Saturday, July 31, 2010

From the Heart: How Cells Divide to Form Different but Related Muscle Groups

This video explains how studies of developing sea squirts provide scientists with clues about the evolutionary origin of the heart-jaw connection in vertebrates.
Credit: National Science Foundation

Using the model organism Ciona intestinalis, commonly known as the sea squirt, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have uncovered the origins of the second heart field in vertebrates.

Sea squirts are bag-like gelatinous creatures whose full genome has been sequenced--one that shares 80 percent of its genes with humans. Though its body is clearly more primitive than creatures with backbones and spinal columns, the sea squirt nevertheless offers a valuable resource to scientists seeking to understand the evolutionary links between these simple chordates and more complex creatures.

Vertebrate hearts form from two distinct cell populations, termed first heart field and second heart field. From these fields are derived, respectively, the left ventricle and the right ventricle and outflow tract of the heart. The lineage relationship between these cell types was uncertain but mysteriously, a number of reports linked cells in the second heart field to muscle cells in the lower jaw in birds and mammals.

"The heart-jaw connection is evolutionarily ancient," said developmental biologist Mike Levine."We think the sea squirt is valuable as a developmental model to study these connections because it is a simple chordate that is the closest living relative of vertebrates, including humans."

By tracking the movement of specific cells during embryonic development, Levine and his team found that heart progenitor cells also produce the atrial siphon muscles (ASMs--responsible for expelling water during feeding) in Ciona. Researchers think it is possible that the atrial siphon in the sea squirt is the equivalent of the lower jaw in vertebrates. During development, the ASM precursor cells in Ciona express the same markers seen in cells that form the jaw muscles and second heart field in vertebrates, evidence that supports the idea that these muscle groups are linked. These results also suggest that "re-routing" of jaw cells into the developing heart could lead to evolution of the more intricate hearts seen in higher vertebrates such as humans.

"This is an exciting discovery, because we still don't know the rules for evolving novelty," Levine explained. "We understand how you lose things via evolution, but we really don't understand how you make something more complex."

This study is published in the July 30 issue of the journal Science.

Red Blood Cells Have A Tiny But Effective Protector -- MicroRNA

Pediatric researchers have discovered a new biological pathway in which small segments of RNA, called microRNA, help protect red blood cells from injury caused by chemicals called free radicals. The microRNA seems to have only a modest role when red blood cells experience normal conditions, but steps into action when the cells are threatened by oxidant stress. The study illustrates how microRNA fine-tunes gene activity.

Led by hematologist Mitchell Weiss, M.D., Ph.D., of The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, the current study describes how a particular microRNA fine-tunes gene activity by acting on an unexpected signaling pathway.

The study appears in the August 1 issue of the journal Genes & Development, simultaneously with a similar study of microRNAs and red blood cells by a University of Texas team led by Eric Olson, Ph.D. The two studies reinforce each other, said Weiss.

MicroRNAs are single-stranded molecules of ribonucleic acid (RNA) averaging only 22 nucleotides long. Scientists estimate that 500 to 1000 microRNAs exist in the human genome. First characterized in the early 1990s, they received their current name in 2001. Over the past decade, scientists have increasingly recognized that microRNAs play a crucial role in regulating genes, most typically by attaching to a piece of messenger RNA and blocking it from being translated into a protein, but many details remain to be discovered.

"Although microRNAs affect the formation and function of most or all tissues, for most microRNAs, we don't know their precise mechanisms of action," said Weiss. "In this case we already knew this microRNA, called miR-451, regulates red blood cells in zebrafish and mice, and because it is highly conserved in evolution, we presume it operates in humans as well. But its functional roles were poorly understood."

By investigating how microRNAs influence red blood cell development, Weiss and colleagues aimed to understand how such development goes wrong in hemolytic anemia, in which red blood cells are destroyed in large numbers, or in disorders of abnormal blood cell production. The current study used knockout mice—bioengineered animals in which the miR-451 gene was removed and could not function.

They found that preventing the activity of miR-451 produced only modest effects—mild anemia in the mice—but when the team subjected mice to oxidant stress by dosing them with a drug that produces free radicals, the mice had profound anemia. The oxygen radicals attacked hemoglobin, the iron-carrying molecule in red blood cells.

"This is a common theme in microRNAs—frequently, they don't play a central role during tissue formation or normal conditions, but they have a strong protective effect when an organism is stressed," said Weiss. "Over evolutionary time, red blood cells have evolved ways to protect themselves; one of those ways is the action of microRNA."

Weiss's team found that miR-451, acting through intermediate steps on a signaling pathway, affects a key protein, FoxO3. As a transcription factor, FoxO3 regulates hundreds of genes; in this case, FoxO3 stimulates specific genes that protect red blood cells from oxidant stress. The knockout mice in this study, having lost miR-451's function, showed impaired FoxO3 activity, and less ability to protect their red blood cells.

The regulatory pathway seen here, Weiss added, may have medical implications beyond blood cell development. "This finding does not have immediate clinical application for patients with blood diseases, but it sheds light on how microRNAs fine tune physiological functions in different contexts," said Weiss. FoxO3 regulates anti-oxidant functions in heart cells and also acts as a tumor suppressor, so miR-451 may have an important role in heart protection and in fighting cancers. "Further studies may broaden our knowledge of how this microRNA may defend the body against disease," he added.

The National Institutes of Health, the Roche Foundation for Anemia Research and the March of Dimes Foundation provided grant support for this study. Weiss's co-authors included Barry H. Paw, M.D., Ph.D., of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School; Duonan Yu, Camila O. dos Santos, and several other colleagues from The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia; and collaborators from Northwestern University, Chicago; Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City; and the Amnis Corporation, Seattle.

