink another 20 percent this century, even as population continues to grow. Israel is meeting demand by desalinating Mediterranean seawater, but poorer, landlocked Jordan and the Palestinian territories are desperate for more. In adjoining Syria, a record 1998-2012 drought likely stoked by climate change is believed to have helped spark the ongoing civil war, which has now claimed more than 500,000 lives and infected neighboring nations.

In 2010, scientists from a half-dozen nations drilled 1,500 feet into the deepest part of the seabed, bringing up a cross section of deposits recording 200,000 years of regional climate history--the longest such archive in the Mideast. (Around-the-clock drilling went for 40 days and 40 nights -- perhaps a respectful bow to the rainfall of the Biblical Flood.) The cores revealed alternating layers of mud washed in with runoff during wet times, and crystallized salt, precipitated out during dry times when the water receded. This instantly made it clear that the region has suffered epic dry periods, but the core was not analyzed in great detail until now.

The new study shows that the salt accumulated rapidly?an estimated half-inch per year in many cases. The researchers spotted two striking periods. About halfway down they found salty layers some 300 feet thick, indicating a long-term drop below the sea's current level. This came in a period between ice ages, 115,000 to 130,000 years ago, when variations in Earth's orbit brought temperatures about 4 degrees hotter those of the 20th century?equivalent to what is projected for the end of the 21st century. The lake refilled when glaciers readvanced in sub-polar regions and the Mideast climate cooled and became moister. The cores show a similar drop in lake level just 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, following the most recent ice age, when temperatures were probably a bit cooler than now.

The landlocked Dead Sea is shrinking rapidly. A new study suggests it has largely dried up in the past during natural warm periods, suggesting that human-influenced climate change could make the surrounding region much more arid than it already is.

Credit: David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons

The chemistry of tiny fluid bubbles within the salt allowed the researchers to extrapolate rainfall and runoff patterns of these periods. They calculated that runoff to the Dead Sea generally declined 50 to 70 percent compared to today, dwarfing current projections for this century. In the most extreme periods, it went down 80 percent, and this lasted for decades to centuries at a time. The declines are probably linked to broader shifts in atmospheric flow patterns. Storms coming in from the Mediterranean could have slackened, as they appear to be doing today; and then as now, higher temperatures increase evaporation of moisture from the land.

To alleviate growing water shortages, Jordan plans to break ground next year on a canal to bring in water from the Red Sea for desalination; leftover brine would be dumped into the Dead Sea, possibly stabilizing its level. But the project is controversial, because it could cause drastic environmental changes in both seas, and could still leave much of the rest of the region with inadequate water.

"The Dead Sea is wasting away today because humans are using up all its fresh water sources," said Steven Goldstein, a geochemist at Lamont-Doherty and coauthor of the paper who helped oversee the 2010 drilling. "Our study shows that in the past, without any human intervention, the fresh water nearly stopped flowing. This means that if it keeps getting hotter now, it could stop running again. This time, it would affect millions of people."

Contacts and sources: 
Kevin Krajick
The Earth Institute/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory  

The paper, "Relationships between lake-level changes and water and salt budgets in the Dead Sea during extreme aridities in the Eastern Mediterranean,"  

Salmon with a Side of Side Effects

Salmon lead a fairly varied life. The adult fish live in the sea but swim upstream into rivers to reproduce and lay their eggs in gravel beds in the upper reaches. This is where the young hatch, grow for a while in the clean, oxygen-rich water, and then set off towards the sea. To breed the popular edible fish, farmers have to provide different living conditions depending on the age of the fish.

Chilean fish farmers base their approach on the natural life cycle of the salmon. In the clear rivers which flow from the central ridge of the Andes towards the Pacific, they have installed a few hundred hatcheries for the eggs and the youngest animals. Slightly larger salmon live in cages in the lakes of the South American country, and the adults then move into similar accommodation anchored in the sea just off the coast. In 2012, Chile's aquacultures used this method to produce some 820,000 tonnes of salmon with a total value of just under five billion US dollars. For years, the country has been ranked second behind Norway in the list of key salmon producers worldwide.

Salmon aquaculture on Río Niltre, a small river in Chile. The youngest generation of salmon is bred here. The waste water is conducted into the river through a pipe (centre of picture). 
Photo: Norbert Kamjunke

However, this has not been without an impact on the environment. The cages for the medium and larger fish leak excrement, food residue and other substances into the country's seas and coastal waters. The companies also draw water for their hatcheries from some of the extremely clean, natural rivers. They pump it through the tanks for the young salmon before reintroducing it to the river further downstream - where it is certainly not in good condition.

Rather than clear water, it is more like a fishy broth which flows downstream from this kind of facility - which is a burden for residents, tourists and aquatic organisms. "Completely turbid water is no longer allowed to re-enter the river," reports Dr Norbert Kamjunke, a biologist at UFZ. The number of particles contained in the water must be below certain limit values. The aquacultures are now using sedimentation tanks and rotary filters to clarify their waste water. However, there are no such regulations for dissolved substances which simply flow into the water as before without any treatment or monitoring. And in huge quantities.

In an earlier study, Norbert Kamjunke and his colleagues discovered that, in facilities of this kind, around 40 tonnes of dissolved organic substances end up in the rivers for every 50 tonnes of farmed salmon. These substances, which chemists group together as Dissolved Organic Matter (DOM), include the liquid excretions from the salmon, and dissolved residues of food and excrement. "It also contains disinfectants and antibiotics," he explains. But what compounds does this cocktail contain exactly? And what impact does it have on the water? Researchers have recently investigated this in detail for the first time.

To do so, they used state-of-the-art methods of chemical analysis. Using fluorescence measurements, high-resolution mass spectrometry, and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, the researchers studied the waste water from four Chilean aquacultures and samples taken from sections of the river both upstream and downstream of the farms. They worked with colleagues from the Universidad Austral de Chile in Valdivia to take samples, with the subsequent measurements carried out at the Helmholtz Centre in Munich. "We were able to determine exactly what DOM molecules were present in the water and in what concentration," explains Norbert Kamjunke.

The investigation showed that each of the rivers naturally has a slightly different chemical fingerprint. If it flows through heavily forested areas, the water will contain a large amount of humic matter. By contrast, water in volcanic regions tends to have a high proportion of sulphur compounds. However, there are also similarities. Natural sections of river generally contain less dissolved organic material. And this limited load consists of compounds which are difficult for bacteria to break down. "Those areas are predominantly low in nutrients," summarises Norbert Kamjunke.

