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    Industrial hemp production in France.
    Aleks via Wikimedia Commons
    Agricultural hemp produces strong and decay-resistant fibers, a versatile oil, and requires little in the way of herbicides, since it outcompetes weeds. Hemp oil isn't widely used for cooking, though, partially because it turns rancid swiftly if not refrigerated. Now genetic researchers have developed a new version of hemp that produces an oil similar to olive oil in terms of its fatty acid content (specifically, containing a large proportion of oleic acid), and which lasts seven times longer than the product from the unmodified plant. 

    The new strain was produced by using genetic techniques to disable two genes involved in the production of polyunsaturated fatty acids, and thus the plant produces more mono-unsaturated fats like oleic acid. This is an omega-9 fatty acid, and considered to be one of the healthier sources of fat in the diet. "The main benefit is that the oil is significantly more stable, having a longer shelf life at room temperature which extends to cooking and industrial applications," said Ian Graham, a researcher at the University of York, in England.

    The oil could make the plant a profitable "break crop," one grown between rotations of staples like corn and wheat, Graham told Popular Science. In addition to its oils, the plant also produces fibers useful in animal bedding and other applications. The new hemp line is being tested throughout several sites in Europe, and may be ready to roll out commercially in two to three years, he added. 

    While hemp is legal to grow in Europe and Canada, it is still prohibited in the U.S. under federal law. Under the new farm bill, however, a number of pilot projects to grow hemp are allowed, such as five projects in Kentucky, USA Today reported.

    A study describing the new crop was published this month in the Plant Biotechnology Journal.


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    Toxoplasmosis Arrives in the Arctic
    Left: Toxoplasma tachyzoites that cause acute disease. Right: Toxoplasma cyst in heart muscle of Arctic Beluga.
    Michael Grigg, Stephen Raverty

    The parasite Toxoplasma gondii can cause heart, brain, nervous system or eye damage in people with weakened immune systems, and harm or kill developing fetuses in pregnant women. Over 60 million people in the United States carry the the parasite, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), but typically show no symptoms of being infected, a condition called toxoplasmosis. 

    Toxoplasmosis is sometimes called the kitty litter disease, because house cats have long been known as "definitive" hosts: carriers in which the parasite can produce eggs. Cats pick up T. gondii by eating infected prey or meat, according to the Cornell Feline Health Center, and then shed the eggs in their feces. Once shed, the parasite becomes infectious anywhere from one to five days later.  The CDC recommends that the immunosuppressed, and women who are or want to become pregnant, avoid changing cat litter.

    Year-round ice historically prevented T. gondii from moving into the Arctic. But now that climate change is warming and thawing Arctic ice during the summer, the pathogen has expanded its range: Last week Michael Grigg and Stephen Raverty, researchers from the University of British Columbia, announced that 10 percent of the Beluga whale population of the western Arctic now carry an infectious form of T. gondii, the first time it has been found in the region in 14 years of sampling.

    Inuit processing beluga whale meat
    Processing the Hunt
    Inuit hunters process beluga whale meat, which is a foundation of their traditional diet.
    Stephen Raverty

    The public health implications are serious, because beluga is a foundation of the traditional Inuit diet that is often eaten raw. Simply drying the raw whale meat does not kill T. gondii; the meat or fat must be thoroughly cooked. A report in Canadian paper The Globe and Mail suggests that it's going to be difficult to get communities to change how they prepare beluga:

    A Northwest Territories man who has been part of the traditional hunt for decades said he’s always cooked his beluga meat to prevent the spread of parasites...[but]...said the announcement wouldn’t change the way people harvest and consume beluga.

    “Unless somebody goes blind from eating this meat, it’s not going to change it one bit,” he said. “It’s hard to educate the older people. They’re set in their ways, that’s the way they were taught, and they don’t want to change.”

    “Even my father, he says: ‘we’re not cooking it.’ I say, ‘yeah, we are.’ I set aside some muktuk (frozen whale blubber) and say ‘that’s yours. You want to eat it raw, you go ahead. We like it cooked.’ It kills parasites, we know it does.

    “But my father, he’s 77, and just set in his ways, and that’s the way he wants it done. I’m sure he’s fine with that.”



    Beluga whale meat prepared for drying by Arctic Inuit
    Beluga whale meat is a staple of the traditional Inuit diet. Researchers worry that they may become infected with T. gondii by handling or eating raw or undercooked meat.
    Stephen Raverty


    Along with the bad news about T. gondii, Grigg and Raverty have figured out that a parasite previously found only in the Arctic, named Sarcocystis, is now killing animals as far south as British Columbia. The victims include endangered species such as the Steller's sea lion and Hawai'ian monk seal, as well as polar and grizzly bears. They have dubbed this sub-Arctic strain Sarcocystis pinnipedi, and say that it is responsible for a mass die-off of grey seals in 2012.


