Author Archives: Tyler MacDonald

About Tyler MacDonald

Psychology major and writer with an interest in all things science.

SRT coated fabric self-heals. From left, fabric with hole, wet fabric and patch in a drop of water, self-healed fabric. Image: Demirel Lab / Penn State

Self-healing textiles means you don’t have to throw away your torn jeans — just add water

SRT coated fabric self-heals.  From left, fabric with hole, wet fabric and patch in a drop of water, self-healed fabric. Image: Demirel Lab / Penn State

SRT coated fabric self-heals. From left, fabric with hole, wet fabric and patch in a drop of water, self-healed fabric. Image: Demirel Lab / Penn State

Penn State scientists made a coating that allows conventional textiles used in everyday clothing to patch themselves up. Derived from squid ring teeth, the coating can turn virtually any fabric into a self-healing one. Simply adding water is enough to kick start the repairing process.

Nano research has already revealed the potential of self-cleaning clothes, and now a new study reveals the potential for similar technology in suits that can be used to protect soldiers from chemical or biological attacks.

“Fashion designers use natural fibers made of proteins like wool or silk that are expensive and they are not self-healing,” said Melik Demirel, professor of engineering science and mechanics at Penn State University and senior author of the study. “We were looking for a way to make fabrics self-healing using conventional textiles. So we came up with this coating technology.”

In order to create the unique self-healing textile, the team takes the material to be coated and immerses it in a series of liquids, creating layers of material that ultimately form the self-healing, polyelectrolyte coating. These coatings are composed of both positively and negatively charged polymers – in the case of the current study the polymers resemble those in squid teeth ring proteins.

When the coating needs to be healed, it can be placed in a safe solvent – such as water – under ambient conditions, where it will then repair itself. Essentially, you could repair torn jeans simply by throwing them in the washing machine.

Enzymes that protect against toxins can be integrated into the coating during the laying process and for this research the team decided to use urease. However, during commercial use, the type of enzyme would depend on the target chemical.

“If you need to use enzymes for biological or chemical effects, you can have an encapsulated enzyme with self-healing properties degrade the toxin before it reaches the skin,” Demirel said.

Self-healing film could coat garments and protect farmers from harmful chemicals such as organophosphates, which are used as herbicides and insecticides as well as nerve agents against soldiers. These chemicals can be lethal if enough are absorbed through the skin. A film that contains a specific enzyme that breaks down organophosphates would protect individuals from these toxic materials.


World’s first mass extinction might have been caused by animals

The world’s first mass extinction might have been caused by animals called “ecosystem engineers,” a term that refers to organisms that create, modify or maintain habitats. In the case of the current study, the fossil evidence from Namibia suggests that newly evolved animals modified the environment so drastically that they drove older species to extinction.

Fossilized evidence of the relationship between Ediacarans and animals. Credit: Simon Darroch, Vanderbilt University

Fossilized evidence of the relationship between Ediacarans and animals. Credit: Simon Darroch, Vanderbilt University

Approximately 540 million years ago, the Earth experienced the end-Ediacaran extinction, the world’s first mass extinction. Ediacarans were the first multicellular organisms, which evolved from various types of single-celled organisms. Shaped like discs and tubes, they were largely immobile and inhabited marine environments.

After 60 million years of the Ediacarans spreading around the Earth, the world’s first animals – the metazoans – evolved. With the ability to move spontaneously and independently, animals burst onto the Earth in what is now known as the Cambrian explosion, a 25-million-year period when many of the modern animal families evolved.

“These new species were ‘ecological engineers’ who changed the environment in ways that made it more and more difficult for the Ediacarans to survive,” said Simon Darroch, assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences at Vanderbilt University and lead author of the study.

Previous research by Darroch and his team revealed communities of Ediacarans that appeared to be stressed. The fossils examined in the current paper represent a community of both Ediacarans and animals right before the Cambrian explosion, providing the best evidence thus far of the unique ecological association between these groups and highlighting the struggle of the Ediacarans as animals began to diversify.