However, the picture changes when waste water from aquaculture is introduced. These facilities release large quantities of readily biodegradable compounds. In particular, much higher concentrations of carbohydrates, proteins and their building blocks, and lipids are present downstream of the facilities. The aquacultures therefore provide the low-nutrient rivers with a kind of fertilizer boost.

But what does this entail for the water and its inhabitants? The researchers also investigated this issue in their study. They used laser scanning microscopes to examine the slippery film that grows on stones on the river bed. Upstream of the aquacultures, these biofilms contained a large amount of microscopic algae. These organisms were much less abundant downstream, where there were many more bacteria. "But this changes the entire ecosystem," explains Norbert Kamjunke.

The algae on the bottom of the natural waters play a key role for several reasons. Firstly they produce oxygen, and secondly they provide food for countless minute grazing organisms. Gastropods, mayfly and stone fly larvae all graze this film. And they in turn are eaten by fish. "The basis of the entire food web would disappear if this algae didn't exist," explains Norbert Kamjunke. But this is not the only way in which the waste water from the aquacultures alters living conditions in the river. The bacteria downstream of the facilities use up a large amount of oxygen to break down the dissolved organic matter. Excessively low oxygen concentrations can spell the end of many species which have adapted to life in clean flowing water.

However, the high level of bacterial activity that the team measured downstream of the salmon hatcheries also cleans the water. "Nevertheless, rivers should not be misused as natural sewage treatment plants," emphasises Norbert Kamjunke. For one thing, clean and unpolluted waters and their inhabitants deserve special protection. For another thing, the water downstream of the facilities has to flow quite a distance downstream until it is clean again. The length of this stretch depends on the external circumstances. The miniature water purifiers work most effectively at high temperatures and low flow rates. An earlier study by researchers from Magdeburg showed that the bacteria had broken down the pollution around 2.7 kilometres downstream of the facility. "In winter, however, they need a much longer section of river," says Norbert Kamjunke. And this is not always available to them in the short rivers of the Andes.

The researchers therefore advocate the introduction of limit values for the DOM concentrations entering the river. Their findings in relation to the activities of the bacteria could help to specify these values in order to avoid overloading the river. The aquacultures would then have to clean their waste water more effectively before re-introducing it to the river - for example using biological filters. In principle, these are large pipes filled with stones on which biofilm grows. The waste water enters at the top and leaves at the bottom, having been clarified by the bacteria in between. "Our results also show how large these facilities would have to be," explains Norbert Kamjunke. The measured degradation rates can be used to calculate how much stone surface area is required for the desired purification efficiency.

The researchers also draw another conclusion from their study. They do not consider it advisable to install any further aquacultures on Chilean rivers. The authorities have already imposed a moratorium on new salmon farms in the country's lakes. Operators are now considering the option of moving the farming of medium-sized salmon from the lakes to the rivers. "In theory that could work," believes Norbert Kamjunke. "But from an ecological perspective, it would not be a good idea."

Contacts and sources:
Susanne Hufe, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ),
Dr. Norbert Kamjunke, UFZ-Department Fließgewässerökologie

Black Hole Ejected from Center of Galaxy With Force Equivalent to Energy of 100 Million Supernovae Exploding Simultaneously

An international team of astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have uncovered a supermassive black hole that has been propelled out of the centre of the distant galaxy 3C186. The black hole was most likely ejected by the power of gravitational waves. This is the first time that astronomers found a supermassive black hole at such a large distance from its host galaxy centre.

Though several other suspected runaway black holes have been seen elsewhere, none has so far been confirmed. Now astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have detected a supermassive black hole, with a mass of one billion times the Sun’s, being kicked out of its parent galaxy. “We estimate that it took the equivalent energy of 100 million supernovae exploding simultaneously to jettison the black hole,” describes Stefano Bianchi, co-author of the study, from the Roma Tre University, Italy.

The galaxy 3C186, located about 8 billion years from Earth, is most likely the result of a merger of two galaxies. This is supported by arc-shaped tidal tails, usually produced by a gravitational tug between two colliding galaxies, identified by the scientists. The merger of the galaxies also led to a merger of the two supermassive black holes in their centres, and the resultant black hole was then kicked out of its parent galaxy by the gravitational waves created by the merger.

The bright, star-like looking quasar can be seen in the centre of the image. Its former host galaxy is the faint, extended object behind it.
Credit:NASA , ESA, and M. Chiaberge (STScI/ESA)

The images taken by Hubble provided the first clue that the galaxy, named 3C186, was unusual. The images of the galaxy, located 8 billion light-years away, revealed a bright quasar, the energetic signature of an active black hole, located far from the galactic core. “Black holes reside in the centres of galaxies, so it’s unusual to see a quasar not in the centre,” recalls team leader Marco Chiaberge, ESA-AURA researcher at the Space Telescope Science Institute, USA.

The team calculated that the black hole has already travelled about 35 000 light-years from the centre, which is more than the distance between the Sun and the centre of the Milky Way. And it continues its flight at a speed of 7.5 million kilometres per hour .As the black hole cannot be observed directly, the mass and the speed of the supermassive black holes were determined via spectroscopic analysis of its surrounding gas. At this speed the black hole could travel from Earth to the Moon in three minutes.
Although other scenarios to explain the observations cannot be excluded, the most plausible source of the propulsive energy is that this supermassive black hole was given a kick by gravitational waves unleashed by the merger of two massive black holes at the centre of its host galaxy. This theory is supported by arc-shaped tidal tails identified by the scientists, produced by a gravitational tug between two colliding galaxies.

First predicted by Albert Einstein, gravitational waves are ripples in space that are created by accelerating massive objects. The ripples are similar to the concentric circles produced when a rock is thrown into a pond. In 2016, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) helped astronomers prove that gravitational waves exist by detecting them emanating from the union of two stellar-mass black holes, which are several times more massive than the Sun.

According to the theory presented by the scientists, 1-2 billion years ago two galaxies — each with central, massive black holes — merged. The black holes whirled around each other at the centre of the newly-formed elliptical galaxy, creating gravitational waves that were flung out like water from a lawn sprinkler. The black holes get closer over time as they radiate away gravitational energy.

 As the two black holes did not have the same mass and rotation rate, they emitted gravitational waves more strongly along one direction. When the two black holes finally merged, the anisotropic emission of gravitational waves generated a kick that shot the resulting black hole out of the galactic centre.