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    photo of a woman and a girl shopping for vegetables
    In the Produce Section
    United States Department of Agriculture

    Have you ever noticed the lamps on the ceiling of your local supermarket? Probably not. But, in the future, those lamps may notice you.

    Electronics company Philips is piloting a system in which LED store lamps track shoppers, the company announced. Shoppers have to download the store's app, first. Once they do, every lamp in the store is able to communicate with the shoppers' phones using pulses of light the human eye can't detect. Thus, the lamps know whether someone is in the produce section or the peanut butter aisle… and in response, the app can call up killer deals on bananas or jelly, depending.

    Philips is testing the system in Europe, but hasn't confirmed which stores will have it, Wired UK reports.

    infographic describing how Philips' shopper-tracking app works
    A Lamp-Based, Shopper-Tracking App

    This lamp-based customer-tracking scheme is part of an overall drive among companies to come up with ways to track people's shopping habits in stores. Companies have also experimented with tracking shoppers using Wi-Fi signals, radio waves, magnets and more. All these signals communicate with people's phones.

    Data on where people walk and pause in stores are valuable to the stores, of course. In return, stores offer shoppers targeted coupons. The Philips app even suggests recipes and a walking route through the store, based on which ingredients users want to buy.

    Beyond doing their own tracking, lighting systems can also act as a platform for an array of other sensors. For example, Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey is experimenting with a new LED lighting system. In Newark's case, the lights themselves don't do much. But embedded in the same fixture as the lights are cameras and sensors that identify long lines, read license plates, and flag suspicious activity, The New York Times reports.

    Why install all that stuff in with the lights? Sensity, the company that sold Newark its system, explains on its website:

    LEDs aren't new. Outdoor networks aren't new. Networked sensors aren't new. Big data and cloud computing aren't new. Even the idea of adding networked devices to light poles has been tried before.

    What's new and exciting about Sensity's LED-based NetSense platform is the way we've put it all together and how we deliver it to light owners as an easy-to-implement, turnkey package.


    In addition, lights are everywhere, as Philips business development manager Gerben van der Lugt explained in a statement about Philips' supermarket tracking. "The beauty of the system is that retailers do not have to invest in additional infrastructure to house, power and support location beacons for indoor positioning," he said. "The light fixtures themselves can communicate this information by virtue of their presence everywhere in the store."

    [Wired UK, The New York Times]


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    Undersea Citizen Science
    Australian researcher Graham Edgar and colleagues have trained and supported a volunteer corps of experienced SCUBA divers in doing scientific underwater surveys. Edgar says that this "Reef Life Survey" project has created the largest consistent data set on global marine biodiversity to date. The data suggest that the five key factors to a successful marine sanctuary are: no take (fishing), enforced boundaries, old (over 10 years in existence), large, and isolated. Areas with at least four of these five "NEOLI" factors present showed dramatic improvements in fish abundance and diversity. This photo dates from a 2010 Reef Life Survey expedition off the coast of Western Australia.
    Reef Life Survey
    Oceans cover 70 percent of the Earth. Somewhat less than 2 percent of that area has been set aside in marine protected areas: refuges where sea life is supposed to be able to thrive free of human pressures. But the reality is that many of them are “paper parks,” with no enforcement of fishing bans. Others are beset with polluted runoff from populated areas, or too small to protect wide-ranging fish species.

    A newly published, 6-year global survey of 1,000 sites in 87 marine protected areas across 40 countries has found that at least 4 of 5 key factors must be present for a marine reserve to succeed sea life:

    1. No harvest (or "take") of fish and other sea life
    2. Enforcement to prevent illegal fishing
    3. In existence for more than 10 years
    4. Large enough to protect far-ranging species
    5. Isolated from unprotected marine areas by sand or deep water

    The researchers shorthand these features as “NEOLI”: no take, enforced, old, large and isolated.

    The scope of this project is “an order of magnitude bigger-scale than what's been done before in terms of field studies,” says co-author and field biologist Graham J. Edgar of the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania.

    To gather such a large amount of data on a constrained budget, Edgar and his colleagues trained over 100 experienced recreational divers to take field surveys. “What we did was different from previous citizen science programs,” says Edgar. Rather than simplifying the data collection methods to broaden participation, they recruited “the best and the most enthusiastic divers," and “aimed at producing high-quality scientific data,” Edgar says, “as opposed to wide public engagement and education, which other citizen science programs are much better at than ours.” This aspect of the project has taken on a life of its own as the Reef Life Survey program.

