Sunday, October 31, 2010

Mars Had a Warm and Wet Environment Say Planetary Scientists

Roughly 3.5 billion years ago, the first epoch on Mars ended. The climate on the red planet then shifted dramatically from a relatively warm, wet period to one that was arid and cold. Yet there was at least one outpost that scientists think bucked the trend.

A team led by planetary geologists at Brown University has discovered mounds of a mineral deposited on a volcanic cone less than 3.5 billion years ago that speak of a warm and wet past and may preserve evidence of one of the most recent habitable microenvironments on Mars.

Warm, wet spots: volcanic deposits on Mars may preserve evidence of one of the planet’s most recent habitable microenvironments. The deposits, shown in white (arrows), are located in Nili Patera, a degraded volcanic cone in Syrtis Major of equatorial Mars.
Credit: J.R. Skok / Brown University

Observations by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter enabled researchers to identify the mineral as hydrated silica, a dead ringer that water was present at some time. That fact and the mounds' location on the flanks of a volcanic cone provide the best evidence yet found on Mars for an intact deposit from a hydrothermal environment — a steam fumarole or a hot spring. Such environments may have provided habitats for some of Earth's earliest life forms.

"The heat and water required to create this deposit probably made this a habitable zone," said J.R. Skok, a graduate student at Brown and lead author of the paper in Nature Geoscience. "If life did exist there, this would be a promising spot where it would have been entombed — a microbial mortuary, so to speak."

No studies have determined whether Mars has ever supported life, but this finding adds to accumulating evidence that at some times and in some places, Mars hosted favorable environments for microbial life. The deposit is located in the sprawling, flat volcanic zone known as Syrtis Major and was believed to have been left during the early Hesperian period, when most of Mars was already turning chilly and arid.

"Mars is just drying out," Skok said, "and this is one last hospitable spot in a cooling, drying Mars."

Concentrations of hydrated silica have been identified on Mars previously, including a nearly pure patch found by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit in 2007. However, this is the first found in an intact setting that clearly signals the mineral's origin.

"You have spectacular context for this deposit," Skok said. "It's right on the flank of a volcano. The setting remains essentially the same as it was when the silica was deposited."

The small, degraded cone rises about 100 meters from the floor of a shallow bowl named Nili Patera. The patera spans about 50 kilometers (30 miles) in Syrtis Major of equatorial Mars. Before the cone formed, free-flowing lava blanketed nearby plains. The collapse of an underground magma chamber from which lava had emanated created the bowl. Subsequent lava flows, still with a runny texture, coated the floor of Nili Patera. The cone grew from even later flows, apparently after evolution of the underground magma had thickened its texture so that the erupted lava would mound up.

"We can read a series of chapters in this history book and know that the cone grew from the last gasp of a giant volcanic system," said John "Jack" Mustard, professor of geological sciences and a co-author of the paper, who is Skok's thesis adviser at Brown. "The cooling and solidification of most of the magma concentrated its silica and water content."

Observations by cameras on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter revealed patches of bright deposits near the summit of the cone, fanning down its flank, and on flatter ground in the vicinity. The Brown researchers partnered with Scott Murchie of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory to analyze the bright exposures with the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) instrument on the orbiter.

Silica can be dissolved, transported and concentrated by hot water or steam. Hydrated silica identified by the spectrometer in uphill locations — confirmed by stereo imaging — indicates that hot springs or fumaroles fed by underground heating created these deposits. Silica deposits around hydrothermal vents in Iceland are among the best parallels on Earth.

"The habitable zone would have been within and alongside the conduits carrying the heated water," Murchie said.

NASA funded the research.

Contacts and sources:

Was Issac Newton Wrong? Study Plunges Standard Theory Of Cosmology Into Crisis

New insights into Milky Way satellite galaxies are raising awkward questions for cosmologists. Do we have to modify Newton's theory of gravitation as it fails to explain so many observations? Voices are increasingly being heard that support this heretical hypothesis.

Two recent studies conducted by physicists at the University of Bonn, in collaboration with scientists from Austria and Australia, are likely to provide yet more grist for the mill. Their latest results about so-called "satellite galaxies" at the periphery of the Milky Way could rock the theoretical foundations of standard physics. 

Milky Way 
See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download
 the highest resolution version available.
Credit: ESO / Serge Brunier, Frederic Tapissier - CopyrightSerge Brunier (TWAN)

As modern cosmologists rely more and more on the ominous "dark matter" to explain otherwise inexplicable observations, much effort has gone into the detection of this mysterious substance in the last two decades, yet no direct proof could be found that it actually exists. Even if it does exist, dark matter would be unable to reconcile all the current discrepancies between actual measurements and predictions based on theoretical models. Hence the number of physicists questioning the existence of dark matter has been increasing for some time now.

Competing theories of gravitation have already been developed which are independent of this construction. Their only problem is that they conflict with Newton's theory of gravitation. "Maybe Newton was indeed wrong", declares Professor Dr. Pavel Kroupa of Bonn University´s Argelander-Institut für Astronomie (AIfA). "Although his theory does, in fact, describe the everyday effects of gravity on Earth, things we can see and measure, it is conceivable that we have completely failed to comprehend the actual physics underlying the force of gravity".

This is a problematical hypothesis that has nevertheless gained increasing ground in recent years, especially in Europe. Two new studies could well lend further support to it. In these studies, Professor Kroupa and his former colleague Dr. Manuel Metz, working in collaboration with Professor Dr. Gerhard Hensler and Dr. Christian Theis from the University of Vienna, and Dr. Helmut Jerjen from the Australian National University, Canberra, have examined so-called "satellite galaxies".

This term is used for dwarf galaxy companions of the Milky Way, some of which contain only a few thousand stars. According to the best cosmological models, they exist presumably in hundreds around most of the major galaxies. Up to now, however, only 30 such satellites have been observed around the Milky Way, a discrepancy in numbers which is commonly attributed to the fact that the light emitted from the majority of satellite galaxies is so faint they remain invisible.

A detailed study of these stellar agglomerates has revealed some astonishing phenomena: "First of all, there is something unusual about their distribution", Professor Kroupa explains, "the satellites should be uniformly arranged around their mother galaxy, but this is not what we found".  More precisely, all classical satellites of the Milky Way - the eleven brightest dwarf galaxies - lie more or less in the same plane, they are forming some sort of a disc in the sky. The research team has also been able to show that most of these satellite galaxies rotate in the same direction around the Milky Way - like the planets revolve around the Sun.

Contradiction upon Contradiction

The physicists do believe that this phenomenon can only be explained if the satellites were created a long time ago through collisions between younger galaxies. "The fragments produced by such an event can form rotating dwarf galaxies", explains Dr. Metz, who has recently moved across to the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (German Aero-space Center). But there is an interesting catch to this crash theory, "theoretical calculations tell us that the satellites created cannot contain any dark matter". 

This assumption, however, stands in contradiction to another observation. "The stars in the satellites we have observed are moving much faster than predicted by the Gravitational Law. If classical physics holds this can only be attributed to the presence of dark matter", Manuel Metz states.