About The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia: The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia was founded in 1855 as the nation's first pediatric hospital. Through its long-standing commitment to providing exceptional patient care, training new generations of pediatric healthcare professionals and pioneering major research initiatives, Children's Hospital has fostered many discoveries that have benefited children worldwide. Its pediatric research program is among the largest in the country, ranking third in National Institutes of Health funding. In addition, its unique family-centered care and public service programs have brought the 460-bed hospital recognition as a leading advocate for children and adolescents. For more information, visit

Contacts and sources: John Ascenzi
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia News Release
Genes & Development
National Institutes of Health
Roche Foundation for Anemia Research

Publication: "miR-451 protects against erythroid oxidant stress by repressing 14-3-3zeta," Genes and Development, published online July 31, 2010, in print issue on Aug. 1, 2010. doi: 10.1101/gad.1942110.

Decontaminating Dangerous Drywall; Nanomaterial In Novel Home-Air Treatment Counters Hazards From Toxic Drywall

Nanomaterial in novel home-air treatment counters hazards from toxic drywall. A nanomaterial originally developed to fight toxic waste is now helping reduce debilitating fumes in homes with corrosive drywall.

Developed by Kenneth Klabunde of Kansas State University, and improved over three decades with support from the National Science Foundation, the FAST-ACT material has been a tool of first responders since 2003.

Artist's interpretation of FAST-ACT absorbing and destroying toxins.
Artist's interpretation of FAST-ACT absorbing and destroying toxins.
Credit: Trent Schindler, NSF

Now, NanoScale Corporation of Manhattan, Kansas--the company Klabunde co-founded to market the technology--has incorporated FAST-ACT into a cartridge that breaks down the corrosive drywall chemicals.

Homeowners have reported that the chemicals--particularly sulfur compounds such as hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide--have caused respiratory illnesses, wiring corrosion and pipe damage in thousands of U.S. homes with sulfur-rich, imported drywall.

"It is devastating to see what has happened to so many homeowners because of the corrosive drywall problem, but I am glad the technology is available to help," said Klabunde. "We've now adapted the technology we developed through years of research for FAST-ACT for new uses by homeowners, contractors and remediators."

The new cartridge, called OdorKlenz®, takes the place of the existing air filter in a home. The technology is similar to one that NanoScale adapted in 2008 for use by a major national disaster restoration service company for odors caused by fire and water damage.

In homes with corrosive drywall, the cartridge is used in combination with related FAST-ACT-based, OdorKlenz® surface treatments (and even laundry additives) to remove the sulfur-bearing compounds causing the corrosion issues.

Developers at NanoScale tested their new air cartridge in affected homes that were awaiting drywall removal, and in every case, odor dropped to nearly imperceptible levels within 10 days or less and corrosion was reduced.

The FAST-ACT material is a non-toxic mineral powder composed of the common elements magnesium, titanium and oxygen. While metal oxides similar to FAST-ACT have an established history tackling dangerous compounds, none have been as effective.

NanoScale's breakthrough was a new method to manufacture the compound as a nanocrystalline powder with extremely high surface area--only a few tablespoons have as much surface area as a football field.

The surface area allows more interactions between the metal oxides and the toxic molecules, enabling the powder to capture and destroy a large quantity of hazardous chemicals ranging from sulfuric acid to VX gas--and their hazardous byproducts--in minutes.

"The concept of nano-sized adsorbents as both a cost-efficient, useful product for first responders and an effective product for in-home use illustrates the wide spectrum of possibilities for this technology," said NSF program director Rosemarie Wesson, who oversaw NanoScale's NSF Small Business Innovation Resarch grants. "It is great to see the original work we supported to help reduce the toxic effects of hazardous spills now expand into other applications."

In coming months, the company is proposing its technology for use in Gulf Coast residences affected by the recent oil spill and other hazardous situations where airborne toxins are causing harm.

This video shows how the FAST-ACT powders work, how they are made and how they are used in situations ranging from chemical spills to gas releases in enclosed chambers.

Credit: Cliff Braverman and Trent Schindler, NSF; NanoScale Materials, Inc.; Kansas State University

In addition to extensive support from NSF, the development of FAST ACT and NanoScale's technology has been supported by grants from the U.S. Army, DTRA, Air Force, DARPA, JPEO, MARCORSYSCOM , the CTTSO, USSOCOM, NIOSH, DOE, NIH and EPA.

Source: National Science Foundation news release

Rover Finds Mars Past Could Have Supported Life

Rocks examined by NASA's Spirit Mars Rover hold evidence of a wet, non-acidic ancient environment that may have been favorable for life. Confirming this mineral clue took four years of analysis by several scientists.

Video credit: NASA

Six years of exploration through the "eyes" of the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit.

Video credit: NASA

"Hello World! My name is Robonaut 2" Tweets R2, Robot To Twitter From Space

 NASA's Robonaut 2 has no voice but is ready to tell you its story -- in 140 characters or less. The prototype robot will travel to space this fall to give NASA a deeper understanding of human-robotic interaction. 

Robonaut 2 surpasses previous dexterous humanoid robots in strength, yet it is safe enough to work side-by-side with humans.
 JSC2010-E-017534 -- Robonaut 2
Image Credit: NASA

Called R2, the robot has started sending updates about its upcoming mission from its new Twitter account, @AstroRobonaut. With the help of its supporting team, R2 will document its preparations for launch and, eventually, its work aboard the International Space Station.

"Hello World! My name is Robonaut 2 -- R2 for short," R2 and the team tweeted this week. "Follow my adventures here as I prepare for space!" 

R2 will be shipped next month from Johnson, where it was created, to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for final testing and packing. It will launch aboard space shuttle Discovery as part of the STS-133 mission, targeted to lift off in November.

Image Credit: NASA

Robonaut 2 was created through a joint project between NASA and General Motors that began in 2007. R2 originally was intended to be an Earth-bound prototype, but engineers wanted to see how it fared in microgravity so the robot is being sent to space in Discovery's cargo bay.

R2 is already the most advanced dexterous humanoid robot in existence. Once in space, it will become the first humanoid robot to reach orbit and the first American-built robot at the space station. Over time, as its creators learn more about operating R2 in space, upgrades and modifications could be made that would allow the robot to assist astronauts inside and outside of the station with routine tasks or those too dangerous for humans.