    These “citizen divers,” says Edgar, “were the ones that produced most of the data, and they were the ones that stuck through for the long term.” The result is an enormous, detailed data set that supports the study's "NEOLI" findings across global borders and ecosystems. “Each marine protected area you look at has local factors, idiosyncratic factors, that affect what happens there,” says Edgar. “There's the history of the reserve and what regulations allowed, how much fishing occurred beforehand and how much recovery was possible, what's happening in the surrounding area, how much spillover in terms of fish going in and out—how porous the habitat boundaries are—the size and age.”

    Global map of marine protected areas surveyed for this study
    Global Scope
    a, Number of NEOLI (no take, enforced, old, large and isolated) features at MPAs investigated (coloured circles). MPAs with most NEOLI features are overlaid on top; consequently numerous MPAs with one and two features are not visible. MPAs with five NEOLI features are (1) Cocos, (2) Kermadec Islands, (3) Malpelo, (4) Middleton Reef; MPAs with four NEOLI features are (5) Elizabeth Reef, (6) Poor Knights Islands, (7) Ship Rock, (8) Tortugas and (9) Tsitsikamma. b, All MPA and fished sites surveyed (black circles). Blue shading summarizes the number of sites surveyed within each ecoregion.
    Edgar et al; Nature (2014) doi:10.1038/nature13022

    Edgar hopes his findings, backed by such robust data, can help marine managers put their (typically limited) time, energy, and budgets toward the steps that will actually help conserve ocean biodiversity.

    The destruction of the undersea environment “wouldn't be tolerated” says Edgar, “if people could see and know the scale of what's happening.”

    Click here to enter a gallery that includes images from the Reef Life Survey, photos of the big fish that the surveyors counted, and more findings from this study.


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    I'm floating toward the space station, the curvature of Earth visible below me. I'm pulled as if by tractor beam, but with enough time to turn and look behind, down, and dead ahead. My stomach churns. I feel like I might break off and drop into orbit any minute. 

    I'm in a desert warzone I can't identify. Camoflaged soldiers give a man in a truck passage. In a blink, small arms fire is resounding and orders are shouted between troops. I scan the buildings and alleys for the source while the soldiers move ahead, ducking between corners for shelter. I don't realize it's a drill until I see the safety-orange tips of their guns.

    I'm at E3, the international gaming conference, being ferried through a crowd of strangers all bathed in the transluscent blue light of screens. I try to look across the scrum, tilting my head back and forth to peer over heads, hoping to make eye contact with myself. I was there, after all. 

    I take off the goggles strapped to my face and I'm in the meeting room of a New York office building, looking at the smiling, long-haired documentarian Danfung Dennis, whose latest footage I've just been previewing through the virtual reality headset the Oculus Rift.

    "Wow," I manage to eke out. 



    Dennis is a filmmaker with experience in immersion (although maybe not quite like this). For his 2011 work of film reportage Hell and Back Again, he embedded with troops in Afghanistan, then followed one, Sergeant Nathan Harris, back home to North Carolina, for a full portrait of a country at war. Critics responded: Dennis, who's also a photojournalist, received the Grand Jury and cinematography prizes at Sundance that year, and even took a 2012 Oscar nomination for best documentary feature. "Hell and Back Again stacks one astonishing shot atop the next: perfectly composed tracking sequences in the heat of battle; saturated moody low-light compositions in rainy North Carolina parking lots; gorgeous rich soundscapes," the New York Times wrote

    For his next film, Dennis created an entire visual technology company, Condition One, and teamed up with a group of graphics engineers for a very different movie: Zero Point, a meta-documentary about the past and future of virtual reality. Leading a crew armed with an array of high-resolution cameras that covered a 360-degree field of vision, then stitching and syncing the footage into one seamless view, Zero Point is built from interviews with virtual reality evangelists and researchers from Ivy League schools to the military. The experts all weigh in on why VR tech adoption is growing, and what it means for the world of tomorrow. "There's this rapid acceleration of innovation, because of a whole slew of different factors, but primarily driven by mobile devices--these screens are getting so small, so light, so cheap that we're able to put them very close to our eyes and fill our field of vision, and partially convince the brain that you are somewhere else," Dennis says. 

    Yes, it all sounds like a hell of a headtrip, but if you're into technology or film, it's hard not share some of Dennis's excitement in the project. "We know that this is a fundamentally new form of communication, it's this new visual language, and we need to invent the syntax and the grammar for how to effectively communicate a narrative and experience when you have no control over where the user could be looking."

    Dennis wants to marry virtual reality technology to documentary footage.