Or one must assume that some basic fundamental principles of physics have hitherto been incorrectly understood. "The only solution would be to reject Newton´s classical theory of gravitation", says Pavel Kroupa. "We probably live in a non-Newton universe. If this is true, then our observations could be explained without dark matter". Such approaches are finding support amongst other research teams in Europe, too.

It would not be the first time that Newton's theory of gravitation had to be modified over the past hundred years. This became necessary in three special cases: when high velocities are involved (through the Special Theory of Relativity), in the proximity of large masses (through the theory of General Relativity), and on sub-atomic scales (through quantum mechanics). The deviations detected in the satellite galaxy data support the hypothesis that in space where extremely weak accelerations predominate, a "modified Newton dynamic" must be adopted.

This conclusion has far-reaching consequences for fundamental physics in general, and also for cosmological theories. Famous astrophysicist Bob Sanders from the University of  Groningen declares: "The authors of this paper make a strong argument. Their result is entirely consistent with the expectations of modified Newtonian dynamics (MOND), but completely opposite to the predictions of the dark matter hypothesis. Rarely is an observational test so definite."

Metz, Manuel; Kroupa, Pavel; Theis, Christian; Hensler, Gerhard; Jerjen, Helmut: Did the Milky Way dwarf satellites enter the halo as a group? (The Astrophysical Journal 2009; doi: 10.1088/0004-637X/697/1/269)

Metz, Manuel; Kroupa, Pavel; Jerjen, Helmut: Discs of Satellites: the new dwarf spheroidals (Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 2009; doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2966.2009.14489.x) 

Field Museum to Study Composition Of Stardust

Song lyrics aside, even when you catch a bit of stardust, it may take years to sort out what you've got.

Field Museum researchers have joined with scientists and amateur volunteers around the globe to isolate and analyze interstellar dust gathered by NASA's Stardust space mission launched more than a decade ago.

A piece of aluminum foil that was part of the Stardust apparatus used to gather dust will be placed in the Field Museum's scanning electron microscope to produce images scientists hope will lead them to tiny craters where grains of stardust have embedded themselves.

M78: Stardust and Starlight: Interstellar dust clouds and bright nebulae abound in the fertile constellation of Orion. One of the brightest, M78, is just below center in this sharp widefield view, covering an area north ofOrion's belt. At a distance of about 1,500 light-years, the bluish nebula itself is about 5 light-years across. Its blue tint is due to dust preferentially reflecting the blue light of hot, young stars in the region. Dark dust lanes and other nebulae can easily be traced through this gorgeous skyscape that also includes the remarkable McNeil's Nebula -- a newly recognized nebula associated with the formation of a sun-like star. 
 See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download
 the highest resolution version available.
Credit & Copyright: Stephan Messner, Astronomy Picture of the Day

The quest, set to start in early November, "is a once in a lifetime opportunity," said Philipp R. Heck, assistant curator-in-charge at the recently established Robert A. Pritzker Center of Meteoritics and Polar Studies at the museum. "It's a dream come true."

With one of the world's largest meteorite collections, the Field is also home to abundant material from outside the solar system, but all of it is billions of years old, presolar stardust, having been formed before the birth of our solar system, Heck said. Analyzing contemporary stardust will provide a unique opportunity to learn how such materials have evolved over geologic time.

Nearly every element that makes life possible, including carbon and oxygen, was formed by stars, so this inquiry is central to understanding how we came to be, he said. Using light absorption and other information gained from astronomy, scientists have some understanding about interstellar dust composition. Getting actual bits of dust to study in earthly labs using advance technology will raise the accuracy and precision of their knowledge significantly. Isotopes of interstellar dust can be only measured in the laboratory, and they are crucial to study the evolution and origin of the dust.

The main obstacle now is finding bits of stardust in the apparatus used to collect them. That instrument consisted of an extremely low density substance called aerogel encased in an aluminum foil lattice. Scientists have made millions of images from the aerogel and put them on the Internet at

Finding grains of interstellar dust encased in aerogel is akin to finding 40 or 50 particular ants on a football field, researchers estimate.

Pieces of aluminum foil from the Stardust mission also likely contain some interstellar dust. They are being imaged at a few selected scientific institutions such as the Field Museum where great care is taken to avoid contamination with earthly dust.

Unlike the aerogel, aluminum foil provided a harder landing for each bit of dust, resulting in tiny craters that are larger than a grain of stardust, which Heck hopes will make it easier to find his quarry.

The project adheres to strict protocols agreed to by an international group of scientists in an effort to preserve the grains of stardust.

"It's a very cautious approach," said Heck. "Every step we take is discussed."

Making images of the aluminum foil, which measures 2 by 30 millimeters, with the Field's scanning electron microscope will take several days, Heck said. He will invite university undergraduate students to come to the museum and help scrutinize the images for signs of stardust.

"It's a great way to introduce undergraduates to planetary science," he said.

Contacts and sources:

Speedy Installation Of System To Monitor Vital Signs Of Global Ocean Urged by Scientists

As oceans grow saltier, hotter, more acidic and less diverse biologically, world governments urgently need to help complete a full global ocean observing system, the value of which to society would dwarf the investment required, according to scientists with the Partnership for Observation of Global Oceans, a consortium of 38 major oceanographic institutions spanning 21 countries.

The ocean surface is 30 percent more acidic today than it was in 1800, much of that increase occurring in the last 50 years - a rising trend that could both harm coral reefs and profoundly impact tiny shelled plankton at the base of the ocean food web, scientists warn.

Scientists explore on and beneath polar ice. Their aircraft remotely sense animals through properties of scattered light. Marine animals themselves carry tags that store records of their travels and dives and communicate with satellites. Fish carry tags that revealed their migration past acoustic listening lines. Sounds that echoed back to ships portray schools of fish assembling, swimming, and commuting up and down. Standardized frames and structures dropped near shores and on reefs provide information for comparing diversity and abundance. Manned and unmanned undersea vehicles plus divers photograph sea floors and cliffs. Deep submersibles sniff and videotape smoking seafloor vents. And nets and dredges catch specimens, shallow and deep, for closest study.
Credit: E. Paul Oberlander / Census of Marine Life

Despite the seriousness of such changes to the ocean, however, the world has yet to deploy a complete suite of available tools to monitor rising acidification and other ocean conditions that have a fundamental impact on life throughout the planet.

Marine life patterns, water temperature, sea level, and polar ice cover join acidity and other variables in a list of ocean characteristics that can and should be tracked continuously through the expanded deployment of existing technologies in a permanent, integrated global monitoring system, scientists say.

The Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans (POGO), representing 38 major oceanographic institutions from 21 countries and leading a global consortium called Oceans United, will urge government officials and ministers meeting in Beijing Nov. 3-5 to help complete an integrated global ocean observation system by target date 2015.

It would be the marine component of a Global Earth Observation System of Systems under discussion in Beijing by some 71 member nations of the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations.

The cost to create an adequate monitoring system has been estimated at $10 billion to $15 billion in assets, with $5 billion in annual operating costs.