Image Credit: NASA

For more information about Robonaut 2, visit:
For more information about the STS-133 mission, visit: 
For more information about the space station, visit:
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Spiders and Worms Can Do It, Why Can't We?

Future research could spin up new medical and materials breakthroughs based on silk, but obstacles remain in quest to replicate natural silk production, scientists say in this week's edition of Science.

See how silkworms and spiders work their magic in this video.

Credit: David T. Wright, National Science Foundation

A silkworm cocoon spun in a lab at Tufts University. Humanity has used silk for centuries, but in recent years, researchers have worked to gain a better understanding of what silk is and how it's made, with the goal of being able to consistently replicate and enhance its production synthetically. In the June 30, 2010, edition of the journal Science, two Tufts University researchers, Fiorenzo G. Omenetto and David L. Kaplan, review the state of silk research, the challenges that remain, and why synthetic silk production is so appealing.
Photo of a silkworm cocoon spun in a lab at Tufts University.
Credit: David Kaplan, Tufts University

Imagine a material that is tougher than Kelvar or steel, yet remarkably flexible. It's something you can easily find in your attic or a lingerie store. It's as instantly recognizable today as it was to our early ancestors, yet we still aren't sure exactly how it's made.

The miracle thread in question is natural silk, the ubiquitous fibers made by spiders and silkworms, which has been used throughout history for items ranging from stockings and parachutes to surgical sutures. Today scientists and engineers are creating a number of useful materials based on silk research. But many researchers believe these applications may just be the start of a whole web of useful new products and devices, if only we had a better understanding of just how these small creatures spin their precious thread. In recent years, researchers have worked to gain a better understanding of what silk is and how it's made, with the goal of being able to consistently replicate and enhance its production synthetically. In the July 30 edition of the journal Science, two Tufts University researchers, Fiorenzo G. Omenetto and David L. Kaplan, review the state of silk research, the challenges that remain, and why synthetic silk production is so appealing.

According to Omenetto and Kaplan, scientists understand that silk is "a relatively simple protein processed from water." Research has established what those proteins are, and they have determined that the properties of silk can vary a great deal depending on factors such as the outside temperature, how fast the silk is spun, and the exact type of silk created.

But no one knows how exactly the spiders and silk worms actually make silk. Scientists have determined they don't secrete the stuff, but instead pull it out of special glands in very specific ways. Spiders, for example, pull it with their legs, while silkworms perform a ‘figure eight' dance with their heads to create the silk threads. Despite this knowledge, Omenetto and Kaplan write, "there are still significant knowledge gaps in understanding how to reverse-engineer silk protein fibers."

The spiders and silkworms have also figured out another neat trick that, according to Omenetto and Kaplan, still evades the capabilities of their would-be mechanical copycats. When the scientists try to store silk proteins in the lab, they find they must do so under exacting conditions, or material will quickly begin to crystallize. Nature's silk makers, on the other hand, don't seem to have this problem. They can store the raw silk materials internally at a variety of temperatures for days and even weeks without encountering the crystallization problem, and at this point in time, the authors write, no one is sure how they do it.

One goal of silk research, Omenetto and Kaplan write, is to find a way to genetically engineer other organisms to produce custom-designed silk proteins that could then be used to produce synthetic silk for specific purposes on a large scale. This has led to genetically modified mushrooms, bacteria and even goats that are able to produce silk protein, yet none of the actual silk produced from these modified organisms matches the qualities of the stuff produced by spiders and silk worms. Once these issues are overcome, however, Omenetto and Kaplan believe that someday, plants could be modified to produce silk as a crop, like cotton is harvested today.

So why all of this focus on silk? Omenetto and Kaplan say that figuring out how to replicate and modify silk could lead to new breakthroughs in medicine, among other fields. Although silk is used in sutures today, the authors explain, it has to be coated in wax, which prevents the sutures from being gradually absorbed into the body. Modified silks could be wax free, Omenetto and Kaplan write, and could be used to safely administer drugs within the body or even create "degradable and flexible electronic displays for improved physiological recording" of a person's body. These and other intriguing possibilities await, Omenetto and Kaplan say, if we can just figure out how exactly the spider spins that web.

Source: National Science Foundation (NSF) News ReleaseDana W. Cruikshank, NSF
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The Mibot, World’s Smallest Mobile Micromanipulator

 Credit: Imina Technologies  

Imina Technologies designs and fabricates high precision manipulators for research and development activities in nanotechnologies and life science.

The miBot micromanipulator, their flagship product, provides never achieved intuitiveness and flexibility of use for the handling of micro- and nano-scaled objects.
 Credit: Imina Technologies

Imina systems are literally plug-n-play. Whether working with cells or carbon nanotubes, productivity will be greatly enhanced by being at least 10 times faster than with conventional micromanipulators. With Imina products one will not spend time solving hardware issues, but will be able to concentrate on what matters: the application.

Imina Technologies introduces the miBot: the world's smallest commercial micromanipulator. With four degrees of freedom, this revolutionary mobile micro-robot provides nanometer precision displacements and travelling range of several centimeters. Thanks to its intuitive and flexible nature, the miBot is revolutionizing the handling of micro and nano scaled objects which has never been achieved before. As it does not require mounting screws, the set-up time is drastically reduced compared with conventional manipulators. Simply place the miBot near your sample and you are ready to manipulate!

1 Nanomanipulation and assembly
1 SEM/TEM sample preparation
1 Electrical probing
1 MEMS testing
1 Characterization of cell mechanics

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New Report Shows Significant Potential For Renewable Energy In South

The South could generate 20-30 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources within the next 20 years – up from less than 4 percent today -- if strong federal policies are enacted, according to a report released today by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Duke University. The analysis, “Renewable Energy in the South,” finds that conventional wisdom has underestimated the available renewable resources in the region and that a federal renewable electricity standard (RES) would enable the South to capitalize on this untapped renewable energy potential.