    Put like that, the concept sounds more like a game, which is exactly what the majority of Oculus Rift projects have been created for. Dennis, who'd already made the transition from war photojournalist to videographer on the hunt for more immersive experiences, founded Condition One to marry virtual reality to documentary footage, developing a video engine that can translate data from multiple cameras to a 360-degree view. Instead of being plopped down in front of a screen to take in a film, turning occasionally to shush the person behind you in a theater, the viewer is there, no matter where they look.  

    But, while obviously a believer in the power of the technology, Dennis keeps a detached perspective on its pros and cons. There are endless studies about the benefits of virtual reality: how we can learn to empathize more with others while using it, or how we might use it to exorcise pain. But move the idea to the far end of the dial, and maybe we won't like what we see. "We're also looking at some of the implications of this question that keeps coming up, whether it was researchers at Stanford or at USC or just people who had tried the Rift for the first time, which is: what happens when we don't want to leave?" 

    If you want to ease in to tuning in, turning on, and never dropping out, you've got time: a truncated version of Zero Point is set for release this spring, ahead of a wider release for when the Rift gets into the hands of consumers. (Right now, the Rift is a developer-only gadget; Dennis is hoping for feedback from them before the final cut.) In the meantime, soak up the real world while it lasts.


    Video by Gabe Bergado. Footage provided by Condition One.


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    Sucking blood
    An Anopheles stephensi mosquito, which can spread malaria.
    In January of 1942, Heinrich Himmler ordered the opening of an entomological laboratory in the Dachau concentration camp in southeastern Germany. But why? The stated purpose of the institute was to study pests such as lice and fleas that were causing problems for German soldiers. But a new study into the history of the institute shows that much more went on there.

    Writing in the journal Endeavor, Tübingen University scientist Klaus Reinhardt suggests that the institute did research to see if mosquitoes could be used to spread diseases, perhaps malaria, to enemy troops. Letters from the group's lead scientist, Eduard May, confirm for the first time "the existence of an offensive biological warfare research programme in Nazi Germany," Reinhardt writes. 

    For example:

    In a progress report dated 23 September 1944 and marked ‘secret’, May mentioned Anopheles [a genus of mosquito] research being carried out ‘in order to clarify the question whether an artificial mass infection of the malaria parasite on to humans is possible and how one can counter an action that aims at such mass infection. It is anticipated to extend these investigations also to other questions that fall under the area of biological warfare and that concern insects that inflict harm to humans.’ 

    This is significant, since "Hitler repeatedly and strictly ordered that biological weapons should not be used, even for defensive purposes." However, he also order "extreme" efforts into defense from biological weapons, which may have "left the door open for those authorities that attempted to circumvent Hitler's biological weapons ban," Reinhardt wrote.

    May's research focused on, amongst other things, how to keep mosquitoes alive for several days without food or water, and thus their suitability for use as biological weapons to be dropped from planes, according to a release describing the study. 


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    As a nod to his working-class Indian heritage, Hetain Patel chose a squatting pose for the Fiesta Transformer, moving the engine to the rear as a counterbalance.
    Hetain Patel

    Hetain Patel’s sculpture is an ode to two old loves: his first ride—a 1988 Ford Fiesta—and the childhood toys known as Transformers. Patel enlisted his father, Pravin, who converts cars into hearses and limos, to help him slice the automobile into pieces and reassemble them as a bespoke robot. Unlike the fictional automatons that inspired him, Patel’s Fiesta Transformer does not move or fight. “The pose is important,” he says. “It’s not a warrior. It’s an old crappy car.”

    The Build

    Time: 3 months
    Cost: About $16,000

    This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Popular Science. 


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    Bot or not? Lend me your thoughts
    on what verses are a bot's.

    I hereby invite you to visit bot or not, a website where a piece of poetry is displayed for your reading pleasure. You must then decide whether it was written/generated by a person or a machine. 

    You can think of it as a poetry version of the Turing test, which gauges a machine's ability to do something as well as or indistinguishable from a human. 

    In truth, I guessed most of them right, although with a few notable exceptions. For example, I was relatively sure that the following poem was written by a bot. But it was in fact written by the human Tao Lin. Knowing what little I do about Lin, though, I'm tempted to think he'd be amused by that. Here's how the poem begins: 

    from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. i ate things and listened to music
    someone else was feeling careful and it was making me careful
    remember when i burned down someone’s house?—i was eight
    someone was dreaming of careful sizes and it was making me eight...

    I wasn't alone, though--43 percent of others also thought Lin was a bot. And it appears they got the title wrong; it was listed as a repeat of the first line. But according to Poetry Genius, the poem should be titled "I have high self-esteem and it’s making me stare," which actually might have made the difference in my guess of its authenticity. Or maybe not.  