Some 600 scientists with expertise in all facets of the oceans developed an authoritative vision of characteristics to monitor at a 2009 conference on ocean observations, (

Furthermore, as documented in the forthcoming proceedings of the 2009 conference (to be published shortly by the European Space Agency), the value of such information to the world's financial interests and to human security would dwarf the investment required.

"Although the US and European Union governments have recently signaled support, international cooperation is desperately needed to complete a global ocean observation system that could continuously collect, synthesize and interpret data critical to a wide variety of human needs," says Dr. Kiyoshi Suyehiro, Chairman of POGO.

"Most ocean experts believe the future ocean will be saltier, hotter, more acidic, and less diverse," states Jesse Ausubel, a founder of POGO and of the recently completed Census of Marine Life. "It is past time to get serious about measuring what's happening to the seas around us."

The risks posed by ocean acidification exemplify the many good reasons to act urgently.

A mooring with a suite of ocean acidification and other environmental sensors at Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef is the latest tool in an expanding global network of ocean measurements, informing scientists of changes in ocean chemistry.
Credit: Dr. Bronte Tilbrook, CSIRO, Australia

POGO-affiliated scientists at the UK-based Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science recently published a world atlas charting the distribution of the subset of plankton species that grow shells at some point in their life cycles. Not only are these shelled plankton fundamental to the ocean's food web, they also play a major role in planetary climate regulation and oxygen production. Highly acidic sea water inhibits the growth of plankton shells.

The Foundation says the average level of pH at the ocean surface has dropped from 8.2 to 8.1 units, "rendering the oceans more acidic than they have been for 20 million years," with expectations of continuing acidification due to high concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Because colder water retains more carbon dioxide, the acidity of surface waters may increase fastest at Earth's high latitudes where the zooplankton known as pteropods are particularly abundant. Pteropods (see links to images below) are colorful, free-swimming pelagic sea snails and sea slugs on which many animals higher in the food chain depend. Scientists caution that the overall global marine impact of rising carbon dioxide is unclear because warming of the oceans associated with rising greenhouse gases in the air could in turn lead to lower retention of carbon dioxide at lower latitudes and to potential countervailing effects.

Says Foundation Director Dr. Peter Burkill: "Ocean acidification could have a devastating effect on calcifying organisms, and perhaps marine ecosystems as a whole, and we need global monitoring to provide timely information on trends and fluxes from the tropics to the poles. Threatened are tiny life forms that help the oceans absorb an estimated 50 gigatons of carbon from Earth's atmosphere annually, about the same as all plants and trees on land. Humanity has a vital interest in authoritative information about ocean conditions and a global network of observations is urgently needed."

Ocean conditions that require monitoring can be divided into three categories:

Chemical - including pollution, levels of oxygen, and rising acidity;

Physical / Geological - including sound, tide and sea levels, as well as sudden wave energy and bottom pressure changes that could provide precious minutes of warning before a tsunami; and

Biological - including shifts in marine species diversity, distribution, biomass and ecosystem function due to changing water conditions.

Benefits of the comprehensive ocean system envisioned include:

Improved short-term and seasonal forecasts to mitigate the harm caused by drought, or by severe storms, cyclones, hurricanes and monsoons, such as those that recently put one-fifth of Pakistan temporarily underwater and left 21 million people homeless or injured. International lenders estimate the damage to Pakistan's infrastructure, agriculture and other sectors at $9.5 billion. Improved weather forecasting would also enhance the safety of the fishing and shipping industries, and offshore operations such as wind farms and oil drilling. Sea surface temperature is a key factor in the intensity and location of severe weather events;

Early identification of pollution-induced eutrophication that spawns algal blooms responsible for health problems in humans and marine species, and harm to aquaculture operations;

Timely alerts of changes in distributions of marine life that would allow identification of areas needing protective commercial re-zoning, and of immigration by invasive species;

Minimized biodiversity loss on coral reefs, the importance of which, for species diversity, is comparable to that of the planet's rainforests.

Says Dr. Suyehiro: "What happens in the world's oceans profoundly affects the success of life throughout the Earth. We now have remarkable and proven ground-based, ocean-drifting, air-borne and space-based technologies to measure and report changing ocean conditions quickly, often in real-time. The right kind of data streams from the ocean will help us forecast regime shifts in weather patterns over continents and their consequences for agriculture, fisheries, tourism and other sectors. The value of the knowledge within our reach - to human health, security and commerce - is overwhelmingly large relative to its cost."

"The situation of scientists today is akin to that of a doctor schooled in the range of technologies that could record a patient's vital signs, sound an alarm when required, and suggest remedial options - if only we would make the investment."

Says Tony Knap, Director of the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences and a leader of POGO: "The top three meters of the oceans hold as much heat as Earth's atmosphere and changes in marine conditions are felt on land in profound ways. To obtain clear warning of weather-related disasters, we need to monitor oceans in an integrated, continuous and systematic manner. It will not be cheap, but it has to be done."

Elements of the ocean monitoring system in place today include:


A scientific instrument with a suite of environmental sensors, recently deployed at Australia's Heron Island to observe changes in the acidity of waters covering the Great Barrier Reef, among other data gathered. The instrumentation also includes carbon dioxide sensors developed with the long-term aim of building a global network of carbon dioxide observations at sea. The Heron Island site is the newest in a growing network of 25 moorings through the Pacific and Atlantic valued at about $20 million. Other moorings are planned for the Great Barrier Reef and the Australian coast in the next year as part of the nation's Integrated Marine Observing System.

Underwater cabled observatories: long lines of cable on the seabed dotted with nodes of instruments relaying insights into underwater volcanic eruptions and earthquakes that can cause tsunamis. Installed by Japan at a cost of roughly $100 million, the Dense Oceanfloor Network System for Earthquakes and Tsunamis (DONET /, coupled with a national warning system, can avoid an estimated 7,500 to 10,000 (of 25,000) fatalities and about $10 billion (of $100 billion) in estimated economic losses if and when another major (M8) earthquake occurs in the waters off central Japan.

The recently completed North-East Pacific Time-Series Underwater Networked Experiments cabled observatory system (NEPTUNE / off Canada's west coast will take continuous measurements on the seafloor, equipped with such gadgets as a Doppler ocean current profiler, multi-beam SONAR to reveal masses of life in the water, microbial life samplers, sediment traps, plankton recorders, hydrophones and high resolution video and still cameras.

A robotic navy of some 3,000 small, drifting "Argo" probes (, deployed at a cost of $15 million per year to measure pressure, salinity and temperature at depths down to 2 km and return to the surface every 10 days to transmit readings via satellite. POGO officials say up to 10 times as many floats are needed to produce a high-resolution global picture of shifting marine conditions, incorporating biological and optical measurements;
Three Equatorial moored buoys, each valued at $5 million, to measure temperature, currents, waves and winds, salinity and carbon dioxide.