Read the Full Report Here:

The South lags behind all other regions in renewable electricity, obtaining 3.7 percent of its power from renewable sources, compared to 9.5 percent for the country as a whole. Only four states (Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, and Texas) have a state-level renewable portfolio standard, while three others have voluntary renewable energy goals.  The fate of renewables in the South is not only important for the region, but for the nation as a whole since, in 2008, the region accounted for 44 percent of the country’s energy consumption.

Opponents of renewable energy production claim that the South lacks the renewable energy resources to capitalize on the growing demand for clean energy.  However, the report finds that there are abundant renewable energy resources available that can be tapped if supportive policies are put in place. The report shows that if a 25 percent (by 2025) federal RES is enacted, the amount of electricity supplied by power companies from renewable sources could increase more than 250 percent above the level expected in 2030 if no new federal renewables policies were enacted.

A number of other studies have shown a large potential for renewable energy in the South,” said Etan Gumerman of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute and co-lead researcher of the study.  “Our study shows that significant increases can actually be achieved, particularly through supportive local or federal policies.”

The report, using a customized version of the economic modeling system used by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, finds that a federal renewable electricity standard and carbon pricing system would increase the proportion of electricity derived from renewable sources by power companies in every state, particularly in wind and biomass. By 2030, the report shows, federal carbon pricing policy would increase renewable electricity production in the South by 390 percent.

“Countries around the world are already tapping into the potential of renewable energy, and are capturing export markets and generating jobs in the process,” said Dr. Marilyn Brown of the Georgia Institute of Technology and co-lead researcher of the study.  “The report demonstrates that although many states in the South are off to a slow start, renewable initiatives are now underway across the region, and the potential for expansion is promising.”

In addition, the report finds that electricity produced by end-users, such as households and businesses using small-scale solar electric and heating facilities, would also benefit from federal policies and could supply a substantial portion of the region’s renewable electricity.  Under a 25 percent RES, for example, renewable electricity supplied by utilities and end-users could increase by 154 percent. Carbon pricing policy could lead to a 266 percent increase above the total level of renewable electricity expected in the absence of federal policy changes.

“In the future, households and businesses have the potential to become major suppliers of clean, renewable electricity,” added Dr. Brown.  “This changes the way we need to think about the South’s renewable energy potential.”

About Dr. Marilyn Brown and Georgia Tech:

Dr. Marilyn Brown, a professor in the School of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is an internationally-recognized leader in the analysis and interpretation of energy futures in the United States. In 2007, Brown was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize along with the other members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Vice President Al Gore. Additional information about Brown and her research can be found at  Brown has been nominated to serve on the Board of the Tennessee Valley Authority and awaits confirmation. 

Georgia Tech’s Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts offers one of the world’s top public policy programs. The research-intensive and globally engaged curriculum aims to solve complex problems in the public interest related to issues of research and technology, energy and sustainability, economic development and governance. The School of Public Policy is dedicated to scholarship and learning that is reflective, effective and sustainable.

About Etan Gumerman and Duke University’s Nicholas Institute:

Etan Gumerman is a scientific engineer at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University.  Prior to joining the Nicholas Institute, Gumerman was employed by Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and served as the lead modeler and analyst for the Scenarios for a Clean Energy Future Project.  In this role, Gumerman coordinated the efforts of scientists at five national laboratories.

The Nicholas Institute is a nonpartisan institute founded in 2005 to help decision makers in government, the private sector, and the nonprofit community address critical environmental challenges. The Institute responds to the demand for high-quality and timely data and acts as an “honest broker” in policy debates by convening and fostering open, ongoing dialogue between stakeholders on all sides of the issues and providing policy-relevant analysis based on academic research. The Institute’s leadership and staff leverage the broad expertise of Duke University as well as public and private partners worldwide. Since its inception, the Institute has earned a distinguished reputation for its innovative approach to developing multilateral, nonpartisan, and economically viable solutions to pressing environmental challenges

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ATHLETE Rover Busts a Move: A Dancing Robot

Engineers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are currently putting their All-Terrain, Hex-Limbed, Extra-Terrestrial Explorer (ATHLETE) through a series of long-drive tests on the long, dirt roads found adjacent to JPL. The JPL grounds do not include an unpaved area of sufficient size for testing such a large robot over a long distance. Some of the dirt roads in the Arroyo Seco (a wash located next to JPL) are wide enough for ATHLETE, and its close proximity to JPL allows the robot to be secured in its hangar between test runs.

Engineers test the ATHLETE moon rover on one of the long dirt roads found just outside JPL.
 Engineers test ATHLETE outside at JPL
Image credit: NASA

The engineers want to test the moon rover's ability to meet a NASA milestone of traveling at least 40 kilometers (25 miles) over 14 days under its own power. The official demonstration is slated to begin in the Arizona high desert next month.

ATHLETE is a 1/2-scale working prototype of a robot under development to transport habitats and other cargo on the surface of the Moon or Mars. The ATHLETE concept is a level cargo deck carried by six wheels, each on the end of a configurable leg. The prototype stands approximately 4.5 meters (15 feet) tall and 4.5 meters (15 ft) wide and weighs about (about 2,300 kilograms (2.5 tons). The robot moves relatively slowly, with a top speed during traverse of approximately 2 kilometers per hour (1.25 mph).

For more information about ATHLETE, including photos and video clips, visit:
It takes a lot of hard work, ingenuity and creativity to build a rover like ATHLETE. And it takes a lot of creativity of a different sort to make ATHLETE "dance." See the results of that effort in a fast-action video of ATHLETE bustin' a move.

 Contacts and sources:
DC Agle
Jet Propulsion Laboratory,  News Feature

A Link To Evidence Of Living Organisms On Mars, Roughly 4 Billion Years Ago

A new article in press of the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters unveils groundbreaking research on the hydrothermal formation of Clay-Carbonate rocks in the Nili Fossae region of Mars. The findings may provide a link to evidence of living organisms on Mars, roughly 4 billion years ago in the Noachian period.