“If our theory is correct, the observations provide strong evidence that supermassive black holes can actually merge,” explains Stefano Bianchi on the importance of the discovery. “There is already evidence of black hole collisions for stellar-mass black holes, but the process regulating supermassive black holes is more complex and not yet completely understood.”

This illustration shows how two supermassive black holes merged to form a single black hole which was then ejected from its parent galaxy.

Panel 1: Two galaxies are interacting and finally merging with each other. The supermassive black holes in their centres are attracted to each other.

Panel 2: As soon as the supermassive black holes get close they start orbiting each other, in the process creating strong gravitational waves.

Credit:NASA, ESA /Hubble, and A. Feild/STScI

Panel 3: As they radiate away gravitational energy the black holes move closer to each other over time and finally merge.

Panel 4: If the two black holes do not have the same mass and rotation rate, they emit gravitational waves more strongly along one direction. When the two black holes finally collide, they stop producing gravitational waves and the newly merged black hole then recoils in the opposite direction to the strongest gravitational waves and is shot out of its parent galaxy.

The researchers are lucky to have caught this unique event because not every black hole merger produces imbalanced gravitational waves that propel a black hole out of the galaxy. The team now wants to secure further observation time with Hubble, in combination with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and other facilities, to more accurately measure the speed of the black hole and its surrounding gas disc, which may yield further insights into the nature of this rare object.

Contacts and sources:
Marco Chiaberge, Space Telescope Science Institute
Stefano Bianchi, Roma Tre University
 Mathias Jäger, ESA/Hubble,

Sea Urchin Spines Could Fix Bones

More than 2 million procedures every year take place around the world to heal bone fractures and defects from trauma or disease, making bone the second most commonly transplanted tissue after blood. To help improve the outcomes of these surgeries, scientists have developed a new grafting material from sea urchin spines. They report their degradable bone scaffold, which they tested in animals, in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

Physicians have various approaches at hand to treat bone defects: Replacement material can come from a patient's own body, donated tissue, or a synthetic or naturally derived product. All of these methods, however, have limitations. For example, current bioceramics, such as hydroxyapatite, that have been used as scaffolds for bone repair tend to be weak and brittle, which can lead to pieces breaking off. These pieces can then move into adjacent soft tissue, causing inflammation.

Scientists have developed a bone grafting material made out of sea urchin spines.

Credit: American Chemical Society

Recent studies have shown that biological materials, such as sea urchin spines, have promise as bone scaffolds because of their porosity and strength. Xing Zhang, Zheng Guo, Yue Zhu and colleagues wanted to test this idea in more detail.

Using a hydrothermal reaction, the researchers converted sea urchin spines to biodegradable magnesium-substituted tricalcium phosphate scaffolds while maintaining the spines' original interconnected, porous structure. Unlike hydroxyapatite, the scaffolds made from sea urchin spines could be cut and drilled to a specified shape and size. Testing on rabbits and beagles showed that bone cells and nutrients could flow through the pores and promote bone formation. Also, the scaffold degraded easily as it was replaced by the new growth. 

The researchers say their findings could inspire the design of new lightweight materials for repairing bones.

Contacts and sources:
Katie Cottingham
American Chemical Society

Mineral Demand Outstripping Supply Warns International Research Team

An international team of researchers, led by the University of Delaware's Saleem Ali, says global resource governance and sharing of geoscience data is needed to address challenges facing future mineral supply.

Specifically of concern are a range of technology minerals, which are an essential ingredient in everything from laptops and cell phones to hybrid or electric cars to solar panels and copper wiring for homes. However, base metals like copper are also a matter of immense concern.

The research team, which included experts from academic, government and industrial institutions across five continents, the U.S., Europe, South Africa, Australia and South America, reported their findings today in a peer-reviewed paper in Nature.

"There are treaties on climate change, biodiversity, migratory species and even waste management of organic chemicals, but there is no international mechanism to govern how mineral supply should be coordinated," said Ali, the paper's lead author and Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and Environment at UD.

University of Delaware researcher Saleem Ali at the Diavik Diamond Mine, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada.

Courtesy of Saleem Ali, University of Delaware

The researchers reviewed data and demand forecasts on the sustainability of global mineral supplies in coming decades. The study showed that mining exploration is not keeping up with future demand for minerals and recycling in and of itself would not be able to meet the demand either.

At the same time, transitioning to a low carbon society will require vast amounts of metals and minerals to manufacture clean technologies and the researchers say society is not equipped to meet the additional needs for these raw materials.

According to the research team, international coordination is needed on where to focus exploration investment efforts, what kind of minerals are likely to be found in different locations and hence, what kind of bilateral agreements are needed between various countries.

Supply and demand

Global population numbers are expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, the target date for the United Nations sustainable development goals, meaning even more consumers in the marketplace.

The largest percentage of investment in a mineral for exploration is in gold, which although highly profitable, is largely used for jewelry.

Major commodity metals like iron ore, copper and gold (and other precious metals) are sold on a global market the way that oil is sold. Rare earth metals and other technology minerals, however, are sold through individual dealers and prices can vary remarkably.

For goods like clothing, cosmetics or electronics, price can easily trigger changes in supply. This is not possible with mineral supply, however, because the time horizon for developing a rare earth mineral deposit from exploration and discovery to mining is 10-15 years.

For instance, the last major deposit for copper was discovered in Mongolia 15 years ago and only began producing in fall 2016, creating huge supply challenges.

Added to this, only 10 percent of early exploration efforts actually lead to a minable deposit. Most discoveries are either not economically viable to mine or companies run into land use or zoning problems due to geopolitical challenges.

"Countries where minerals are likely to be found may have poor governance, making it higher risk for supply. But production from these countries will be needed to meet global demand. We need to be thinking about this," Ali said.

Few alternatives, difficult to recycle

Then there is the common consumer misconception that we can just use something else. For many mineral uses, there are no alternatives. There are few commercially viable replacement minerals for many applications of copper wiring, for example.

The same may be true for technology metals that could become essential in green technologies -- like neodymium, terbium or iridium. These minerals are only needed in small quantities, but they are indispensable to making the technology work, meaning that while the scale seems small, the value is immense.

Environmental costs and materials recycling options need to be considered, too.

Metals and carbon fiber used in the manufacture of aircraft or automobiles are often thought to have less environmental impact because they are light, but Ali explained that the manufacturing of carbon fibers currently is highly petroleum based.