Some 60 globally-distributed reference stations (, each valued at $1 million, measuring the oceans' physical, chemical and biogeochemical properties throughout the water column;

Deep Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART / stations, consisting of a surface buoy and a seafloor bottom pressure recorder that both reports water temperature and detects tsunamis. When a potential tsunami is detected, the buoy reports measurements every 15 seconds for several minutes, followed by 1-minute averages for 4 hours. The US array, completed in 2008, totals 39 stations in the Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, and Caribbean Sea. Australia, Chile, Indonesia, India and Thailand have also deployed tsunami warning systems.


An expanding global Ocean Tracking Network (, currently valued at $150 million, which allows scientists to follow the migrations of tagged salmon and other animals.

Thousands of pelagic "animal oceanographers" spanning 50 species -- elephant seals, tunas, white sharks, leatherback turtles, squid and others -- equipped with electronic tags that record the light, depth, temperature and salinity conditions they pass through, while revealing their speed, heart rate, biodiversity hotspots, nurseries, and migratory routes that need protection (;

At-sea DNA sequencing of microbial, bacterial, and planktonic life forms, yielding real-time marine equivalents of "pollen counts";

The Continuous Plankton Recorder Survey (, which has been monitoring the Atlantic for almost 80 years. At a current cost of $6 million per year, the survey recently extended into the Arctic and Pacific, with plans underway to monitor plankton worldwide;

A growing network, NaGISA (, of more than 200 sites around the world using standardized protocols to measure near-shore biodiversity and changes that climate and pollution could cause.
To embrace the challenge of monitoring ocean life, world experts are formally puzzling through a recommended installation sequence; in other words, what, where and how many "life gauges" are top priorities in the proposed system.

Moving forward

The parts of the system now installed represent only a fraction of what's required for authoritative accuracy and global perspective, according to POGO. Needed are expansion of the array of the technologies above as well as:

So-called 'air-clippers': atmosphere and ocean surface sensors tethered to balloons with which scientists have achieved concurrent atmospheric and ocean measurements from within the eye of a strong cyclone where the balloons become trapped;

A suite of novel "Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures," valued at $50 million -- dollhouse-like structures into which animals migrate for collection and analysis later. The ARMS devices allow for standardized global comparisons and monitoring of reef life and benthic biodiversity;

A Chlorophyll Globally-Integrated Network (ChloroGIN /, which aims to monitor the coastal ecosystem using in situ and satellite techniques, at a cost of $5 million per year.

Merchant marine and research vessels programs to make observations along their routes. The cost of instituting the global programs is estimated at, respectively, $50 million and $75 million per year.

The in situ observations would complement a suite of satellite-borne devices tracking sea-surface roughness, temperature, currents, ice cover and shifting distributions of marine plants. Satellites provide wide aerial coverage, but provide little information from deep within the ocean; hence the need for both types of observations.

Quotable quotes

Mr. Jesse Ausubel, Vice-President of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, USA: "Since our 2007 meeting with the Group on Earth Observations in Cape Town, the world's tsunami warning system has expanded dramatically, scientists have invented and successfully tested the first coral reef biodiversity monitoring devices, and 25 devices to monitor ocean surface acidity have been installed. We have tested and demonstrated the value and capabilities of dozens of observation technologies and their interoperability. In the 1970s, national weather services created a global system to monitor the atmosphere. While monitoring the ocean is harder than the atmosphere, the GEO 2010 Summit can earn a place in history as the time when nations truly committed to a global ocean observing system."

Dr. Trevor Platt, Executive Director of POGO; Plymouth Marine Laboratory, UK: "We rely on the oceans for transportation, protein, pharmaceuticals, minerals and hydrocarbons. But we do not know nearly enough about how the oceans are changing. The world's coastal fringes, where 40 percent of humanity resides, suffer increasingly costly storms and flooding. Without the proper information, we are powerless to anticipate and prepare for what may come in the future. Our best defense is an observing network for the global ocean to warn of trouble."

Dr. Shubha Satheyendranath, Assistant Director of POGO: "The Gulf of Mexico oil spill showed the inadequacy of ocean observation systems today, even in highly-developed countries. Coastal installations that had fallen into disuse had to be quickly repaired or replaced, and university laboratories were called in to improvise underwater measurement programs. Secure funding is needed to create and maintain a proper ocean observing system supported by cutting-edge research."

Dr. Sophie Seeyave, Scientific Co-ordinator of POGO: "The Southern Ocean swirling around Antarctica acts like a planetary cauldron, linking Earth's ocean basins and the life in them. Any change in the Southern Ocean will have global ramifications but it is still largely unmonitored. POGO has helped plan a Southern Ocean Observing System that will speed inclusion of this large, neglected ring of ocean.


The Partnership for Observation of the Global Ocean (POGO) links about 80% of the world's institutions studying the oceans. POGO was created by directors and leaders of major oceanographic institutions to focus attention on technical compatibility among observing networks; shared use of infrastructure; and on public outreach and capacity building.

Recent progress to which POGO and Oceans United contributed includes creation of the GEO Biodiversity Network (GEOBON), which is starting to coordinate sustained, cross-cutting, integrated and accessible biodiversity data and information. Many of the ideas for monitoring biodiversity have recently been demonstrated by the Census of Marine Life research program, in which POGO has been a partner.

With the support of the Nippon Foundation, the POGO Centre of Excellence in Ocean Observations opened three years ago, hosted by the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences. The Centre receives 10 scholars from developing countries for 10 months each year, and teaches them about the theory, methods and interpretation of ocean observations. This is part of the continuing effort of POGO to enhance capacity in developing countries to monitor regional oceans and to provide information on ocean issues to policy makers.


Oceans United - "The Voice of the Oceans" - is an international forum created under POGO leadership that brings together many organizations with interests in various aspects of ocean observations, and speaks with a common voice in support of ocean observations.

Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS)

GOOS is co-ordinated by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, World Meteorological Organization, the UN Environment Programme and the International Council for Science. It is being implemented by concerned partners worldwide.

Contacts and sources:
 Terry Collins
Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans
Group on Earth Observations and Ministerial Meetings

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Plastic Truck Trailer And Five Green Car Of The Year Finalists

An aerodynamic shaped plastic truck trailer that is as solid as one made from steel but weighs 1200 kg less: Composite Engineers from an independent research centre in Loughborough, UK, succeeded in the development of a new material that could save up to 15 percent of fuel in freight transport.  The Plastic Trailer: a green revolution in transport     

The new composite material contains double the volume of glass fibers compared to common composites and thus is extremely stabile. The increased amount of glass fibres was enabled through an innovative process the engineers from EPL Composite Solutions developed within the EU funded research project CLEANMOULD.

Glass fibre mats impregnated with resin powder are placed into a mould. This mould is then packed in a plastic bag, the bag is sealed and the air extracted. With the help of the vacuum the mat keeps attached to the mould. In an oven heated up to 200°C, the powder resin melts. When molten, the thermoplastic resin provided from Cyclics Corporation in Germany, gets as runny as water and coats the glass fibres.