The paper “Hydrothermal formation of Clay-Carbonate alteration assemblages in the Nili Fossae region of Mars”, by Adrian J. Brown et al, suggests that carbonate bearing rocks found in the Nili Fossae region of Mars are made up of hydrothermally altered ultramafic (perhaps komatiitic) rocks. It also shows that the carbonates at Nili Fossae are not pure Mg-carbonate. Moreover, the study explains that talc is present in close proximity to the carbonate locations - rather than previously suggested saponite - and talc-carbonate alteration of high-Mg precursor rocks has taken place.

Adrian Brown, corresponding author, explains: “We suggest that the associated hydrothermal activity would have provided sufficient energy for biological activity on early Mars at Nili Fossae. Furthermore, in the article we discuss the potential of the Archean volcanics of the East Pilbara region of Western Australia as an analog for the Nochian Nili Fossae on Mars. They indicate that biomarkers or evidence of living organisms, if produced at Nili, could have been preserved, as they have been in the North Pole Dome region of the Pilbara craton.”

“Earth and Planetary Science Letters is delighted to be publishing this exciting new scientific finding, which marks a significant finding in the Nili Fossae region of Mars, highlighting similarities between traces of life on early Earth and early Mars, and suggests a landing site for an exobiology mission to Mars", remarked Tilman Spohn, Editor, Earth and Planetary Sciences."

The Nili Fossae region has one of the largest exposures of clay minerals discovered by the mapping spectrometer (called OMEGA for its French name's acronym) on the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter. These minerals have also been mapped in greater detail by the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (See
Color Image of Nili Fossae Trough
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona 

This image covers an area nearly one kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) wide, at 21.1 degrees north latitude, 74.2 degrees east longitude. North is up. It is a composite of exposures that HiRISE took in the infrared, red and blue portions of the spectrum. Color is enhanced beyond the standard enhancement in HiRISE color images, as this view is excerpted from a special video treatment of the full-frame image. The purple areas are basaltic in composition, including sand-sized material that bounces around in the wind to form dunes. Basalt in the most common type of volcanic rock on the Earth and other terrestrial planets. Orange areas are rich in clays. Clay minerals contain water in their mineral structure and may also preserve organic materials, so there is great interest in studying these deposits to understand past environments that could have supported life. The blue-green patches are outcops of unaltered rocks rich in the mineral pyroxene.

This is a portion of the full-frame color image catalogued as PSP_003086_2015 in the HiRISE collection (See The image was taken at a local Mars time of 3:38 p.m. The scene is illuminated from the west with a solar incidence angle of 62 degrees, thus the sun was about 28 degrees above the horizon. The season on Mars was northern autumn. 

Color Image of Nili Fossae Trough, Candidate MSL Landing Site (PSP_003086_2015)
Color Image of Nili Fossae Trough, Candidate MSL Landing Site
Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The Nili Fossae region of Mars is one of the largest exposures of clay minerals discovered by the OMEGA spectrometer on Mars Express and mapped in greater detail by the CRISM spectrometer on MRO (see the gallery).

In the HiRISE IRB color, dark blue regions are basaltic in composition, including sand-sized material that bounces around in the wind to form dunes. Basalt in the most common type of volcanic rock on the Earth and other terrestrial planets.

The light-toned areas (with a variety of colors) and covered by small-scale fractures is the clay-rich material. Clay minerals contain hydrogen and oxygen (i.e., water) within their mineral structure, and may also preserve organic materials, so there is great interest in studying these deposits to understand past environments that could have supported life.

NASA also released a video produced by the digital animation group at JPL, scrolling from south to north over this image, as a simulation of the view from the MRO spacecraft.The colors have been specially enhanced for this video, beyond the standard enhancements applied to all HiRISE color images. A sample of the enhanced color is shown here; the purple areas are basaltic materials, orange areas are rich in clays, and the blue-green patches are outcops of unaltered rocks rich in the mineral pyroxene. This would be a wonderful place for detailed exploration by a rover like MSL.

Since its first appearance in 1966, Earth and Planetary Science Letters has built up an enviable reputation. Its successful formula of presenting high-quality research articles with minimal delay has made it one of the most important sources of information in its field. The articles published reflect the great impact made on research in the geosciences by the use of successful research methods from other disciplines such as chemistry, physics, and mathematics. It also covers research into all aspects of lunar studies, plate tectonics, ocean floor spreading, and continental drift, as well as basic studies of the physical, chemical and mechanical properties of the Earth's crust and mantle, the atmosphere and the hydrosphere.

Mid 2002 a new section of short reviews called Frontiers was introduced within Earth and Planetary Science Letters. These high profile papers are written by leading experts and published as the opening pages to regular EPSL issues. The papers fill an important niche of fast communications that bring the scientific community up-to-speed on interesting new areas of science.

Elsevier is a world-leading publisher of scientific, technical and medical information products and services. The company works in partnership with the global science and health communities to publish more than 2,000 journals, including The Lancet and Cell, and close to 20,000 book titles, including major reference works from Mosby and Saunders. Elsevier’s online solutions include ScienceDirect ScopusReaxys,  MD Consult and  Nursing Consult, which enhance the productivity of science and health professionals, and the SciVal suite and MEDai’s Pinpoint Review, which help research and health care institutions deliver better outcomes more cost-effectively.

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Full bibliographic information:The article title is “Hydrothermal formation of Clay-Carbonate alteration assemblages in the Nili Fossae region of Mars” (doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2010.06.018) by Adrian J. Brown and Janice Bishop (SETI Institute), Simon J. Hook, Alice M. Baldridge and Nathan T. Bridges (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), Bradley J. Thomson (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory), Giles M. Marion (Desert Research Institute), and Carlos R. de Souza Filho (Universidade Estadual de Campinas), and James K. Crowley.