“With this paper we’re narrowing in on causation; we’ve discovered some new fossil sites that preserve both Ediacara biota and animal fossils (both animal burrows – ‘trace fossils’ – and the remains of animals themselves) sharing the same communities, which lets us speculate about how these two very different groups of organisms interacted,” Darroch said.

Darroch also suggests that modern humans can learn from what is observed in the new fossil evidence given what is happening in the world today.

“The end-Ediacaran extinction shows that the evolution of new behaviors can fundamentally change the entire planet, and today we humans are the most powerful ‘ecosystems engineers’ ever known,” he said.

Journal Reference: A mixed Ediacaran-metazoan assemblage from the Zaris Sub-basin, Namibia. 4 July 2016. 10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.07.003

Is secondhand marijuana smoke as damaging as tobacco smoke?

With the increased acceptance and legalization of marijuana in many parts of the world, studies are now trying to determine its effects on health. Although many think of marijuana smoke as less harmful than tobacco smoke, a new study suggests that secondhand smoke poses dangers to our cardiovascular system whether it stems from marijuana or tobacco.

Image credit Pixabay

Image credit Pixabay

The study found that in laboratory rats exposed to secondhand smoke from a marijuana cigarette, blood vessels had difficulty widening, much like the vessels in rats who were exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke.

“While the effect is temporary for both cigarette and marijuana smoke, these temporary problems can turn into long-term problems if exposures occur often enough and may increase the chances of developing hardened and clogged arteries,” said Matthew Springer, professor of medicine at the University of California and senior author of the study.

In addition, the data revealed that rats exposed to marijuana smoke for one minute took 90 minutes to recover fully, approximately three times as long as rats that were exposed to tobacco smoke. However, when the researchers removed tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) from the marijuana cigarettes, the blood vessel disruption was still observed, suggesting that it is the burning smoke rather than the active components of marijuana responsible for the narrowing of the rats’ blood vessels.

As of now, long-term studies on the effects of marijuana on cardiovascular function are limited, especially when it comes to secondhand smoke. There is even some evidence that although inhaling marijuana poses immediate and temporary cardiovascular risks, its modulation of the endocannabinoid system can actually slow down the development of atherosclerosis. Additional long-term research will need to be conducted to get a final answer on the exact negative effects of marijuana smoke.

“There is widespread belief that, unlike tobacco smoke, marijuana smoke is benign,” Springer said. “We in public health have been telling the public to avoid secondhand tobacco smoke for years, but we don’t tell them to avoid secondhand marijuana smoke, because until now we haven’t had evidence that it can be harmful.”

“Increasing legalization of marijuana makes it more important than ever to understand the consequences of exposure to secondhand marijuana smoke,” the team concluded. “It is important that the public, medical personnel, and policymakers understand that exposure to secondhand marijuana smoke is not necessarily harmless.”

Journal Reference: One Minute of Marijuana Secondhand Smoke Exposure Substantially Impairs Vascular Endothelial Function. 27 July 2016. 10.1161/JAHA.116.003858

NASA pinpoints black holes that send out high-energy X-rays for first time ever

For the first time ever, NASA’s Chandra mission has pinpointed large numbers of black holes that send out high-energy X-rays. Although these unique black holes possess the highest pitched “voices” compared to their lower energy counterparts, until now they have remained elusive.

The blue dots in the above picture represent galaxies that contain supermassive black holes emitting high-energy X-rays. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The blue dots in the above picture represent galaxies that contain supermassive black holes emitting high-energy X-rays. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Prior to the current findings, NASA’s Chandra mission has been able to determine many of the black holes that contribute to the X-ray background, but not those that release high-energy X-rays.

The discovery of a large number of black holes that release these high-energy X-rays brings scientists closer to understanding the high-energy X-ray background created by the cosmic choir of black holes in space with the highest voices.

“We’ve gone from resolving just two percent of the high-energy X-ray background to 35 percent,” said Fiona Harrison of Caltech and lead author the upcoming new study describing the findings. “We can see the most obscured black holes, hidden in thick gas and dust.”