A cube made from the new plastic weighs only one quarter of the same cube made from steel. Through the reduction of weight five percent of fuel can be saved. But even more important is its improved shape:

The plastic frame consists of only one piece. This allows the designers to change its aerodynamic properties. Smooth surfaces underneath the trailer reduce the draft considerably. The design has an inherent drag reduction of 13 percent that can be further improved to 20 percent with optimization of the design. At high speeds, such as motorway cruising, this aerodynamic drag is the dominant factor in determining heavy goods vehicle fuel consumption. With the new shape another 10 percent of fuel can be saved.

The prototypes have been tested thoroughly on a series of demanding test tracks at the Motor Research Industry Association (MIRA) in Warwickshire, the biggest test ground in the UK. They included a breaking test, speed bumps and cobblestone roads.

Deflections and accelerations through the trailer have been measured to see which parts in the trailer are under high stress or strain. The results so far are very promising and the engineers envisage already the next steps: “The composites are ready to roll out into the industry now”, says Matthew Turner, CLEANMOULD project coordinator and composite engineer at EPL.

In a related event, the Top 5 Green Cars for 2011 have been announced by Green Car Journal and are currently being featured on, a leading source for information on electric cars, hybrids, and high efficiency vehicles. The Top 5 include the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, and Nissan LEAF. Two are gasoline-electric hybrids, two are primarily electric drive, and one is a high efficiency gasoline internal combustion model. All are finalists for Green Car Journal’s 2011 Green Car of the Year®, which will be identified at the L.A. Auto Show on November 18.

 “These advanced vehicles represent the diversity of an auto industry evolving to meet the needs of a changing market,” said Ron Cogan, editor and publisher of the Green Car Journal and editor of “New car buyers continue to be motivated by the touchstones that have been important for years, including safety, quality, functionality, performance, value, and style. What’s changed is a growing interest in efficiency, decreased CO2 greenhouse gas emissions, and the use of alternative fuels or technologies that lead to lessening near-total reliance on petroleum.” is also featuring multi-part coverage of the first-ever Green Car of the Year Tour, which showcases the existing 2010 Green Car of the Year – Audi’s A3 TDI – on a 1,000 mile journey the length of California driving on synthetic RenDiesel fuel. The odyssey included Green Car Journal editors on a drive along the coast, through redwoods, a stop at the State Capitol for a press conference with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, news interviews in San Diego, and a clean diesel panel discussion at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

Ron Cogan’s Green Car Journal, the award-winning magazine that focuses on the intersection of automobiles, energy, and environment, has been widely recognized as the leading authority in the field since the title launched in 1992. The magazine’s editors present features from an auto enthusiast perspective that celebrates the excitement of vehicle ownership while emphasizing the need for improved environmental performance.

Demand Media’s presents this authoritative information online, offering hundreds of in-depth features and technical articles on ‘green’ cars of all types. Like Green Car Journal, articles benefit from the perspective of auto and technology writers with decades of behind-the-wheel experience testing cars and providing a realistic look at the vehicles, technologies, and fuels that are shaping our transportation future.

The More Someone Smokes, The Smaller The Number Of Brain Cells

Is there a relation between the structure of specific regions of the brain and nicotine dependence? This is the question researchers of the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and of the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB), the German National Metrology Institute, have been investigating lately.

The results of these investigations extend and specify those of preceding studies: A specific region of the cerebral cortex of smokers is thinner than that of people who have never smoked in their lives. This region is decisive for reward, impulse control, and the making of decisions. The questions of whether smoking leads to this cerebral region becoming thinner - or whether people who have a thinner cortex region by nature are more frequently inclined to become smokers - can only be clarified by further investigations.

To investigate the relation between cortical thickness and nicotine dependence, the brains of 22 smokers and 21 people who have never smoked in their lives were investigated with the aid of a magnetic resonance tomograph. The measurements were carried out at PTB in Berlin and furnished high-resolution three-dimensional images of the brain structure.

On the basis of these data, the individual thickness of the cortex could be determined at the Charité by means of a special evaluation procedure. A comparison of the two groups showed that in the case of smokers, the thickness of the medial orbito-frontal cortex is, on average, smaller than in the case of people who have never smoked. The thickness of this region decreased in relation to the increase in the daily consumption of cigarettes, and depending on how long in their lives the participants in the study had been smokers.

Cause and effect are, however, still not clear. Although it is known from animal experiments that nicotine changes the development of the brain and leads to a damaging of neurocytes, it cannot be ruled out that the reduced thickness of the frontal cortex region found in the case of the participants in the study already existed before they started smoking. Possibly, it is a genetically conditioned predisposition for nicotine dependence. Scientists want to find out in future studies whether the brain structure of smokers can become normal again after they have given up smoking.

Source: Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB)

Of Mice and Spacemen: 16 Rodents To Help NASA Understand Why Spaceflight Makes Humans More Vulnerable To Infection

When the space shuttle Discovery lifts off on its final flight Nov. 2, its six astronauts will be joined by 16 rodent passengers on a historic mission of their own.

Expedition 25

Riding in special self-contained modules that automatically supply them with food and water, the mice will be part of a long-term NASA effort aimed at understanding why spaceflight makes humans more vulnerable to infection by viruses and bacteria.

The agency has studied the phenomenon aboard its space shuttles for more than 25 years, collecting data from laboratory animals and astronauts themselves. The mouse experiment — a collaboration between teams at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.— will be the final immunology investigation planned for the shuttle program.

"Since the Apollo missions, we have had evidence that astronauts have increased susceptibility to infections during flight and immediately post-flight — they seem more vulnerable to cold and flu viruses and urinary tract infections, and viruses like Epstein-Barr, which infect most people and then remain dormant, can reactivate under the stress of spaceflight," said Dr. Roberto Garofalo, a professor at UTMB Health and principal investigator for the project. "We want to discover what triggers this increased susceptibility to infection, with the goal both of protecting the astronauts themselves and people with more vulnerable immune systems here on Earth, such as the elderly and young children."

The mice aboard Discovery will be in orbit for 11 days, during which time shuttle astronauts will perform daily checks on their health and well-being. Within two hours of the shuttle's return to Earth, eight of the animals will be infected with respiratory syncytial virus — a pathogen that infects almost all human children by age two and ordinarily causes a relatively harmless cold-like upper respiratory disease. In some children, however, the infection spreads to the lungs, where the inflammation it generates causes coughing, wheezing and extreme difficulty in breathing.

Another group of mice kept in nearly identical conditions on the ground will also be exposed to the virus. Garofalo's team will conduct genetic and protein studies of the lung and nasal tissues of both sets of mice, evaluating lung inflammation, viral replication and other key factors related to RSV infection in mice.

"We have substantial experience using mice to study immune response to RSV infection, and that will enable us to look at all the aspects of the immune responses of these mice as well as the pathological manifestations of the disease, looking at ways in which the space environment affects this respiratory infection," Garofalo said.

Understanding how spaceflight impairs the immune system and finding ways to make sure that infection doesn't threaten the health of space travelers are expected to become increasingly important, as NASA plans human expeditions beyond the relative safety of Earth orbit — to Mars, for example, or the asteroids. The developing commercial spaceflight industry, which hopes to launch large numbers of private citizens into orbit in the near future, also has a stake in ensuring that its passengers stay safe and healthy.