"Because they are lighter, people think they are somehow greener, but they aren't and they are difficult, if not impossible, to recycle," he said.

Ali and his colleagues hope that this paper is the first step toward an intergovernmental mechanism or other solution that can empower nations to plan for mineral scarcity as both the public and private sector are mineral dependent.

The research team contends that positive strides can be made quickly through expansion of developing organizations, such as the United Nation's International Resource Panel or the Canadian-led Intergovernmental Panel on Mining Metals and Sustainable Development.

Longer term solutions will require greater transparency among nations, and could include global sharing of geological data and the creation of mechanisms to protect mineral deposit 'finds' much like we protect intellectual property.

"It's about managing the flow of resources from the ground to product to consumer to recycling," Ali said.

The bottom line

The hard truth, though, is that if nothing changes shrinking supply naturally will lead to rising prices. It also could lead to serious global challenges if essential resources that people have been so dependent on collapse.

Take the infrastructure around renewable energy technologies, such as wind turbines. Right now, the technology is new, but what if resources dry up for new production or repair of existing technology? A bottleneck in terms of material production could create a bottleneck in terms of energy production too.

Even nuclear power, often considered a universal cure for global energy woes, is not immune to mineral scarcity. In fact, all nuclear reactors today require uranium -- a metal that must be mined -- in order to function.

"People have been so concerned about climate change that it's created a real movement around it. We don't see this around resource use and recovery, even though it is much closer to us on a daily basis," Ali said.

Contacts and sources:
Andrea Boyle Tippett
University of Delaware

The article "Mineral Supply for Sustainable Development Requires Resource Governance" grew out of a collaborative workshop sponsored by UNESCO, The International Council of Science Unions (ICSU) and the International Union of Geological Sciences in 2015.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Infant Stars Try to Prevent Their Neighbors from Birthing Planets

Newly formed stars are surrounded by a disc of dense gas and dust. This is called the protoplanetary disc, as material sticks together within it to form planets.

Stars of different shapes and sizes are all born in huge star-forming regions. Scientists know that when a protoplanetary disc around a relatively small star is very close to a massive star, the larger star can evaporate parts of the protoplanetary disc.

However, it was thought this was only the case where very large stars shone on the protoplanetary disc. Now, researchers led by Imperial College London have discovered that a protoplanetary disc shone on by only a relatively weak star is also losing material. The protoplanetary disc studied, called IM Lup, belongs to a star similar to our Sun.

This is a artist's impression of an evaporating protoplanetary disc. 

Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)

The researchers estimate that the disc will lose about 3,300 Earth's worth of material over its 10-million-year lifetime, despite the light from the nearby star being 10,000 times weaker than stars usually caught stripping discs.

Lead author Dr Thomas Haworth from the Department of Physics at Imperial said: "Because the light shining on this disc is so much weaker than that shining on known evaporating discs, it was expected that there would be no evaporation. We have shown that actually these stars can evaporate a significant amount of material.

"This result has consequences if we want to understand the diversity of exoplanet systems that are being discovered. This phenomenon could significantly affect the planets that can form around different stars. For example, light from nearby stars could limit the maximum size a solar system can be."

The IM Lup system was studied recently by Dr Ilse Cleeves at Harvard, who discovered an unexplained 'halo' of material around it.

Working with Dr Cleeves, and researchers from the Max Planck Institute and the University of Cambridge, Dr Haworth modelled the flow and chemistry of the system to determine if the halo was the result of a nearby weak star heating up the system and evaporating away material.

They found that the halo is the result of evaporation, as material streams away and is lost to space. The team think the reason this disc is being strongly evaporated is that it is very wide.

IM Lup's 'fuzzy halo' is shown.

Credit: Ilse Cleeves

When talking about solar systems or discs, distances are usually measured in astronomical units (AU), with one astronomical unit being the distance from the Sun to the Earth. The distance out to Pluto is about 40AU, whereas IM Lup's disc reaches out to about 400AU.

This means the star cannot hold on to the disc's outer parts so strongly, as its gravity would be much weaker that far out, leaving the fringes at the mercy of evaporation.

Dr Haworth said: "Our calculations show that if the disc started at 700AU in size, it would halve in size in the first million years of its life. Since IM Lup is less than a million years old, we've caught it in the act of rapid shrinking."

Contacts and sources:
Hayley Dunning
Imperial College London

Citation: 'First evidence of external disc photoevaporation in a low mass star forming region: the case of IM Lup' by Thomas J. Haworth, Stefano Facchini, Cathie J. Clarke and L. Ilsedore Cleeves is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

'Lab-On-A-Glove' Could Bring Nerve-Agent Detection to a Wearer's Fingertips

There's a reason why farmers wear protective gear when applying organophosphate pesticides. The substances are very effective at getting rid of unwanted bugs, but they can also make people sick. Related compounds -- organophosphate nerve agents -- can be used as deadly weapons.

Now researchers have developed a fast way to detect the presence of such compounds in the field using a disposable "lab-on-a-glove." The report on the glove appears in the journal ACS Sensors.

Printable, stretchable sensors on protective gloves can detect organophosphate nerve agents and pesticides.

Credit: American Chemical Society

Organophosphate nerve agents, including sarin and VX, are highly toxic and can prevent the nervous system from working properly. Organophosphate pesticides are far less potent but work in a similar way and can cause illness in people who are exposed to them, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Detecting either type of these sets of compounds accurately and quickly could help improve both defense and food security measures. So, Joseph Wang and colleagues set out to develop a wearable sensor that could meet the requirements of field detection.

The new wearable, flexible glove biosensor carries out the sampling and electrochemical biosensing steps on different fingers, with the thumb finger used for collecting the nerve-agent residues and an enzyme immobilized on the index finger. The researchers created stretchable inks to print the collection and sensing elements on these fingers.

 Detection of the collected residues is performed when the thumb touches the printed enzyme-based organophosphate biosensor on the glove index finger. So, a user would swipe the thumb of the glove on a surface for testing, then touch the thumb and index fingers together for the electrochemical analysis.

For real-time results, the voltammetric data are sent via a reusable Bluetooth device on the back of the glove to a user's mobile device. Testing showed that the glove could detect organophosphate pesticides methyl parathion and methyl paraoxon on various surfaces -- including glass, wood and plastic -- and on produce. The researchers say the sensor could be used in both security and food safety settings.

Contacts and sources:
Katie Cottingham
American Chemical Society

New Brain-Inspired Cybersecurity System Detects ‘Bad Apples’ 100 Times Faster

Cybersecurity is critical — for national security, corporations and private individuals.