Understanding the X-ray background is essential to shed light on the growth patterns of supermassive black holes and the galaxies that they lie in. High-energy X-rays in particular reveal what lies around obscured supermassive black holes that are otherwise difficult to observe and can help determine the distribution of gas and dust that feed and hide these phenomena.

The NuSTAR telescope is the first to be capable of capturing high-energy X-rays into clear pictures and will no doubt be integral in building a more comprehensive picture of the X-ray background using data from these hidden high-energy black holes.

“Before NuSTAR, the X-ray background in high-energies was just one blur with no resolved sources,” Harrison said. “To untangle what’s going on, you have to pinpoint and count up the individual sources of the X-rays.”

“We knew this cosmic choir had a strong high-pitched component, but we still don’t know if it comes from a lot of smaller, quiet singers, or a few with loud voices,” said Daniel Stern of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and co-author of the study. “Now, thanks to NuSTAR, we’re gaining a better understanding of the black holes and starting to address these questions.”

The findings will be published in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal. The data can currently be viewed on the pre-print server

Scientists discover first pulsing white dwarf binary star

Scientists from the University of Warwick have discovered a new type of binary star – a pulsing white dwarf. This rapidly-spinning, burnt-out star sweeps beams of particles and radiation over its companion red dwarf, a behavior that has never been observed in this type of star.

Illustration of the pulsing white dwarf lashing particles and radiation onto its companion red dwarf. Credit: University of Warwick

Illustration of the pulsing white dwarf lashing particles and radiation onto its companion red dwarf. Credit: University of Warwick

The unique star was initially discovered by a group of amateur astronomers back in May of 2015. After the initial discovery, the University of Warwick spearheaded a combined effort between amateur and professional astronomers to get a better look at the star system, which is named AR Scorpii or AR Sco for short.

“AR Sco was discovered over 40 years ago, but its true nature was unsuspected until we observed it last May with a high-speed astronomical camera called ULTRACAM on the William Herschel Telescope,” said Tom Marsh of the University of Warwick and lead author of the study. “We realized we were seeing something extraordinary within minutes of starting to observe it.”

The pulsing white dwarf is found in the constellation Scorpius approximately 380 light-years from Earth. It is 200,000 times more massive than the Earth and is in a 3.6-hour orbit with its cool red dwarf star companion, which is around one-third the mass of the Sun.

AR Sco creates beams of radiation and particles that lash its red dwarf star, causing the entire system to light up and fade away twice every two minutes. This unique process accelerates electrons in the red dwarf’s atmosphere to close to the speed of light, which has never been observed in similar types of stars. The rapidly-spinning magnetic field of the white dwarf accelerates these electrons, although their exact location in the red dwarf’s atmosphere is still not known.

“We’ve known pulsing neutron stars for nearly fifty years, and some theories predicted white dwarfs could show similar behavior,” said Boris Gänsicke of the University of Warwick and co-author of the study. “It’s very exciting that we have discovered such a system, and it has been a fantastic example of amateur astronomers and academics working together.”

Journal Reference: A radio-pulsing white dwarf binary star. 27 July 2016. 10.1038/nature18620

Photosynthetic solar cell turns carbon dioxide and sunlight into fuel

A team of researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) has created a photosynthetic solar cell that converts atmospheric carbon dioxide into usable hydrocarbon fuel.

The solar cell that converts atmospheric carbon dioxide directly into fuel. Credit: University of Illinois at Chicago/Jenny Fontaine

The solar cell that converts atmospheric carbon dioxide directly into fuel. Credit: University of Illinois at Chicago/Jenny Fontaine

Conventional solar cells convert sunlight into electricity that must be stored in heavy batteries. The new solar cell is potentially game-changing because it converts atmospheric carbon dioxide into fuel, which could not only remove large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere but also create energy-dense fuel.

“The new solar cell is not photovoltaic – it’s photosynthetic,” said Amin Salehi-Khojin, an assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at UIC and senior author of the study. “Instead of producing energy in an unsustainable one-way route from fossil fuels to greenhouse gas, we can now reverse the process and recycle atmospheric carbon into fuel using sunlight.”