Despite the shuttle program's end, Garofalo said, immune system experiments in space may well continue on the International Space Station.

"The space environment incorporates many factors that we know affect the immune system — microgravity, radiation, even different nutritional standards — all acting in a relatively short period of time," Garofalo said. "The space station provides a unique environment for generating answers to fundamental questions about the human immune system. Those answers will benefit people here on Earth, and there's been a lot of interest in pursuing them."

Source: NASA

Study Links Fresh Mars Gullies to Carbon Dioxide

A growing bounty of images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter reveals that the timing of new activity in one type of the enigmatic gullies on Mars implicates carbon-dioxide frost, rather than water, as the agent causing fresh flows of sand.

Researchers have tracked changes in gullies on faces of sand dunes in seven locations on southern Mars. The periods when changes occurred, as determined by comparisons of before-and-after images, overlapped in all cases with the known winter build-up of carbon-dioxide frost on the dunes. Before-and-after pairs that covered periods only in spring, summer and autumn showed no new activity in those seasons.

The gullies on a Martian sand dune in this trio of images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter deceptively resemble features on Earth that are carved by streams of water. However, these gullies likely owe their existence to entirely different geological processes apparently related to the winter buildup of carbon-dioxide frost.

Scientists at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md., compared pairs of images from before and after changes in such dune gullies. They determined that the changes occur in Martian winter, during periods of carbon-dioxide frost, rather than during warmer seasons when frozen water, if present, might somehow melt and flow.

Each of the three images here shows an area about 1.2 kilometers (three-fourths of a mile) across. The dunes lie inside Matara Crater, at 49.4 degrees south latitude, 34.7 degrees east longitude. The images are portions of observations by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. HiRISE took the top one on March 14, 2008, which was mid-autumn in Mars' southern hemisphere, the middle one on July 9, 2009, in the first half of the next southern-Mars summer, and the bottom one on October 4, 2010, in the late part of the following (and most recent) winter season.

Illumination is from the upper left. Gullies run leftward downhill from a dune crest in the upper right corner.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Each year, the alcoves at the dune's crest and the channel beds widened during the Martian winter as material moved down slope and lengthened the apron at the bottom. Very new deposits (formed sometime in September 2010) are visible in the bottom image as the darker material extending from the channels and obscuring the pre-existing ripples on the dune’s surface. Additionally, on the upper gully, material first filled-in part of the channel (between 2008 and 2009) and then re-incised the channel into the apron (between 2009 and 2010).

The upper image is part of HiRISE observation PSP_007650_1300; the middle image part of ESP_013834_1300; the lower image part of ESP_019636_1300. Other image products from the first two observations are at and

"Gullies that look like this on Earth are caused by flowing water, but Mars is a different planet with its own mysteries," said Serina Diniega, lead author of a report on these findings in the November issue of the journal Geology. She analyzed these gullies while a graduate student at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and recently joined NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena. "The timing we see points to carbon dioxide, and if the mechanism is linked to carbon-dioxide frost at these dune gullies, the same could be true for other gullies on Mars."

Scientists have suggested various explanations for modern gullies on Mars since fresh-looking gullies were discovered in images from NASA's Mars Global Surveyor in 2000. Some of the proposed mechanisms involve water, some carbon dioxide, and some neither.

Some fresh gullies are on sand dunes, commonly starting at a crest. Others are on rockier slopes, such as the inner walls of craters, sometimes starting partway down the slope.

Diniega and co-authors at the University of Arizona and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md., focused their study on dune gullies that are shaped like rockier slope gullies, with an alcove at the top, a channel or multiple channels in the middle, and an apron at the bottom. The 18 dune gullies in which the researchers observed new activity range in size from about 50 meters or yards long to more than 3 kilometers (2 miles) long.

"The alcove is a cutout at the top," Diniega said. "Material being removed from there ends up in a fan-shaped apron below."

Because new flows in these gullies apparently occur in winter, rather than at a time when any frozen water might be most likely to melt, the new report calls for studies of how carbon dioxide, rather than water, could be involved in the flows. Some carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere freezes on the ground during winter and sublimates back to gaseous form as spring approaches. The dunes studied are poleward of 40 degrees south latitude.

"One possibility is that a pile of carbon-dioxide frost accumulating on a dune gets thick enough to avalanche down and drag other material with it," Diniega said. Other suggested mechanisms are that gas from sublimating frost could lubricate a flow of dry sand or erupt in puffs energetic enough to trigger slides.

At an increasing number of sites, before-and-after images have documented changes in Martian gullies. The new report uses images from the Mars Orbiter Camera on Mars Global Surveyor, which operated from 1997 to 2006, and from the High Resolution Science Imaging Experiment (HiRISE) camera and Context Camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been examining Mars since 2006.

"The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is enabling valuable studies of seasonal changes in surface features on Mars," said Sue Smrekar of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., deputy project scientist for this orbiter. "One key to doing that has been the capability to point from side to side, so that priority targets can be checked more frequently than just when the spacecraft flies directly overhead. Another is the lengthening span of years covered by first Mars Global Surveyor and now this mission."

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the orbiter. The University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory operates the HiRISE camera, which was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, built and operates the Context Camera and formerly did the same for the Mars Orbiter Camera. For more about the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, visit For more about HiRISE, visit

Huge “Biobank” For Research Into Major Diseases To Be Set Up By Qatar And Imperial College London

A “biobank” of samples and clinical measurements from tens of thousands of people is to be established in Qatar to help scientists understand the causes of major diseases and develop new treatments, it is announced today.

The Qatar Biobank is being established by Qatar Foundation for Education, Science, and Community Development (QF) and Qatar’s Supreme Council of Health, with the assistance of experts from Imperial College London. The project was announced at the Royal Society  on October 28th  in the presence of Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned, during the Qatari state visit to the UK.

Professor Paul Elliott,  Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned and Professor Elio Riboli
 St Marry's
Credit:  Imperial College London

The biobank will collect a wealth of medical data from up to 100,000 volunteers and store samples of their blood and urine in a high-tech storage facility over many years. This will allow scientists to look at diseases already present in the population as well as following up the participants to see who develops disease in the future.  Researchers will compare data, including genetic information and data on environmental exposures and lifestyles, from participants who develop illnesses with data from those who remain healthy. In this way, they aim to identify early markers that can indicate when someone is likely to develop a particular disease, so that people will be able to receive early treatment or take measures to prevent a disease developing.

The Qatar Biobank will be the first very large population-based study involving the collection of biological samples in an Arabic country. It will provide scientists with an invaluable resource for improving the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, which are placing increasing demands on Qatar’s free public health service.

The initiative builds on other large national and international biobanking projects such as the UK Biobank, set up in 2006, which is the most advanced project of its type in the world.

Public health experts from Imperial College London are playing a crucial role in the design and implementation of the project.