Sophisticated cybersecurity systems excel at finding “bad apples” in computer networks, but they lack the computing power to identify the threats directly.

Instead, they look for general indicators of an attack; call them “apples.” Or the system flags very specific patterns, such as “bad Granny Smith apples” or “bad Red Delicious apples.”

These limits make it easy for new species of “bad apples” to evade modern cybersecurity systems. And security analysts must sort the real dangers from false alarms, such as the nonsense phrase “forbad applesauce.”

Sandia National Laboratories’ Roger Suppona, left, and John Naegle, center, and Lewis Rhodes Labs CEO David Follett examine their Neuromorphic Cyber Microscope. This small processor can replace racks of conventional cybersecurity systems. 

Photo by Randy Montoya

The Neuromorphic Cyber Microscope, designed by Lewis Rhodes Labs in partnership with Sandia National Laboratories, directly addresses this limitation. Due to its brain-inspired design, it can look for the complex patterns that indicate specific “bad apples,” all while using less electricity than a standard 60-watt light bulb.

From cerebral palsy to a cybersecurity system

The processor in the Neuromorphic Cyber Microscope is based on the neuroscience research of Dr. Pamela Follett, a co-founder of Lewis Rhodes Labs. Follett is a pediatric neurologist and neuroscientist who studies developmental diseases, such as cerebral palsy in children. Her husband, David Follett, co-founder and CEO of Lewis Rhodes Labs, used her work as the basis for a computational model of how the brain processes information.

Comparing brains with cerebral palsy to healthy brains was key to the deeper insights. The Folletts built brain-inspired computer hardware — hardware they knew could solve some real-world problems. Enter Sandia, with a long history of solving real-world challenges.

A team led by computer systems expert John Naegle sought problems where the neuromorphic processor would excel. The team looked at robotics and pattern recognition before settling on cybersecurity.

“We quickly realized that we could use this architecture to greatly accelerate our ability to look for patterns and even look for complex versions of these patterns,” said Naegle.

Brain inspiration leads to faster, more efficient threat detection

Both the Neuromorphic Cyber Microscope and the human brain continually scan for threats. A hose or stick can cause you to jump, even if you’re not searching for a snake. Similarly, the Neuromorphic Cyber Microscope compares streaming data to suspicious patterns in a time-dependent manner. In contrast, conventional cyberdetection systems sequentially match small chunks of data against a library of “bad apple” patterns, which is less efficient, said Naegle.

Sandia tested the Neuromorphic Cyber Microscope on its cybertraffic in a demonstration environment. As the “bad apple” patterns got more complex, the state-of-the-art conventional system slowed exponentially, but the Neuromorphic Cyber Microscope kept performing efficiently, said Roger Suppona, a cybersecurity expert at Sandia.

In fact, it’s more than 100 times faster and 1,000 times more energy-efficient than racks of conventional cybersecurity systems. “This completely changes the way that we look for suspicious activity without running the risk of overwhelming our analysts with too much information,” said Suppona.

The Neuromorphic Cyber Microscope, an R&D100 Awards finalist this year, is in the early stages of deployment.

A video about the Neuromorphic Cyber Microscope

Sandia and Lewis Rhodes Labs are exploring what else they can do with the general neuromorphic architecture. They’ve explored a type of machine learning that is used for audio and image processing and sorting numbers efficiently. Naegle said they’re still in early stages, looking at fundamental algorithms. This basic research is supported by Sandia’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development program. Naegle said, “Eventually, we’d like to have completely new algorithms that really take advantage of the way the brain actually does its operations.”

David Follett has worked with Sandia off and on for more than 20 years. His earlier company jointly won an R&D100 award in 1996 for the ATM OC-12c Protocol Engine, a fast interconnect for computer-network communications.

“Sandia has a very unique culture and extraordinarily talented people,” he said. “The technical breadth of the lab and domains where they have world-class expertise is very impressive. It’s an ideal environment for incubating novel, disruptive technologies like the Neuromorphic Cyber Microscope.”

Sandia National Laboratories is a multimission laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp., for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies and economic competitiveness.

Contacts and sources:
Mollie Rappe
Sandia National Laboratory

New Study Shakes the Roots of The Dinosaur Family Tree, Corrects 130-Year-Old Error

More than a century of theory about the evolutionary history of dinosaurs has been turned on its head following the publication of new research from scientists at the University of Cambridge and Natural History Museum in London. Their work suggests that the family groupings need to be rearranged, re-defined and re-named and also that dinosaurs may have originated in the northern hemisphere rather than the southern, as current thinking goes.

For 130 years palaeontologists have been working with a classification system in which dinosaur species have been placed in to two distinct categories: Ornithischia and Saurischia. But now, after careful analysis of dozens of fossil skeletons and tens of thousands of anatomical characters, the researchers have concluded that these long-accepted familial groupings may, in fact, be wrong and that the traditional names need to be completely altered.

Credit: Natural History Museum

The classification of dinosaurs dates back to Victorian times. Dinosaurs were first recognised as a unique group of fossil reptiles in 1842 as a result of the work of the anatomist, Professor Richard Owen (who later went on to found the Natural History Museum in London). Over subsequent decades, various species were named as more and more fossils were found and identified. During the latter half of the 19th century it was realised that dinosaurs were anatomically diverse and attempts were made to classify them into groups that shared particular features.

Kulindadromeus, a small bipedal ornithischian dinosaur that is now part of the new grouping Ornithoscelida and identified as more obviously sharing an ancestry with living birds

Credit: Pascal Godefroid

It was Harry Govier Seeley, a palaeontologist trained in Cambridge under the renowned geologist Adam Sedgwick, who determined that dinosaurs fell quite neatly into two distinct groupings, or clades; Saurischia or Ornithischia. This classification was based on the arrangement of the creatures’ hip bones and in particular whether they displayed a lizard-like pattern (Saurischia) or a bird-like one (Ornithischia).

As more dinosaurs were described it became clear that they belonged to three distinct lineages; Ornithischia, Sauropodomorpha and Theropoda. In 1887 Seeley placed the sauropodomorphs (which included the huge ‘classic’ dinosaurs such as Diplodocus and Brontosaurus) together with the theropods (which included T. rex), in the Saurischia. The ornithischians and saurischians were at first thought to be unrelated, each having a different set of ancestors, but later study showed that they all evolved from a single common ancestor.