If the new solar cell can be taken advantage of on a global scale, it would render fossil fuels obsolete by giving us the ability to turn carbon dioxide into fuel at a cost similar to a gallon of gasoline.

Past studies have failed to find effective catalysts for the conversion of carbon dioxide into burnable forms of carbon. In the current study, Salehi-Khojin and his team focused on using transition metal dichalcogenides (TMDCs) as catalysts, which they paired with an unconventional ionic liquid as the electrolyte. They were then placed inside a two-compartment, three-electrode electrochemical cell.

Of all of the TMDCs that they tried, nanoflake tungsten diselenide turned out to be the ideal catalyst.

“The new catalyst is more active; more able to break carbon dioxide’s chemical bonds,” said Mohammad Asadi of UIC and first author of the paper.

The final solar cell is an artificial leaf that consists of two silicon triple-junction photovoltaic cells that harvest light. On the cathode side is the tungsten diselenide and ionic liquid co-catalyst system, while the anode side possesses cobalt oxide in potassium phosphate electrolyte.

The team hopes that the technology will be able to be adapted not only to large-scale applications such as solar farms, but also small-scale applications.

Journal Reference: Nanostructured transition metal dichalcogenide electrocatalysts for CO2 reduction in ionic liquid. 29 July 2016. 10.1126/science.aaf4767

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is heating its upper atmosphere

Despite being more than five times more distant from the Sun than the Earth, Jupiter’s upper atmosphere has temperatures that are similar to our planet, a fact that has puzzled scientists for years. Now, a new study suggests the source of the non-solar energy responsible for these temperatures: Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.

Image credit Pixabay
Image credit Pixabay

“With solar heating from above ruled out, we designed observations to map the heat distribution over the entire planet in search for any temperature anomalies that might yield clues as to where the energy is coming from,” said James O’Donoghue, a research scientist at Boston University (BU) and lead author of the study.

Planet temperatures are typically determined by taking note of their non-visible, infrared light emissions. For the current study, the team took infrared light emissions from heights approximately 500 miles higher than the visible cloud tops that lie about 30 miles above Jupiter’s rim. The results reveal that when looking at the planet’s southern hemisphere – where the Great Red Spot is located – high altitude temperatures are much higher than expected.

“We could see almost immediately that our maximum temperatures at high altitudes were above the Great Red Spot far below – a weird coincidence or a major clue?” O’Donoghue said.

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is composed of swirling gases and has varied in size and color over the centuries. The atmospheric flows that exist above this turbulent storm of gases create gravity waves and acoustic waves. When combined, O’Donoghue and his team believe that these two types of waves cause the upper atmosphere heating observed in the results.

“The Great Red Spot is a terrific source of energy to heat the upper atmosphere at Jupiter, but we had no prior evidence of its actual effects upon observed temperatures at high altitudes,” said Luke Moore, a research scientist from BU and co-author of the study.

The findings not only shed light on the effects of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot on its atmosphere, they also suggest that similar processes could be taking place on other planets in and outside of our solar system.

“Energy transfer to the upper atmosphere from below has been simulated for planetary atmospheres, but not yet backed up by observations,” O’Donoghue said. “The extremely high temperatures observed above the storm appear to be the ‘smoking gun’ of this energy transfer, indicating that planet-wide heating is a plausible explanation for the ‘energy crisis.’ “

Journal Reference: Heating of Jupiter’s upper atmosphere above the Great Red Spot. 27 July 2016. 10.1038/nature18940

Vikings might have actually used sunstones to navigate

Icelandic legends tell of Vikings using sunstones to navigate the ocean when clouds hid the sun and stars. Now, a new study suggests that Vikings might have actually used these minerals to navigate, making the legends a reality.

Vikings might have used sunstone to navigate the oceans when the sun and stars were hidden by clouds. Credit: ArniEin/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0
Vikings might have used sunstone to navigate the oceans when the sun and stars were hidden by clouds. Credit: ArniEin/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

Modern sunstone is a type of crystal that exhibits a spangled appearance when viewed from different angles. In the new study, the researchers conducted numerous experiments to test the possibility that Vikings used the unique properties of these crystals to navigate their way across the ocean and found that they can be beneficial navigational aids when the skies are blanketed with clouds.