Reforestation Projects Capture More Carbon Than Industrial Plantations, Reveals New Research

 Australian scientists researching environmental restoration projects have found that the reforestation of damaged rainforests is more efficient at capturing carbon than controversial softwood monoculture plantations. The research, published in Ecological Management & Restoration, challenges traditional views on the efficiency of industrial monoculture plantations.

"Carbon markets have become a potential source of funding for restoration projects as countries and corporations seek the cheapest way to reduce carbon emissions", said Dr John Kanowski from the Australian Wildlife Conservancy. "However, there is a concern that this funding will encourage single species monoculture plantations instead of diverse reforestation projects, due to the widely held belief that monocultures capture more carbon."

This is an example of a ecological restoration project.
Credit: Dr. Jonh Kanowski.

Softwood monoculture plantations are grown for industrial purposes and are used as a cheap and abundant source of resources such as timber and rubber. However the plantations are highly controversial, with some ecologists describing the lack of diversity as a 'green desert'.

The team sought to test the belief that monoculture plantations would capture more carbon by studying three types of projects in north-eastern Australia: monoculture plantations of native conifers, mixed species plantations and rainforest restoration projects comprised of a diverse range of rainforest trees.

This is a "hoop pine" monoculture plantation.
Credit: Dr. Jonh Kanowski.

"We found that restoration planting stored significantly more carbon in above-ground biomass than the monoculture plantations of native conifers and tended to store more than mixed species timber plantations," said Kanowski. "Compared to the monoculture plantations reforestation projects were more densely stocked, there were more large trees and the trees which were used had a higher wood density then the conifers at the plantation."

These findings challenge the existing view of monoculture plantations. For example the Australian Government's National Carbon Accounting Tool Box predicts that monoculture plantations would sequester 40% more carbon then restoration plantings in northern Australia, yet this study demonstrated that carbon stocks were higher in restoration plantings then in either mixed-species plantations or monoculture plantations.

The research also suggests that restoration plantings store more carbon over time. However, as restoration projects are more expensive then monoculture plantations it is unlikely that carbon markets will favour restoration.

"In order to be an attractive prospect for the markets new reforestation techniques and designs are going to be required," concluded Kanowski. "New designs will have to ensure that restoration can provide a habitat for rainforest life and store carbon at a cost comparable to industrial

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Sandia Labs Kinked Nanopores Critical To Improved DNA Sequencing

In an innovation critical to improved DNA sequencing, a markedly slower transmission of DNA through nanopores has been achieved by a team led by Sandia National Laboratories researchers.

This image, taken by a transmission electron microscope at the University of New Mexico, shows the unique kinked nanopore array platform.

Solid-state nanopores sculpted from silicon dioxide are generally straight, tiny tunnels more than a thousand times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. They are used as sensors to detect and characterize DNA, RNA and proteins. But these materials shoot through such holes so rapidly that sequencing the DNA passing through them, for example, is a problem.

In a paper published this week online (July 23) in Nature Materials (hardcopy slated for August, Vol.9, pp. 667-675), a team led by Sandia National Laboratories  researchers reports using self-assembly techniques to fabricate equally tiny but kinked nanopores.  Combined with atomic-layer deposition to modify the chemical characteristics of the nanopores, the innovations achieve a fivefold slowdown in the voltage-driven translocation speeds critically needed in DNA sequencing. (Translocation involves DNA entering and passing completely through the pores, which are only slightly wider than the DNA itself.)

“By control of pore size, length, shape and composition,” says lead researcher Jeff Brinker, “we capture the main functional behaviors of protein pores in our solid-state nanopore system.” The importance of a fivefold slowdown in this kind of work, Brinker says, is large.

Also of note is the technique’s capability to separate single- and double-stranded DNA in an array format. “There are promising DNA sequencing technologies that require this,” says Brinker.

The idea of using synthetic solid-state nanopores as single-molecule sensors for detection and characterization of DNA and its sister materials is currently under intensive investigation by researchers around the world. The thrust was inspired by the exquisite selectivity and flux demonstrated by natural biological channels. Researchers hope to emulate these behaviors by creating more robust synthetic materials more readily integrated into practical devices.

Current scientific procedures align the formation of nominally cylindrical or conical pores at right angles to a membrane surface. These are less capable of significantly slowing the passage of DNA than the kinked nanopores.

“We had a pretty simple idea,” Brinker says. “We use the self-assembly approaches we pioneered to make ultrathin membranes with ordered arrays of about 3-nanometer diameter pores. We then further tune the pore size via an atomic-layer deposition process we invented. This allows us to control the pore diameter and surface chemistry at the subnanometer scale. Compared to other solid state nanopores developed to date, our system combines finer control of pore size with the development of a kinked pore pathway. In combination, these allow slowing down the DNA velocity.”

The work is supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Department of Energy’s Basic Energy Sciences and Sandia’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development office.

In addition to Brinker, participating team members include Sandians David Adams, Carter Hodges and former Sandia post-doctoral student Yingbing Jiang, with University of New Mexico (UNM) researchers Zhu Chen, Darren Dunphy, Nanguo Liu, and George Xomeritakas. Other research participants are from the UNM School of Pharmacy, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Beckman Institute and Mechanical Science and Engineering Dept., and Purdue University’s School of Chemical Engineering.

Brinker is a Sandia Fellow, and Distinguished and Regent’s Professor of Chemical and Nuclear Engineering and Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at UNM.

Sandia National Laboratories is a multi-program laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corporation, 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.

Sandia news media contact: Neal Singer,  News release

New 'Armor' Developed To Avoid Infection From AIDS Virus

The doors are closing on the AIDS virus. A study by the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas has developed a method of attack against the AIDS virus The method involves creating a prevention system, i.e. an "armor" in the cells that are likely to be infected and thus impede, de facto, the virus from accessing them and starting to act on their immunological system. 