    Check it out at


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    photo of museum visitors looking at large displays of photos
    Visitors to the Tuol Sleng Museum view photos of victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. Albeiro Rodas, Cambodia, 2006.
    Photo by Albeiror24 on Wikimedia Commons, released into the public domain

    So many adults in Cambodia are getting diabetes at such a young age, it's unbelievable. "You can go to every village with me and see it," endocrinologist Lim Keuky told PRI. "When I go abroad to developed countries, people say I'm lying. I'm not lying."

    Cambodians are getting type 2—A.K.A. adult-onset—diabetes in their late 30s. In contrast, the average age of diagnosis in the U.S. is 54. Sure, Cambodians now eat more and do less physical work than they did in decades past. But that's not enough to explain their unusual diabetes rates, PRI reports. Something else is happening.

    This new generation of diabetes patients was conceived and born during the Khmer Rouge regime, between 1975 and 1979. Scientists think their prenatal exposure to their mothers' starvation set them up for diabetes later in life. Plus, while the PRI story doesn't explicitly say so, it seems scientists think there may be an epigenetic effect going on, too. That is, being a fetus in a starving mother actually altered these people's DNA in a way that may be inherited by their own children.

    The PRI story hints at epigenetics in this quote from Dutch scientist Rebecca Painter:

    Animal studies raise an even more worrisome possibility. 'There is a multigenerational effect,' says Painter.

    Scientifically, this is really interesting. There aren't many population studies of epigenetics, which has seen a boom in scientific attention only in the past ten years or so. Could the Khmer Rouge generation be another example? If so, that means Cambodian doctors need to be on the lookout for health problems not only in this generation, but the next one, too.

    "Epigenetics" describe modifications to people's DNA that don't affect the sequence of the DNA. Physically, epigenetic changes show up as little chemical decorations added onto people's genes. You can think of them as chemical baubles and tinsel. Previous studies have shown starvation is able to trigger changes to people's epigenetics.

    Biologists originally thought that no matter what havoc the environment wrecked upon people, the DNA they passed onto their children remained unchanged. (Short of getting irradiated, that is.) More recently, however, scientists have found that some epigenetic decorations are inheritable, just like DNA is. That means the starvation Cambodian people experienced in the 1970s may affect the health of their grandchildren.

    Painter, who talked with PRI, examined one classic epigenetic case, the Dutch Hunger Winter. During the Dutch Hunger Winter, Nazis blocked food supply from coming into the western Netherlands. Dutch folks experienced extreme starvation. Scientists later found that not only were babies born during that time smaller than their siblings born before or after… their own children were born smaller, too. The Nazis left their mark on two generations of Dutch.

    PRI doesn't mention if doctors have noticed any health problems in the children of those conceived during the Khmer Rouge regime. Maybe they aren't old enough yet. But this should be a case to watch, both for doctors in Cambodia, and for scientists around the world, who may see the same patterns repeated elsewhere.



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    Black-Tailed Antechinus
    Gary Cranitch/Queensland Museum

    Oh, wow, look at this cute little mouse thing. I bet it lives a long and fruitful marsupial life. Ha, no. Kidding! It probably dies from bumping uglies too hard. 

    Australian scientists recently discovered these little creatures, a black-tailed variety of antechinus, in New South Wales and Queensland. The genus is famed for mating with all of its might, then falling over dead. How dead? Let The Telegraph explain, graphically:

    The research found that the male mated "competitively" to try to promote their own genes and that the "frantic" breeding caused infections, internal bleeding, a disintegration of body tissue and eventually death.

    At about 11 months old, the marsupials do it alllll night (literally, 12 to 14 hours) and most of the males die before the resulting offspring are born. Until about a year ago, researchers assumed they died from selflessly starving during the winter, saving food for the kids. But, nope, it's definitely because of crazy sex. 



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    Modern technology can make some of James Bond's gadgets from just a decade ago look distinctly old-hat. But one Q-brand trick we've not seen yet is winter tires with retractable studs, like the ones seen on Bond's Aston Martin Vanquish in the movie Die Another Day.

    That's until now, as tire manufacturer Nokian Tyres has revealed a concept tire featuring exactly that technology. On what it says is the 80th anniversary of the winter tire, Nokian has invented a tire that can be changed at the touch of a button from a regular treaded winter tire to a studded one, like those used by rally drivers on ice and snow events, or by Nokian's own ice speed record-setting Audi RS 6.

    The safety benefits are obvious--on regular roads or lightly snowy surfaces, the tires would operate as normal. But on tightly-packed snow or ice, the studs can be activated for extra grip and traction. Negating any issues with a stud puncturing the surface of the tire, each stud is already mounted in the tire tread in its own housing. When activated, a narrower pin slides out of the housing.