Viking history has been well documented, with researchers uncovering the details of their raids across Europe from the late 790s until 1066. However, further research has revealed their travels to the Middle East and North America, leading scientists to wonder exactly how they made their way across such vast stretches of ocean, especially during periods of time when they could not use the stars or sun for guidance.

Sunstones have been speculated as Viking navigational aids for some time. In addition to their presence in legends, a recent examination of a 2002 Viking shipwreck yielded a sunstone near other navigational instruments, fueling speculation that the mythology could be true.

In the current study, the team suggests a three step process for sunstone navigation: holding a sunstone to the sky to determine the direction of light from the sky, using this information to determine the direction of sunlight, and using a shadow stick to determine which direction is north. Previous research from the same team confirmed the accuracy of the first two steps, leaving the current study to examine the third step.

The researchers gathered 10 volunteers and asked them to determine the position of the sun in a virtual planetarium, where dots represented the results of using a sunstone. Over the course of 2,400 trials, 48 percent resulted in accurate readings within one degree. Furthermore, the team discovered that the sunstone was most accurate when the digital sun was closest to the horizon, meaning that the method is ideal for use at dawn and dusk when the sun is lowest in the sky.

Journal Reference: North error estimation based on solar elevation errors in the third step of sky-polarimetric Viking navigation. 27 July 2016. 10.1098/rspa.2016.0171

Cockroach milk: superfood of the future?

It might sound gross, but cockroach milk might be making its way into some diets as a superfood. A team of researchers has just sequenced a protein crystal from the midgut of cockroaches that they believe is more than four times as nutritious as cow’s milk.

The Diploptera punctata cockroaches that produce that unique milk. Credit: University of Toronto

The Diploptera punctata cockroaches that produce the unique milk. Credit: University of Toronto

There’s only one species of cockroach that’s known to give birth to live offspring and produce a type of “milk” that contains protein crystals to feed its babies – Diploptera punctata. Further examination of these crystals revealed that just one of them contains over three times the amount of energy found in the same amount of buffalo milk, which contains more energy than standard dairy milk.

In the current study, the team sequenced the genes responsible for producing these unique cockroach milk crystals and replicated them in the lab. Successful replication of these milk crystals opens up the possibility of introducing these proteins into our diet in the future, since milking a cockroach isn’t exactly a realistic option.

“The crystals are like a complete food – they have proteins, fats and sugars,” said Sanchari Banerjee, first author of the study. “If you look into the protein sequences, they have all the essential amino acids.”

In addition calorie and nutrient levels that give them superfood status, they are also time-released, meaning that the crystals release more proteins at a steady rate as they are digested.

“It’s time-released food,” said Subramanian Ramaswamy, senior author of the study. “If you need food that is calorifically high, that is time released and food that is complete. This is it.”

Despite all of its benefits, it’s unlikely that cockroach milk will make its way into many western diets since they already continue too many calories. However, the milk is ideal for those looking for a simple way to get all of the calories and nutrients that they need and it wouldn’t be surprising if they make their way into protein supplements.

“They’re very stable,” Ramaswamy said. “They can be a fantastic protein supplement.”

Journal Reference: Structure of a heterogeneous, glycosylated, lipid-bound, in vivo-grown protein crystal at atomic resolution from the viviparous cockroach Diploptera punctate. 27 June 2016. 10.1107/S2052252516008903

Zika virus solution might lie in oil of common flower

As the Zika virus outbreak threatens to spread from South America to the rest of the world, scientists are scrambling to find a cure for the mosquito-borne disease. Although Brazil is currently using synthetic pesticides and transgenic mosquitos in an attempt to control the Aedes aegypti mosquitos that carry the virus, a team of New York University (NYU) scientists is now suggesting that the answer might be as simple as a common flower and a pot of boiling water.