The doors are closing on the AIDS virus. The scientific community continues to strive to find the formula that will halt the advance of one of the viruses that has sparked most scientific interest over recent years. A study by the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) and led by Mr Félix Goñi, director of the Biophysics Unit at the CSIC-University of the Basque Country Mixed Centre, has developed a method of attack against the AIDS virus The method involves creating a prevention system, i.e. an ‘armour’ in the cells that are likely to be infected and thus impede, de facto, the virus from accessing them and starting to act on their immunological system.

Study's result's illustration
The research study lays down the bases of possible future pharmaceutical drugs that will enable combating the AIDS virus at its initial phase and has been published in the prestigious journal Chemistry & Biology of the Cell Group. Participating in the research, apart from Mr Goñi, was a team from the National Biotechnology Centre (CSIC-Universidad Autónoma de Madrid) and another from the Institute of Applied Chemistry of Cataloniaa (CSIC, Barcelona). The article is entitled “Dihydrosphingomyelin impairs HIV-1 infection by rigidifying liquid-ordered membrane domains”.

The study provides a new, hitherto unexplored focus on scientific research. This pioneering contribution on the AIDS virus is based on the regulation of the fluidity of the cell membranes and seeks to avoid the phenomenon known as the fusion of membranes, a consequence of contact between the cell membranes and the membrane of the virus itself.

The membrane is the “coating” of the cell cytoplasm and which protects it from the outside, and which has a structure similar to that of the membranes of the AIDS virus. When both membranes come into contact, and due to the fact that the cell membrane is very “fragile”, an orifice is created and fusion occurs – and a route is opened for the AIDS virus to enter, connect to a specific “receptor” of the cell and commence its viral activity.

What the researchers are seeking with this study is to strengthen the membrane structure, making it more rigid, in order to avoid this fusion of membranes and, thus, the inoculation of the cell by the AIDS virus.

Practically all treatment for the AIDS virus currently being applied is based on halting the progress of the virus once it is inside the host cell. There is but one treatment, commercially known as Enfurvitide, which attempts to stop the virus actually entering the cell. The research published inChemistry & Biology comes to the same conclusion, but by a totally different and novel route.

“For the cell membranes and the virus to come together and this orifice be opened to allow the entrance of the virus, the membranes have to have a certain degree of fluidity, of mobility. We discovered a procedure to make the cell membranes more rigid. This could well give rise to a new pharmaceutical drug which makes the membranes more rigid and impede the entrance of the AIDS virus. Instead of the membrane being flexible, a kind of armour is established which makes the cell impenetrable”, explained Félix Goñi.

The research started 3 years ago and has employed various techniques in the field of chemistry and molecular biology.

At the Institute of Applied Chemistry of Catalonia (CSIC, Barcelona), Ms Gemma Fabriàs has synthesised the GT11 molecule by means of organic chemistry synthesis techniques. Mr Santos Mañes, from the National Biotechnology Centre, studied the viral infection of the cells, and from the Biophysics Unit at the CSIC-University of the Basque Country work has been undertaken at molecular level to demonstrate that there are changes in the rigidity of the membranes when the GT11 molecule is incorporated into them, and that when the membranes are more rigid the virus cannot fuse with the cell membrane and, thus, from penetrating the cell. A highly important role was also placed by Mr José Luis Nieva, from the Biophysics Unit, in studying this fusion of the membranes induced by the AIDS virus.

This scientific discovery by this consortium represents, in the opinion of Mr Goñi, “a completely new means for attacking the virus, and which makes this original”.

“There is medication, and which is working very well, to avoid the propagation of the virus once it is inside the cell. But to impede this inoculation in the first place, only one product (Enfurvitide) exists, but this drug is based on a completely distinct principle. The idea of modifying the rigidity of the membranes is completely new and also demonstrating that, by equipping these membranes with greater rigidity, the AIDS virus cannot penetrate”, stated Mr Goñi. This same strategy may well serve for other viruses with membrane, such as, for example, the flu virus.

The researchers

Contacts and sources:
Chemistry & Biology

Another Step On The Path To Quantum Computers

Researchers around the world are working on the development of quantum computers that will be vastly superior to present-day computers. Here, the strong coupling of quantum bits with light quanta plays a pivotal role. Professor Rudolf Gross, a physicist at the Technische Universitaet Muenchen, and his team of researchers have now realized an extremely strong interaction between light and matter that may represent a first step in this direction. 

Electron microscopical picture of the superconducting circuit (red: Aluminum-Qubit, grey: Niob-Resonator, green: Silicon substrate)  Nano-circuit with microwave-resonator

The results of their research are presented in the current online issue of the journal Nature Physics.

The interaction between matter and light represents one of the most fundamental processes in physics. Whether a car that heats up like an oven in the summer due to the absorption of light quanta or solar cells that extract electricity from light or light-emitting diodes that convert electricity into light, we encounter the effects of these processes throughout our daily lives. Understanding the interactions between individual light particles – photons – and atoms is crucial for the development of a quantum computer.

Physicists from the Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM), the Walther-Meissner-Institute for Low Temperature Research of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences (WMI) and the Augsburg University have now, in collaboration with partners from Spain, realized an ultrastrong interaction between microwave photons and the atoms of a nano-structured circuit. The realized interaction is ten times stronger than levels previously achieved for such systems.

The simplest system for investigating the interactions between light and matter is a so-called cavity resonator with exactly one light particle and one atom captured inside (cavity quantum electrodynamics, cavity QED). Yet since the interaction is very weak, these experiments are very elaborate. A much stronger interaction can be obtained with nano-structured circuits in which metals like aluminum become superconducting at temperatures just above absolute zero (circuit QED). Properly configured, the billions of atoms in the merely nanometer thick conductors behave like a single artificial atom and obey the laws of quantum mechanics. In the simplest case, one obtains a system with two energy states, a so-called quantum bit or qubit.

Coupling these kinds of systems with microwave resonators has opened a rapidly growing new research domain in which the TUM Physics, the WMI and the cluster of excellence Nanosystems Initiative Munich (NIM) are leading the field. In contrast to cavity QED systems, the researchers can custom tailor the circuitry in many areas.