This new analysis of dinosaurs and their near relatives, published today in the journal Nature, concludes that the ornithischians need to be grouped with the theropods, to the exclusion of the sauropodomorphs. It has long been known that birds (with their obviously ‘bird-like’ hips) evolved from theropod dinosaurs (with their lizard-like hips). However, the re-grouping of dinosaurs proposed in this study shows that both ornithischians AND theropods had the potential to evolve a bird-like hip arrangement- they just did so at different times in their history.

Lead author, Matthew Baron, says: “When we started our analysis, we puzzled as to why some ancient ornithischians appeared anatomically similar to theropods. Our fresh study suggested that these two groups were indeed part of the same clade. This conclusion came as quite a shock since it ran counter to everything we’d learned.”

“The carnivorous theropods were more closely related to the herbivorous ornithischians and, what’s more, some animals, such as Diplodocus, would fall outside the traditional grouping that we called dinosaurs. This meant we would have to change the definition of the ‘dinosaur’ to make sure that, in the future, Diplodocus and its near relatives could still be classed as dinosaurs.”

The revised grouping of Ornithischia and Theropoda has been named the Ornithoscelida which revives a name originally coined by the evolutionary biologist, Thomas Henry Huxley in 1870.

Co-author, Dr David Norman, of the University of Cambridge, says: “The repercussions of this research are both surprising and profound. The bird-hipped dinosaurs, so often considered paradoxically named because they appeared to have nothing to do with bird origins, are now firmly attached to the ancestry of living birds.”

For 130 years palaeontologists have considered the phylogeny of the dinosaurs in a certain way. Our research indicates they need to look again at the creatures’ evolutionary history. This is simply science in action. You draw conclusions from one body of evidence and then new data or theories present themselves and you have to suddenly reconsider and adapt your thinking. All the major textbooks covering the topic of the evolution of the vertebrates will need to be re-written if our suggestion survives academic scrutiny.”

While analysing the dinosaur family trees the team arrived at another unexpected conclusion. For many years, it was thought that dinosaurs originated in the southern hemisphere on the ancient continent known as Gondwana. The oldest dinosaur fossils have been recovered from South America suggesting the earliest dinosaurs originated there. But as a result of a re-examination of key taxa it’s now thought they could just as easily have originated on the northern landmass known as Laurasia, though it must be remembered that the continents were much closer together at this time.

Co-author, Prof Paul Barrett, of the Natural History Museum, says: "This study radically redraws the dinosaur family tree, providing a new framework for unravelling the evolution of their key features, biology and distribution through time. If we're correct, it explains away many prior inconsistencies in our knowledge of dinosaur anatomy and relationships and it also highlights several new questions relating to the pace and geographical setting of dinosaur origins".

The research was funded through a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) CASE studentship.

Contacts and sources:
Paul Seagrove
Cambridge University

Citation: Matthew Baron et al: 'A new hypothesis of dinosaur relationships and early dinosaur evolution' Nature, 23 March 2017


Breakthrough May Make Blood Test Feasible for Detecting Cancer

Doctors may soon be able to detect and monitor a patient's cancer with a simple blood test, reducing or eliminating the need for more invasive procedures, according to Purdue University research.

W. Andy Tao, a professor of biochemistry and member of the Purdue University Center for Cancer Research, and colleagues identified a series of proteins in blood plasma that, when elevated, signify that the patient has cancer. Their findings were published in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Tao's work was done with samples from breast cancer patients, but it is possible the method could work for any type of cancer and other types of diseases. The work relies on analysis of microvesicles and exosomes in blood plasma.

Andy Tao, a professor at Purdue University's College of Agriculture, discovers a protein that could make cancer detection possible through a blood test

Credit: Purdue Agricultural Communications/Tom Campbell

Protein phosphorylation, the addition of a phosphate group to a protein can lead to cancer cell formation. So phosphorylated proteins, known as phosphoproteins, have been seen as prime candidates for cancer biomarkers. Until now, however, scientists weren't sure identification of phosphoproteins in blood was possible because the liver releases phosphatase into the bloodstream, which dephosphorylates proteins.

"There are so many types of cancer, even multiple forms for different types of cancer, that finding biomarkers has been discouraging," Tao said. "This is definitely a breakthrough, showing the feasibility of using phosphoproteins in blood for detecting and monitoring diseases."

Tao and his colleagues found nearly 2,400 phosphoproteins in a blood sample and identified 144 that were significantly elevated in cancer patients. The study compared 1-milliliter blood samples from 30 breast cancer patients with six healthy controls.

The researchers used centrifuges to separate plasma from red blood cells, and high-speed and ultra-high-speed centrifuges to further separate microvesicles and exosomes. Those particles, which are released from cells and enter the bloodstream, may play a role in intercellular communication and are thought to be involved in metastasis, spreading cancer from one place to another in the body. They also encapsulate phosphoproteins, which Tao's team identified using mass spectrometry.

"Extracellular vesicles, which include exosomes and microvesicles, are membrane-encapsulated. They are stable, which is important," Tao said. "The samples we used were 5 years old, and we were still able to identify phosphoproteins, suggesting this is a viable method for identifying disease biomarkers."

A simple blood test for cancer would be far less invasive than scopes or biopsies that remove tissue. A doctor could also regularly test a cancer patient's blood to understand the effectiveness of treatment and monitor patients after treatment to see if the cancer is returning.

"There is currently almost no way to monitor patients after treatment," Tao said. "Doctors have to wait until cancer comes back."

Timothy Ratliff, director of the Purdue University Center for Cancer Research, said the findings are promising for early detection of cancer.

"The vesicles and exosomes are present and released by all cancers, so it could be that there are general patterns for cancer tissues, but it's more likely that Andy will develop patterns associated with different cancers. It's really exciting," Ratliff said. "Early detection in cancer is key and has been shown to clearly reduce the death rate associated with the disease."

Tao plans to analyze increased levels of phosphoproteins in various types of cancer to determine whether there are patterns that would signify the type of cancer a patient has. His company, Tymora Analytical, is also developing technology that would allow doctors to insert blood samples onto a cartridge and analyze phosphoproteins present, eliminating the need for ultra-high-speed centrifuges that aren't practical in clinical settings.

The National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Purdue University Center for Cancer Research supported Tao's research.