Professor Elio Riboli, Director of the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, said: “At the very beginning of the study, healthy participants will be examined using top-level technology, such as MRI scans, so that later we can pick out aspects of the imaging data that may look today normal but might actually be predictive of diseases.

The results will be invaluable not only for the Qatar population but for medical science in general.
Professor Elio Riboli, Director of the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, said: “At the very beginning of the study, healthy participants will be examined using top-level technology, such as MRI scans, so that later we can pick out aspects of the imaging data that may look today normal but might actually be predictive of diseases.  The results will be invaluable not only for the Qatar population but for medical science in general.

“Qatar is an extremely interesting population from a medical point of view. It’s a population in rapid transition towards more Western lifestyles. Qatar is home to residents from different regions of the world, which means we can look at disease risk factors in multiethnic populations in detail and on a very large scale.”

Professor Paul Elliott, Head of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Imperial College London, said:  “This is a fantastic opportunity to set up a world-leading project, following up the health of a population over many years, and really try and understand the causes of disease, both genetic and environmental.

“We will be using state-of-the-art technology to collect and analyse samples from an extremely large set of participants. We also plan to carry out imaging of the whole body with MRI – this has never been done before on such a huge scale.”

Professors Riboli and Elliott bring to the project a wealth of expertise in conducting large population studies. Professor Riboli is the co-ordinator of the European Prospective Investigation of Chronic Diseases (EPIC), which has collected data from over 500,000 people over 15 years. Professor Elliott is part of the steering committee of UK Biobank.

Dr Hanan Al Kuwari, Chair of the Qatar Biobank Steering Committee and Managing Director of Hamad Medical Corporation, said: “By developing transparent data access and ethical standards, the Biobank will provide a framework for industry and academia to share expertise and conduct collaborative research. The Biobank will work very closely with government at identifying health targets or areas where further investments are required. This will enable Qatar not only to practice evidence based medicine but also evidence based public health.”

QF President Dr. Fathy Saoud said “The launch of Qatar Biobank opens up a unique opportunity for Qatar-based scientists to become part of and contributors to international networks of researchers working on biobanks worldwide. Association with other, similar resources and the sharing of scientific data and opinions will significantly enhance Qatar Biobank’s value as a research resource nationally and internationally.

‘Thinking-By-Doing’ Is The Robot Cognition Paradigm Of The Future

Robotic demonstrators developed by European researchers produce compelling evidence that ‘thinking-by-doing’ is the machine cognition paradigm of the future. Robots act on objects and teach themselves in the process.

Now where did I leave my house keys? © Vladislav Ociacia -
Credit: PACO-PLUS project

European researchers at the PACO-PLUS project have developed robotic demonstrators to illustrate a new approach to robotic cognition. The team uses a concept called ‘object-action complexes’ (OACs), pronounced oaks.

These complexes represent a combination of perception of and action upon any given object. The OACs are recorded by the robot every time it performs an action. These recorded actions can be saved and exchanged with other robots, and over time the team hope it will lead to entire libraries of OACs that can be exchanged between researchers.

But that is just a major bonus of this particular system. The primary thrust was to show that robots could teach themselves simple actions, leading to more complex actions and, hopefully, leading to abstract thought in the future.

The PACO-PLUS team performed a large number of demonstrations with humanoid robots and the results so far are very promising.

Autonomous exploration
With autonomous exploration, a robot can patiently explore thousands of potential ways to interact with an object it has no prior knowledge of – learning over time that grasping it in one way is better than another, that it balances better in one direction than another, etc.

“The first thing a robot will do when it encounters an object for the first time is to lift it before its eyes and then rotate the object so the robot gets a look at it from all angles. After that, [the robot] will be able to identify the object from any angle,” explains Tamim Asfour, leader of the Humanoids Research Group at the Institute for Anthropomatics at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany and co-coordinator of the PACO-PLUS project.

One can see how complex actions could arise over time, as a robot progressively teaches itself how to interact with a cup, jug, handles and doors. Similarly, as the robot’s experience with different objects expands, its options expand, too, and it could learn to use a key with a hole in a door to see if that action will lead to any result.

This is the core of the OAC concept, that interaction with the environment leads to ever-more sophisticated strategies over time, and ultimately gives rise to ‘intelligence’.

Of course, the autonomous exploration is extremely time consuming, unsurprising when one recalls that it took hundreds of millions of years to evolve intelligent life. So another method for teaching robots is learning from human observation and human coaching, and PACO-PLUS developed a large range of successful demonstrators with this method as well.

Human coaching
With coaching, robots can watch humans perform an action, for example wiping a table, and then they can imitate it. It is astonishing how easy it is for robots to mimic complex actions like this.

Similarly, a coach can guide the robots through a complex task, for example putting a cup in a dishwasher. At each stage the coach tells the robot ‘open the dishwasher’, ‘take this object/cup’, ‘put it in the dishwasher’. Over time, the robot learns these sorts of actions.

This is a phenomenally sophisticated demonstration of robotic learning, and it was achieved, using a new approach, in the space of just four years. As such it stands as a remarkable testament to the work ethic of the PACO-PLUS team and the power of its approach.

“Of course, we did a lot of other work too,” notes Asfour. “For example, we looked at some situations with more traditional industrial robots, to see how our work could be applied there.”

The work has been very well received in the wider robotic community, and some partners are looking at how they can integrate some of the results into other projects. In the meantime, PACO-PLUS is currently pursuing further research funding to perfect the work achieved.

But already PACO-PLUS has dramatically advanced the field of robotic cognition and helped to set the research and development agenda for the next decade.

The PACO-PLUS project received funding from the ICT strand of the Sixth Framework Programme for research.


Important Milestone: Researchers Engineer Miniature Human Livers In The Lab

Researchers at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center have reached an early, but important, milestone in the quest to grow replacement livers in the lab. They are the first to use human liver cells to successfully engineer miniature livers that function -- at least in a laboratory setting -- like human livers. The next step is to see if the livers will continue to function after transplantation in an animal model.

They are the first to use human liver cells to successfully engineer miniature livers that function – at least in a laboratory setting – like human livers. The next step is to see if the livers will continue to function after transplantation in an animal model.

The ultimate goal of the research, which will be presented Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases in Boston, is to provide a solution to the shortage of donor livers available for patients who need transplants. Laboratory-engineered livers could also be used to test the safety of new drugs.

"We are excited about the possibilities this research represents, but must stress that we're at an early stage and many technical hurdles must be overcome before it could benefit patients," said Shay Soker, Ph.D., professor of regenerative medicine and project director. "Not only must we learn how to grow billions of liver cells at one time in order to engineer livers large enough for patients, but we must determine whether these organs are safe to use in patients."

Pedro Baptista, PharmD, Ph.D., lead author on the study, said the project is the first time that human liver cells have been used to engineer livers in the lab. "Our hope is that once these organs are transplanted, they will maintain and gain function as they continue to develop," he said.

To engineer the organs, the scientists used animal livers that were treated with a mild detergent to remove all cells (a process called decellularization), leaving only the collagen "skeleton" or support structure. They then replaced the original cells with two types of human cells: immature liver cells known as progenitors, and endothelial cells that line blood vessels.