    The stud isn't quite as dramatic as those you'd find on rally tires, but it's enough to provide that extra safety margin in exceptional circumstances--and as Nokian's video demonstrates, endows the car with decent lateral grip and increased ability to stop even on a sheet of ice.

    The stud-equipped Hakkapeliitta 8 SUV winter tire isn't yet a production reality, butthe company says it could enter production if testing proves successful and there's sufficient market demand for it.

    This article, written by Antony Ingram, was originally published on Motor Authority, a publishing partner of Popular Science. Follow Motor Authority on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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    photo of a mouse embryo made with STAP cells
    A Mouse Fetus Made From The New STAP Stem Cells
    Haruko Obokata

    A recent, major milestone in stem cell research is undergoing some double checks.

    As we reported, just a few weeks ago, a team of Japanese and U.S. scientists announced they found a new, simple way to transform adult cells into powerful stem cells similar to those that appear in embryos. They published their findings in two papers in the journal Nature.

    The discovery meant easier-to-make embryonic-like stem cells. That's great for research and for potential stem cell therapies in the future. The feat also altered scientists' understanding of the body's ability to make stem cells. If scientists could easily make stem cells in the lab, did that mean the even adult bodies are able to make stem cells sometimes?

    Before scientists can answer that question, they have to verify the new stem-cell-making method works. Several attempts to replicate the method have failed, The Wall Street Journal reports. In addition, some images the U.S.-Japanese team published, purporting to show results of different experiments, look like copies of one another.

    It's not time yet to discredit the new findings. The copied images could have been honest mix-ups, the responsible scientists told Nature News. Plus, the simple-seeming stem-cell-making method may actually be pretty difficult to reproduce correctly. Check out Nature News and The Wall Street Journal for more details.

    The Japanese research institution where the research was conducted, RIKEN, is investigating, Nature News reports. So is Nature Publishing Group, which publishes Nature News and the peer-reviewed journal Nature.

    [The Wall Street Journal, Nature News]


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    Persian Cat
    Wikimedia Commons
    What's the matter--cat bite your hand? After combing through the health records of 1.3 million people over 10 years, researchers found an unusual link between cat bites and depression. More than 41 percent of those who had presented to hospitals with cat bites were also treated for depression at some point. Furthermore, 86 percent of the people that had been both bitten and diagnosed with depression were women. If you are a woman who's been bitten by a cat, there's nearly a 50 percent chance that you will be diagnosed with depression at some point, the study suggests. 

    Puzzling findings, there. What's going on? The researchers don't know. But they do outline some guesses. 

    There's possibility that people who are depressed are more likely to own cats to begin with (and thus are more likely to be bit than non-owners). As the rearchers write, in PLOS ONE

    There is substantial evidence to suggest that pet ownership results in multiple health benefits, both physical and mental. For example, pet ownership has been shown to reduce elevated blood pressure caused by mental stress even better than antihypertensive medications. Pets can also provide substantial social support. A study in Switzerland reported that among people living alone, cats could improve their mood. As such, it may be that depressed individuals, especially women, are more likely to own cats for companionship.

    It's also possible that depressed people act in a way that makes cats more likely to bite them: 

    Some animals may bite more in response to changes in their owners' mental state or level of responsiveness. For example, depressed individuals often make less eye contact compared to those without depression. Some animals, such as dogs, horses, and pigs are known to respond to human social cues such as gestures, gaze, and focus. Even cats may respond to respond to pointing gestures and human gaze. One study reported that the type of activity being undertaken by a test subject had a large impact on a cat's behavior.

    But perhaps the "most intriguing" possibility is that cat owners are more likely to be infected with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii; studies hint that the protozoan, carried by cats and transmitted in their feces, can cause changes in the brains of the humans it infects: 

    Infections from the parasite have been associated with self-inflicted violence as well as increased suicide rates in women. It has also been suggested that the inflammatory cytokines released during a T. gondii infection in the brain may be the cause of depression in some patients.

    It's far from clear what explains the link. Regardless, the scientists wrote that it may make sense to screen cat-bite victims for depression, especially women.

    In semi-related T. gondii news, the parasite has been found in beluga whales, which has seriously implications for the Inuit who feed upon them. 

    And in semi-related cat-bite news, a new study found that cat bites are often more serious than previously thought--nearly a third of those who'd been bitten had to stay in the hospital for more than three days. 


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    Bananas For LEGO Blocks
    Corinne Iozzio

    We've said it before, and we'll say it again: Every toy does not need an app! So once again, as we cruised the aisles at the American International Toy Fair this week, we largely turned a blind eye to "interactive elements" carelessly tacked onto playthings.

    This year, we focused on the toys that aren't just following the trends. These 10 toys are the blasting-est, sciencey-est, most "what the what?!" objects on the show floor. We love them, and we think you will, too.