Contacts and sources:: 
Shari Finnell
Purdue University

Citation: Phosphoproteins in Extracellular Vesicles as Candidate Markers for Breast Cancer

6000 Year Old Egyptian Ritual Images Linked to The Neolithic Period

Egyptologists at the University of Bonn discovered rock art from the 4th millennium BC during an excavation at a necropolis near Aswan in Egypt. The paintings were engraved into the rock in the form of small dots and depict hunting scenes like those found in shamanic depictions. They may represent a link between the Neolithic period and Ancient Egyptian culture. The discovery earned the scientists the award for one of the current ten most important archeological discoveries in Egypt from the Minister of Antiquities in Cairo.

For more than 100 years, Qubbet el-Hawa (English: hill of wind) has been a magnet for archeology. Over 80 burial mounds have been uncovered on the hill near Aswan in Egypt during countless excavations. The history of this necropolis for the provincial capital Elephantine extends from around 2200 to the 4th century BC. It was an important trading base for Egyptians in Nubia, and their nobles were buried in the burial mounds. Prof. Elmar Edel from the University of Bonn investigated and documented the necropolis from 1959 to 1984. "The majority of the objects in the Egyptian Museum in Bonn come from these field campaigns," reports Prof. Ludwig Morenz, who heads Egyptology at the Bonn alma mater.

The around 6000-year-old rock engravings can hardly be seen today. They were pecked into the rock with a hard point.

Credit: © Photo: David Sabel

A completely new aspect at Qubbet el-Hawa has now been uncovered during an excavation begun at the necropolis in 2015. The team led by Prof. Morenz with Amr El Hawary, Andreas Dorn, Tobias Gutmann, Sarah Konert and David Sabel discovered much older Neolithic rock art from the 4th millennium BC. "Style and iconography provide solid clues when dating these," says the scientist. "It opens up a new archeological dimension". Some of these engravings on the rock wall are clearly Egyptian in terms of iconography and stylistics, while others are clearly pre-Egyptian as regards the presentation method and motif.

The images were pecked into the rock with a hard point and are now barely perceivable due to their considerable age. Only the archeologically precise recording of the traces and the drawing of the outlines revealed the images with noteworthy iconography. The initially confusing-looking arrangement of dots allows three figures to be seen upon closer inspection: a hunter with bow, a dancing man with raised arms and, between them, an African ostrich.

The intentionally overvisualized tracing with inherent interpretation allows three figures to be identified: a hunter with a bow (right), a dancing man with a bird mask (left) and, in the center, the large flightless bird the ostrich.

Credit: © David Sabel

"The archer clearly shows hunting for the large flightless bird, while the man with raised arms can be identified as a hunt dancer," reports Prof. Morenz. The dancer apparently wears a bird mask. The scene is reminiscent of the conceptual world of hunting, masks and shamanism, as known from many parts of the Earth - including of ostrich hunting by what are known as San (bushmen).

Such hunting and dancing scenes are new in Egyptology

"This social practice and the associated complex of ideas have barely been looked at in Egyptology," says Prof. Morenz. Small painted female figures with dancing, raised arms and a bird mask also come from the 4th millennium BC, and some clay masks were discovered a few years ago in the Upper Egyptian Hierakonpolis. These finds show astounding consistency with the rock paintings of Qubbet el-Hawa.

Here the scientists at the University of Bonn have discovered the spectacular rock paintings. 

Credit: © Photo: David Sabel

They may represent a link between the ancient Near Eastern and even southern European Neolithic period and Ancient Egyptian culture. "This opens up new horizons for research," says Prof. Morenz. However, the finds need to be investigated more closely. The much older rock art clearly has nothing to do with the necropolis directly and is probably linked to a prehistoric network of trails that also needs to be researched more intensively.

Award from the Egyptian Minister of Antiquities

Despite the comparably short excavation time, the discovery by the team of scientists at the University of Bonn has already earned an award: to mark Egyptology day in Cairo, the Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Prof. Khaled El-Enany recently honored this mission with the award for one of the current ten most important archeological discoveries in Egypt.

Contacts and sources:
Prof. Ludwig D. Morenz
University of Bonn

Got Low-T: Ads for Low-Testosterone Treatments Benefit Sales but Not Necessarily Health

Direct-to-consumer advertising for drugs to treat testosterone deficiency — or “low T” — increases prescriptions to men for hormone-replacement therapies but may not improve their health, UC Davis physician Richard Kravitz said in an editorial published in the March 21 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Kravitz, a professor of internal medicine and researcher on improving communications between patients and their physicians, said an increase in ads and prescriptions for hormone-replacement therapies beginning around 2000 preceded professional guidelines for physicians and product-safety research and led to unnecessary treatments for low testosterone, or age-related hypogonadism.

“Between 2000 and 2011, testosterone use increased at least 3-fold in the United States,” Kravitz wrote. “Many men who were treated with these products did not undergo appropriate testing for testosterone deficiency or meet diagnostic criteria for hypogonadism.”
Credit: University of Miami/Wikimedia Commons

The likelihood of hypogonadism increases with age and can cause symptoms such as low libido, reduced strength, fatigue and depression. It is diagnosed with a blood test together with clinical symptoms and signs, and it is treated with products that increase levels of male-reproductive hormones known as androgens, most often testosterone, through injections, gels, transdermal patches or subcutaneous pellets.

In his editorial, Kravitz referenced a study in the same issue of the journal estimating that “1 additional exposure to an androgen replacement therapy television advertisement was associated with 14 new tests, 5 new initiations, and 2 initiations without testing per million men exposed,” suggesting that “patients respond to [direct-to-consumer-advertising] and physicians respond to patients.”

When medical research began to link androgen replacement therapy with cardiovascular disease, the number of ads for these products declined starting in 2014, likely due to U.S. Food and Drug Administration requirements for informing consumers in drug advertising about potential risks, according to Kravitz.

Credit: Vimeo

“But with revenue from topical testosterone products topping $2.2 billion the year before, the market for androgen replacement therapy was still substantial,” he wrote.

While restrictions on direct-to-consumer medication ads — such as limits on timing and content — have been proposed, Kravitz wrote that a complete ban is unlikely given free speech protections. He recommended continued research on the topic, since direct-to-consumer advertising, “while a potentially powerful tool in motivating patient behavior and perhaps even physician prescribing, does not necessarily serve to improve the health of patients or the public.”

Contacts and sources:
Karen Finney
University of California Davis

The Foundation of Aquatic Life Can Rapidly Adapt to Global Warming:

Important microscopic creatures which produce half of the oxygen in the atmosphere can rapidly adapt to global warming, new research suggests.