The cells were introduced into the liver skeleton through a large vessel that feeds a system of smaller vessels in the liver. This network of vessels remains intact after the decellularization process. The liver was next placed in a bioreactor, special equipment that provides a constant flow of nutrients and oxygen throughout the organ.
After a week in the bioreactor system, the scientists documented the progressive formation of human liver tissue, as well as liver-associated function. They observed widespread cell growth inside the bioengineered organ.
The ability to engineer a liver with animal cells had been demonstrated previously. However, the possibility of generating a functional human liver was still in question.

The researchers said the current study suggests a new approach to whole-organ bioengineering that might prove to be critical not only for treating liver disease, but for growing organs such as the kidney and pancreas. Scientists at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine are working on these projects, as well as many other tissues and organs, and also working to develop cell therapies to restore organ function.

Bioengineered livers could also be useful for evaluating the safety of new drugs. "This would more closely mimic drug metabolism in the human liver, something that can be difficult to reproduce in animal models," said Baptista.

Co-researchers were Dipfen Vyas, B.Sc., Zhan Wang, M.D., and Anthony Atala, M.D., director of the institute.
Editor's Note: The abstract, "The Use of Whole Organ Decellularization for the Bioengineering of a Human Vascularized Liver," will be presented at 11:45 a.m. ET on Sunday, Oct. 31. Conference press releases and all abstracts are available online Drs. Baptista and Soker will be available for interviews beginning Wednesday, Oct. 27. They can be reached through Karen Richardson, Wake Forest Baptist, 336-462-2183 (cell); and, once the conference begins, by Gregory Bologna, AASLD, 703-299-9766; or the Conference Press Room, 617-954-3106.

The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine) is an established center dedicated to the discovery, development and clinical translation of regenerative medicine technologies by leading faculty. The institute has used biomaterials alone, cell therapies, and engineered tissues and organs for the treatment of patients with injury or disease. The Institute is based at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, an academic health system comprised of North Carolina Baptist Hospital, Wake Forest University Health Sciences, which operates the university's School of Medicine, and Wake Forest University Physicians. The system is consistently ranked as one of "America's Best Hospitals" by U.S. News & World Report.

Contacts and sources:
The Liver Meeting 2010

Friday, October 29, 2010

Team "Watches" Formation of Cells' Protein Factories For First Time

A team from The Scripps Research Institute has revealed the first-ever pictures of the formation of cells' "protein factories." In addition to being a major technical feat on its own, the work could open new pathways for development of antibiotics and treatments for diseases tied to errors in ribosome formation. In addition, the techniques developed in the study can now be applied to other complex challenges in the understanding of cellular processes.

A new Scripps Research study has yielded pictures of the chemical intermediate steps in ribosome creation. 

Image by Gabe Lander 

Identifying and observing the molecules that form ribosomes—the cellular factories that build the proteins essential for life—has for decades been a key goal for biologists but one that had seemed nearly unattainable. But the new Scripps Research study, which appears in the October 29, 2010 issue of the journal Science, yielded pictures of the chemical intermediate steps in ribosome creation.

"For me it was a dream experiment," said project leader James Williamson, Ph.D., professor, member of the Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology, and dean of graduate and postgraduate studies at Scripps Research, who credits collaborators at the Scripps Research National Resource for Automated Molecular Microscopy (NRAMM) facility for making it possible. "We have great colleagues at Scripps to collaborate with who are willing to try some crazy experiments, and when they work it's just beautiful."

Past studies of the intermediate molecules that combine to form ribosomes and other cellular components have been severely limited by imaging technologies. Electron microscopy has for many years made it possible to create pictures of such tiny molecules, but this typically requires purification of the molecules. To purify, you must first identify, meaning researchers had to infer what the intermediates were ahead of time rather than being able to watch the real process.

"My lab has been working on ribosome assembly intensively for about 15 years," said Williamson. "The basic steps were mapped out 30 years ago. What nobody really understood was how it happens inside cells."

Creating a New View

The NRAMM group, led by Scripps Research Associate Professors Clinton Potter and Bridget Carragher and working with Scripps Research Kellogg School of Science and Technology graduate students Anke Mulder and Craig Yoshioka, developed a new technique, described in the Science paper and dubbed discovery single-particle profiling, which dodges the purification problem by allowing successful imaging of unpurified samples. An automated data capture and processing system of the team's design enables them to decipher an otherwise impossibly complex hodgepodge of data that results.

For this project, second author Andrea Beck, a research assistant in the Williamson laboratory, purified ribosome components from cells of the common research bacterium Escherichia Coli. She then chemically broke these apart to create a solution of the components that form ribosomes. The components were mixed together and then were rapidly stained and imaged using electron microscopy. "We went in with 'dirty' samples that contained horribly complex mixtures of all different particles," said Williamson.

Mulder, who is first author on the paper, collected and analyzed the particles that were formed during the ribosome assembly reaction. Using the team's advanced algorithms, they were able to process more than a million data points from the electron microscope to ultimately produce molecular pictures.

The Pieces Fit

The team produced images that the scientists were able to match like puzzle pieces to parts of ribosomes, offering strong confirmation that they had indeed imaged and identified actual chemical intermediates in the path to ribosome production. "We always saw the same thing no matter how we processed the data, and this led us to believe this was real," said Williamson.

Further confirmation came as the researchers imaged components from different timeframes. After breaking down ribosome components, the scientists prepared samples at various stages allowing enough time for the molecular mix to begin combining as they do during ribosome creation in cells.

Imaging this time series, the team was able to show higher concentrations of larger, more complex molecules and fewer smaller molecules as time elapsed. These results fit with the limited information that was already available about the timing of formation steps, providing further confirmation of the team's success.

Interestingly, this work also confirmed that there are more than one possible paths in ribosome formation, a phenomenon known as parallel assembly that been suggested by prior research but never definitively confirmed.

Long-Term Potential

Williamson says that with the information now at hand, they will be able to move forward with studies of which additional molecules might be present in cells and essential for ribosome formation. Such data could offer exciting medical potential.

All bacteria contain and are dependent on ribosomes. Identification of molecules required for ribosome assembly could offer new targets for antibiotic drugs aimed at killing bacteria. "If we can figure out how to inhibit assembly, that would be a very important therapeutic avenue," said Williamson.

There are also indications that some diseases such as Diamond Blackfan Anemia might be caused, at least in some cases, by errors in ribosome production. Better understanding of that production could also reveal ways such errors might be repaired to cure or prevent disease.

At the more basic level, this successful project has also proven techniques that Scripps Research scientists and other researchers can apply to allow similar imaging and understanding of other complex but critical cellular processes.

In addition to Williamson, Mulder, Beck, Yoshioka, Potter, and Carragher, authors of the paper, entitled "Visualizing Ribosome Biogenesis: Parallel Assembly Pathways for the 30S Subunit," were Anne Bunner and Ronald Milligan from Scripps Research.

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health and a fellowship from the National Science Foundation.

Source: Scripps Research Institute