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    photo of an infant receiving a vaccine from a nurse while his father holds him
    Good Baby
    A young man braves a vaccination early in life.
    James Gathany

    Whooping cough is evolving in response to its vaccine. Want proof? In a new study, researchers found 30 percent of whooping cough bacteria in Australia have evolved.

    We've reported on the evolution of whooping cough before. Researchers have found evolved pertussis, as whooping cough is scientifically known, in Finland, France, Italy, Japan and the U.S. As we previously reported, the evolved bacteria don't seem to be more dangerous than their predecessors. Nevertheless, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are keeping an eye on whooping cough's evolution. It could help explain another recent pertussis phenomenon: The newest pertussis vaccines seem to wear off much faster than older ones, leaving kids vulnerable at age 8 or 10 unless they get booster shots.

    In Australia, researchers from several universities and hospitals examined samples of pertussis dating back to 1997. What they saw happening there mirrored what's happened in the U.S.

    micrograph image showing (unevolved!) pertussis bacteria
    Micrograph of Pertussis Bacteria, 1979
    Photo made available through the CDC Public Health Image Library

    In every country where scientists have found evolved pertussis, the bacteria don't make a protein called pertactin. Pertactin is thought to help un-evolved pertussis bacteria stick to the cells lining people's respiratory tracts. Scientists still have a lot to learn about pertactin, however. "There's still some speculation about that, how it functions in that role," CDC scientist Lucia Pawloski told Popular Science in December.

    You wouldn't think evolving not to stick to the lungs would be helpful to bacteria. But! Pertactin also happens to be one of a handful of proteins that appear in pertussis vaccines used in industrialized countries. Every protein in a vaccine helps teach the body how to recognize real illness when it comes along. The fact that newer strains of pertussis happen to lack one of three or four proteins that are widespread in vaccines? That's what lets researchers know this evolution happened because of the vaccines. (Pertussis has not evolved in response to a version of its vaccine used in many developing countries. Read this to learn why industrialized nations use a different vaccine.)

    Whooping cough vaccines are still effective. That's because of the other proteins they contain. Even in this era of evolved pertussis, unvaccinated kids are eight times more likely to get whooping cough than vaccinated ones, Pawloski says. Every doctor and researcher Popular Science contacted, both inside and outside of the CDC, recommended getting whooping cough vaccines right on schedule.

    Whooping cough's evolution seemed to happen rapidly.

    Theoretically, it is possible vaccines are slightly less effective against evolved strains of whooping cough than they are against un-evolved strains. The CDC is examining this possibility. It hopes to get answers this summer.

    Whooping cough's evolution seemed to happen rapidly. In Australia, researchers saw their first two cases of evolved, pertactin-lacking pertussis in 1997, out of 39 cases they examined from that year. For 2012, 78 percent of their case samples didn't make pertactin.

    The shifts in pertussis populations were just as quick in the U.S. Pawloski led a study of 1,300 American whooping cough cases dating back to 1935. She and her team found their first example of pertactin-lacking pertussis in 1994. They found their second in 2010. By 2012, more than half their samples didn't make pertactin.

    The Australian team published its work in the April issue of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. Pawloski and her team published theirs in the February issue of Clinical and Vaccine Immunology.


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    illustration showing the proposed interior of a supersonic private plane
    Proposed Interior
    Spike Aerospace

    A supersonic passenger jet would be exposed to such extreme forces, it would just be easier for the plane not to have windows. That's why the makers of one proposed Mach 1.8 passenger jet—due out in 2018—have decided to make their aircraft windowless. In the windows' place, they'll simply livestream what's going on outside, Wired reports.

    Want to take a nap? Passengers will be able to dim the screens, too, or change it to a video of a different scene altogether. That last bit reminds me of the screens Hunger Games' Katniss had in her room in the Capitol.

    Wired has more details on the proposed jet project, which comes from a Boston-based company called Spike Aerospace. You should read more about it there. Here are just the basics. Regular passenger jets fly at about 0.85 Mach, according to Spike Aerospace. The company wants to make a plane that cruises somewhere between Mach 1.6 to Mach 1.8. It envisions its first planes will be private craft costing, Wired reports, $80 million.


    illustration of a proposed supersonic private plane
    Proposed Exterior
    Spike Aerospace


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    Illustration of Clostridium difficile
    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
    A lot of people don't give a crap. But OpenBiome, a company based in Cambridge, Mass., does, quite literally. The group has opened a facility that collects stool samples from healthy, pre-screened individuals. It then processes those "donations" and readies them for shipment to hospitals, where they are put into the colons of people with the deadly gut infection Clostridium difficile. Since September, OpenBiome has sent more than 135 frozen, ready-to-use preparations to 13 hospitals. It is, as Science News put it, a kind of Brown Cross. 