Phytoplankton, which also act as an essential food supply for fish, can increase the rate at which they take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen while in warmer water temperatures, a long-running experiment shows.

Monitoring of one species, a green algae, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, after ten years of them being in waters of a higher temperature shows they quickly adapt so they are still able to photosynthesise more than they respire.

Phytoplankton can increase the rate at which they take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen while in warmer water temperatures.
Credit:  University of Exeter

Phytoplankton use chlorophyll to capture sunlight, and photosynthesis to turn it into chemical energy. This means they are critical for reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and for providing food for aquatic life. It is crucial to know how these tiny organisms – which are not visible to the naked eye – react to climate change in the long-term. Experts had made predictions that that climate change would have negative effects on phytoplankton. But a new study shows green algae can adjust to warmer water temperatures. They become more competitive and increase the amount they are able to photosynthesise.

Algae examined by scientists which lived in warmer waters became fitter, and more competitive, proving that these tiny creatures adapt well to climate change. This suggests that this species could continue to be a plentiful source of food for aquatic life even if temperatures rise. Previous studies which sought to answer this question have been conducted only in laboratories rather than looking at how phytoplankton reacted to real conditions. In contrast this research, which has run so far for ten years, has allowed researchers to examine how the green algae fare in their natural environment, where they are exposed to a more complex environment, and competitors.

Scientists at the University of Exeter’s Penryn campus in Cornwall have for a decade monitored ten tanks home to the phytoplankton with freshwater heated to four degrees centigrade above the ambient temperature. This is the rate at which our climate will have been warmed by the end of the century. The temperatures of ten other tanks were kept at normal temperatures. All the tanks were kept outside the Freshwater Biological Association’s river laboratory in Dorset. All twenty tanks were populated with the same types and proportion of various freshwater phytoplankton, zooplankton, invertebrates and plants. In the laboratory scientists tested how much the algae could photosynthesise, how fast they were growing, and how well they outcompeted organisms from the ambient ponds.

Lead author Dr Elisa Schaum said: “phytoplankton may be microscopically small, but they are essential for all aquatic life. They provide food for zooplankton, which are then eaten by fish. Aquatic ecosystems produce the oxygen in every second breath we take, and are responsible for the oceans’ capacity as a sink for carbon dioxide.

“Other research had suggested that increased temperatures can pose problems for some types of phytoplankton. But we have shown that algae adapt very rapidly and that the mechanism underpinning their evolutionary response is linked to higher rates of photosynthesis – they can produce more energy, and channel it into faster growth rates and a better capacity for competition with other algae. They divide once a day and live in large populations of thousands of cells per millilitre of water. This means evolutionary changes are made through a few hundred of generations within a couple of years.

“It is important to recognise that climate change is a serious threat to aquatic ecosystems. Although the green algae monitored in our study cope well with elevated temperature, and may be able to sustain populations of organisms that eat them, we do not know yet what will happen to other groups of algae, and whether or not they will adapt through the same mechanisms.”

Adaptation of phytoplankton to a decade of experimental warming linked to increased photosynthesis by Elisa Schaum, Samuel Barton, Elvire Bestion, Angus Buckling, Bernardo Garcia-Carreras, Paula Lopez, Chris Lowe, Samraat Pawar, Nicholas Smirnoff, Mark Trimmer and Gabriel Yvon-Durocher (who is the group’s principle investigator) is published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Contacts and sources:
Kerra Maddern
University of Exeter

Comet 67P Full of Surprises, Says New Study

Images returned from the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission indicate the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was a very active place during its most recent trip through the solar system, says a new study led by CU Boulder.

The images show the comet's surface is full of growing fractures, collapsing cliffs and massive rolling boulders. Moving material buried some features on the comet’s surface and exhumed others. A study on 67P’s changing surface was released Tuesday in the journal Science.

"As comets approach the sun, they go into overdrive and exhibit spectacular changes on their surface," said Ramy El-Maarry, study leader and a member of the U.S. Rosetta science team who is a research scientist at CU Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. "This is something we were not able to really appreciate before the Rosetta mission, which gave us the chance to look at a comet in ultra-high resolution for more than two years."

Comet 67P. 

Photo courtesy of NASA

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the U.S. contribution of the Rosetta mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C. JPL also built the MIRO instrument and hosts its principal investigator, Mark Hofstadter.

Most comets orbit the sun in highly elliptical orbits that cause them to spend most of their time in the extremely cold outer solar system. When a comet approaches the inner solar system, the sun begins to warm the ice on and near the comet's surface.

When the ice warms enough it can rapidly sublimate, turning directly from a solid to a vapor state. This sublimation process can occur with variable degrees of intensity and timing and cause the surface to change rapidly. Between August 2014 and September 2016, Rosetta orbited comet 67P during the comet's swing through the inner solar system.

"We saw a massive cliff collapse and a large crack in the neck of the comet get bigger and bigger," said El-Maarry. "And we discovered that boulders the size of a large truck could be moved across the comet's surface – a distance as long as one-and-a-half football fields."

In the case of the boulder, Rosetta's cameras observed a 282-million-pound, 100-foot- wide space rock that had moved 450 feet from its original position on the comet’s nucleus. The massive space rock probably moved as a result of several cometary "outburst" events that were detected close to its original position, said El-Maarry.

The warming of 67P also caused the comet's rotation rate to speed up. The comet's increasing spin rate in the lead up to perihelion (when the comet was closest to the sun) is thought to be responsible for a 1,600-foot-long fracture spotted in August 2014 that runs through the comet's neck.

The fracture, which originally extended a bit longer than the Empire State Building is high, was found to have increased in width by about 100 feet by December 2014. In images taken in June 2016, a new 500- to 1,000-foot-long fracture was identified parallel to the original fracture.

"The large crack was in the neck of the comet, a small central part that connects the two lobes," said El-Maarry. "The crack was extending, indicating that the comet may split up one day."

Rosetta is a European Space Agency mission with contributions from its member states and NASA. Other institutions involved in the mission include the German Aerospace Center in Cologne, Germany; the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany; the French National Space Agency in Paris; and the Italian Space Agency in Rome.

The Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, and Boulder, Colorado developed the Rosetta orbiter's Ion and Electron Sensor (IES) and Alice instruments and hosts their principal investigators, James Burch (IES) and Joel Parker (Alice).

Contacts and sources:
Ramy El-Maarry
University of Colorado Boulder.  
 More information about Rosetta is available at http://www.esa.int/rosetta.