The Mexican Marigold flower that could be the key to fighting the Zika virus. Credit: New York University

The Mexican Marigold flower that could be the key to fighting the Zika virus. Credit: New York University

Some plants have evolved chemical defenses in the form of potent insecticides to protect themselves from insect damage. For example, pyrethrins are commonly used as an insecticide and insect repellant and originate from a type of Chrysanthemum flower.

Back in 1991, a study published in the Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association found that the essential oil of the Tagetes minuta plant – also known as the Mexican Marigold – can kill A. aegypti larvae for at least nine days at just 40 parts per million, which is considered to be a very small amount.

Using this research as a foundation, NYU chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Mark Green and his team discovered that this essential oil is a potent larvicide when added to standing water, which is where the A. aegypti mosquitos lay their eggs. Green claims that since these particular mosquitos spread the Zika virus – along with the dengue, yellow fever and chikungunya viruses – at a local level, this kind of treatment is very effective.

“This mosquito bites where it’s born, so by treating standing water in an area, you can effectively eliminate that population,” he said, adding that these natural pesticides are much safer than synthetic alternatives. “You could make this yourself and use it around the yard, just by boiling the plant and treating any standing water.”

Although pesticide demand is increasing due to the recent fears of a Zika spread, Green suggests that scientists invest more effort into natures chemical defenses such as the oil of the Mexican Marigold.

“These plant chemicals are the product of hundreds of millions of years of evolution, as plants learned to defend themselves against similar insects,” he said. “Why shouldn’t we take advantage of that intelligence to protect ourselves?”

Scientists discover LUCA, common ancestor of all living things

A new study suggests that that the Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA) of all living things is a four-billion-year old single-celled organism that lived in extremely hot hydrothermal vents.

A hydrothermal vent in the Northwest Eifuku volcano. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

A hydrothermal vent in the Northwest Eifuku volcano. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

All of the living organisms on Earth can be separated into three basic categories: eukaryotes, bacteria, and archaea. While eukaryotes, which encompass all plants and animals, possess a nucleus and membrane-bound organelles, bacteria and archaea do not. Despite these differences, scientists believe that all of these three groups originated from a common ancestor, which the new data suggests is LUCA.

Comparison of protein-coding genes in bacteria and archaea led to the identification of 355 genes that likely originated in LUCA. Further examination revealed a gene that codes for the reverse gyrase enzyme, which is only found in microbes that exists in extreme temperature conditions.

The genetic profile created in the study suggests that LUCA lived in deep-sea vents of extremely hot temperatures where it metabolized hydrogen gas for energy due to the lack of available oxygen. This hydrogen gas was likely created by the geochemical activity in the Earth’s crust.

LUCA’s cellular structures were probably composed of “inert” gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Enzyme creation likely stemmed from iron due to its free availability, and the lack of oxygen means that it wouldn’t have been turned into insoluble rust.

The results are interesting to say the least, but there is still no way to directly verify them. However, the new information can be used to create experiments that simulate the conditions that LUCA thrived in and attempt to recreate primitive life, although given the extreme conditions of hydrothermal vents, this will be a difficult task.

Journal Reference: The physiology and habitat of the last universal common ancestor. 25 July 2016. 10.1038/nmicrobiol.2016.116

Dolly sheep clones show no long-term health issues

The four Nottingham Dollies. Credit: The University of Nottingham

The four Nottingham Dollies. Credit: The University of Nottingham

In an age where cloning animals is becoming more common and human genetic modification is right around the corner, scientists are still trying to figure out how safe the cloning process is. Now, three weeks after the 20th anniversary of the birth of Dolly the sheep, a study by researchers from The University of Nottingham suggests that four genomic clones of Dolly reached their 8th birthdays – around 65 in human years – with no health problems.

The four Finn Dorset sheep – also referred to as the Nottingham Dollies – are named Debbie, Denise, Dianna and Daisy. They were born in 2007 during the research of the late Keith Campbell, who was attempting to improve the efficiency of the somatic-cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) technique. Using the mammary gland cell line that led to the birth of Dolly, Campbell successfully cloned the Finn Dorsets.

The new research is the first detailed examination of age-related non-communicable disease in cloned offspring and was led by Kevin Sinclair, a close colleague of Campbell’s from The University of Nottingham.