    These "poop transplants," as some have called them, show extraordinary promise in treating C. diff, a disease that kills about 14,000 people per year. According to Science News: 

    A 2011 review of 317 patients treated for C. difficile found that fecal transplants cleared up infections in 92 percent of patients. And more recent research showed that taking a round of pills containing bacteria isolated from fecal matter (without the feces itself) resolved C. difficile infections in all of 32 patients treated.

    Until OpenBiome came around, there was no way to legally get stool transplants, and some even resorted to using homemade preparations from other people's feces, which, just in case I need to make clear, is a bad idea. Now the FDA allows OpenBiome to deliver transplants to treat C. diff, and it considers the fecal material to be a drug. Some have argued, quite sensibly, that it doesn't make sense to treat poop as a drug, since--let's just be honest--it's not. Instead, scientists argue in the journal Naturegiven the special nature of poop (haha) and the potential for the procedure to transfer healthy bacteria from one person to another, fecal transplants deserve their own set of rules that make them easier to study and use in medicine. 


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    AAAS Program Book 2014
    Susannah F. Locke
    The American Association for the Advancement of Science is the world’s largest general scientific society. It's the publisher of the journal Science, and it has a giant meeting every February in a giant conference center in the bowels of a giant city. I attended this year, lugging around the meeting's 176-page program book. But there’s too much going on to attend every session. So I then read every page of said book so that you don't have to. Here’s the goods:
    1. Researchers are using online search records to find medication interactions.
    2. Researchers are also monitoring residents of assisted living facilities by using a special floor with sensors in it.
    3. “Since 2007, at least three-dozen science festival initiatives have formed in the U.S. alone.”
    4. “The development of probability theory resulted from the earnest contemplation of problems faced by gamblers.”
    5. “Blood-feeding mosquitoes select victims based on the microbial composition of human skin.”
    6. You can help map neurons in the brain by playing the game EyeWire.
    7. Nine billion people will live on this planet by 2050. (Current count is around 7 billion.) How will we feed them all? And how will we transport them all and house them all and warm them all without destroying the planet?
    8. “Risk is traditionally defined as a triplet consisting of what can go wrong, how likely it is to happen, and the consequences of it happening.” However, the folks who wrote this blurb say that people who evaluate the risk of cyber threats should also factor in their guts (“value judgments”).
    9. Almost 100,000 people are waiting for a kidney transplant in the U.S. And organ donations on the whole have plateaued.

    10. Every year, more than 10 million shipping containers cross into the U.S. of A. They could have bombs or nukes or who-knows-what, and we're barely screening any of them. New tech could help, but of course.
    11. X-ray crystallography is linked to 28 Nobel Prizes. Go crystallography! (And what the heck is crystallography? Check out Maki Naro’s explanations in comic form.)

    H/t to Sam Sifton at The 6th Floor blog of the New York Times, whose post on reading every last word of Field & Stream inspired this one.


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    The Last Fight of Captain Ball, 7th May 1917
    World War I was the first conflict to see air-to-air fighting. Battles between fighter pilots were dubbed "dogfights," and the unforgiving nature of war led to rapid improvement of these planes.
    Norman G Arnold, via Wikimedia Commons

    The very first airplanes used in war were scouts and light bombers, which flew above armies and dropped small bombs (often thrown from a pilot's hand) onto enemies. By and large, that's where military drones are today: surveillance tools that sometimes fire missiles. A new initiative from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants to change that, and bring drones right up to the cutting-edge aerial warfare innovation of 1914: air-to-air combat.

     On February 28th, DARPA is holding a conference in northern Virginia to start tackling the problems of future air-to-air battles. DARPA wants the military and industry to figure out "Distributed Battle Management," or how to organize a sky with both manned and unmanned aircraft fighting alongside one another. 

    Among the challenges:

    • Develop algorithms that help aircraft, manned and especially unmanned, fight better in air-to-air combat
    • Make data links and communication work in a warzone, where data infrastructure is unlikely to be good and could easily be made bad
    • Keep things simple for those on the ground and in command

    The end products, DARPA says, are

    decision aids [that] will be integrated into on-board software and will help airborne battle managers and pilots maintain situation awareness, recommend tasks for platforms and systems, and generate detailed execution plans. This capability will enable execution of complex kill chains in real time, improve the speed of response, and keep workload manageable while maintaining positive human control.

    Translated from Pentagonese, that means a way for military commanders to coordinate and control aircraft, including autonomous and robotic ones, without removing human control from kill decisions. DARPA expects future aerial battles to include both manned fighters and drones, and it's trying to figure out how to make that work with the humans still in control.

    [Military Aerospace]


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