To facilitate the measurements, Professor Gross and his team captured the photon in a special box, a resonator. This consists of a superconducting niobium conducting path that is configured with strongly reflective “mirrors” for microwaves at both ends. In this resonator, the artificial atom made of an aluminum circuit is positioned so that it can optimally interact with the photon. The researchers achieved the ultrastrong interactions by adding another superconducting component into their circuit, a so-called Josephson junction.

The measured interaction strength was up to twelve percent of the resonator frequency. This makes it ten times stronger than the effects previously measureable in circuit QED systems and thousands of times stronger than in a true cavity resonator. However, along with their success the researchers also created a new problem: Up to now, the Jaynes-Cummings theory developed in 1963 was able to describe all observed effects very well. Yet, it does not seem to apply to the domain of ultrastrong interactions. ”The spectra look like those of a completely new kind of object,” says Professor Gross. “The coupling is so strong that the atom-photon pairs must be viewed as a new unit, a kind of molecule comprising one atom and one photon.

Experimental and theoretical physicists will need some time to examine this more closely. However, the new experimental inroads into this domain are already providing researchers with a whole array of new experimental options. The targeted manipulation of such atom-photon pairs could hold the key to quanta-based information processing, the so-called quantum computers that would be vastly superior to today’s computers.

The research was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) (Cluster of Excellence Nanosystems Initiative Munich and SFB 631), the European Community (EuroSQIP, SOLID), as well as the Spanish Ministry for Science and Innovation.


Contacts and sources:
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, European Community
Spanish Ministry for Science and Innovation
Publication: Circuit quantum electrodynamics in the ultrastrong-coupling regime
T. Niemczyk, F. Deppe, H. Huebl, E. P. Menzel, F. Hocke, M. J. Schwarz, J. J. Garcia-Ripoll, D. Zueco, T. Hümmer, E. Solano, A. Marx and R. Gross
Nature Physics, published online July 25, 2010 – DOI: 10.1038/NPHYS1730
Prof. Dr. Rudolf Gross
Technische Universitaet Muenchen – Physics-Department and Walther-Meissner-Institute of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences
Walther-Meissner-Str. 6
85748 Garching, Germany

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Google Funding For Discovery Of Ancient Texts and Places Online

A University of Southampton researcher is part of a team which has just secured funding from Google to make the classics and other ancient texts easy to discover and access online.

The World Map of Ptolemy, created ca.150AD, 

 Image credit: Creative Commons License

Leif Isaksen at the University's School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) is working together with Dr Elton Barker at The Open University and Dr Eric Kansa of the University of California-Berkeley on the Google Ancient Places (GAP): Discovering historic geographical entities in the Google Books corpus project, which is one of 12 projects worldwide to receive funding as part of a new Digital Humanities Research Programme funded by Google.

The GAP researchers will enable scholars and enthusiasts worldwide to search the Google Books corpus to find books related to a geographic location and within a particular time period. The results can then be visualised on GoogleMaps or in GoogleEarth. The project will run until September next year.

"We are very excited about the potential of this project," said Leif Isaksen. "Up to now many ancient texts have been accessible only at elite institutions or have been very hard to find; now a much wider range of people will be able to discover them. This work will really help open up the field and lead to many further projects."

ECS will work on a Web Service and Web Widget for the project. This will make it possible for Webmasters to add links to the ancient texts within their websites, enabling the public and researchers to search for them easily. The Widget will also be embedded in the Hestia (Herodotus Encoded Space-Text-Imaging Archive) and Open Context projects.

Leif Isaksen is completing a PhD at Southampton with Dr Kirk Martinez (ECS) and Dr Graeme Earl (Archaeology) on integrating archaeological data using Semantic Web technologies. “Google’s recent acquisition of Freebase, the Semantic Web encyclopaedia, means there is a range of exciting possibilities for convergence in the future,” he said

Source: University of Southampton News Release

Some Trees 'Farm' Bacteria To Help Supply Nutrients

Some trees growing in nutrient-poor forest soil may get what they need by cultivating specific root microbes to create compounds they require. These microbes are exceptionally efficient at turning inorganic minerals into nutrients that the trees can use. Researchers from France report their findings in the July 2010 issue of the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

"In acidic forest soils, availability of inorganic nutrients is a tree-growth-limiting factor. A hypothesis to explain sustainable forest development proposes that tree roots select soil microbes involved in central biogeochemical processes, such as mineral weathering, that may contribute to nutrient mobilization and tree nutrition," says Stéphane Uroz, an author on the study.

Certain microbes are efficient at breaking down inorganic minerals into nutrients. This process, called mineral weathering, is especially important in acidic forest soils where tree growth can be limited by access to these nutrients. Mineral-weathering bacteria can release necessary nutrients such as iron from soil minerals. This gives trees with increased concentrations of mineral-weathering microbes an advantage over other trees.

Distinct impacts of the tree species on the soil bacterial community structure have been previously reported, suggesting that the composition and activity of soil bacterial communities depend on tree physiology and notably on its impact on the soil physicochemical properties and nutrient cycling. However, no study has ever addressed the question of the impact of tree species on the structure of forest soil bacterial communities involved in mineral weathering.

"This question regarding the impact of tree species on the functional diversity of the bacterial communities remains a major issue in forestry, especially in the context of today's climate change, which will give rise to a shift in the spatial distribution of forest tree species" says Uroz.

The researchers took soil samples from the root areas of beech, oak and Norway spruce trees and cultured them to determine the bacterial populations. They observed heightened levels of mineral-weathering bacteria in the samples near the roots of oak and beech trees compared to surrounding soil samples. This difference was not seen in the Norway spruce samples.

"Our results suggest that certain tree species have developed indirect strategies for mineral weathering in nutrient-poor soils, which lie in the selection of bacterial communities with efficient mineral weathering potentials" says Uroz.

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