“Despite technological advances in recent years’ efficiency of SCNT remains low but there are several groups across the world working on this problem at present and there is reason to be optimistic that there will be significant improvements in future,” Sinclair said.

“These improvements will stem from a better understanding of the underlying biology related to the earliest stages of mammalian development,” he added. “In turn this could lead to the realistic prospect of using SCNT to generate stem cells for therapeutic purposes in humans as well as generating transgenic animals that are healthy, fertile and productive. However, if these biotechnologies are going to be used in future we need to continue to test their safety.”

During the course of the study, the four clones underwent a series of comprehensive assessments for non-communicable diseases such as obesity, hypertension, and osteoarthritis. These assessments included X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, tests for glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity, radio-telemetric assessments to determine heart rate and blood pressure and musculoskeletal examinations.

The results showed that the four clones showed no major health issues and no signs of premature aging – one of the early concerns of the cloned offspring. Although more research will need to be conducted until SCNT’s safety is certain, the current results are promising.

“It is well established that prior to conception and in the early stages of pregnancy during natural or assisted reproduction subtle chemical changes can affect the human genome leading to development and late-onset chronic diseases,” Sinclair said. “Given that SCNT requires the use of assisted reproductive procedures it is important to establish if similar diseases or disorders exist in apparently healthy aged cloned offspring.”

Journal Reference: Healthy ageing of cloned sheep. 26 July 2016. 10.1038/ncomms12359

Scientists uncover unique speed and direction of Milky Way’s spinning ‘halo’

A team of NASA-funded astronomers from the University of Michigan has discovered that the hot gas in the Milky Way’s halo is spinning in the same direction, as well as at a similar speed, as its disk.

Illustration of the Milky Way's high temperature gaseous halo (seen in blue). Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss/Ohio State/A Gupta et al.
Illustration of the Milky Way’s high temperature gaseous halo (seen in blue).
Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss/Ohio State/A Gupta et al.

The Milky Way’s disk contains our stars, planets, gas and dust, and the findings from the new study shed light on how stars, planets, and galaxies such as our own form from individual atoms.

“This flies in the face of expectations,” said Edmund Hodges-Kluck of the University of Michigan and lead author of the study. “People just assumed that the disk of the Milky Way spins while this enormous reservoir of hot gas is stationary – but that is wrong. This hot gas reservoir is rotating as well, just not quite as fast as the disk.”

The study used data from the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) XXM-Newton telescope to examine the nature of the Milky Way’s gaseous halo, which is composed of ionized plasma and is several times larger than its disk.

Motion creates shifts in the wavelengths of light and using lines of hot oxygen, the team was able to pinpoint these shifts. These shift measurements revealed that the our galaxy’s halo spins in the same direction as its disk, as well as at a similar speed – the halo spins at approximately 400,000 miles per hour compared to the disk, which spins at around 540,000 miles per hour.

“The rotation of the hot halo is an incredible clue to how the Milky Way formed,” Hodges-Kluck said. “It tells us that this hot atmosphere is the original source of a lot of the matter in the disk.”

The data could help scientists better understand the nature of dark matter, the mysterious undetectable matter that is believed to make up around 80 percent of the universe, as well as the other missing “normal” matter that appears to be missing from galaxy disks. The answers to these missing matter mysteries could lie in the gaseous halos of the universe’s many galaxies.

“Now that we know about the rotation, theorists will begin to use this to learn how our Milky Way galaxy formed – and its eventual destiny,” said Joel Bregman, a professor of astronomy from the University of Michigan and senior author of the study. “We can use this discovery to learn so much more – the rotation of this hot halo will be a big topic of future X-ray spectrographs.”

Journal Reference: THE ROTATION OF THE HOT GAS AROUND THE MILKY WAY. 27 April 2016. 10.3847/0004-637X/822/1/21

Chinese scientists prepare for first human CRISPR gene-editing trial

Image credit Pixabay

Image credit Pixabay

The CRISPR gene-editing technique has opened up a lot of doors in the scientific world – it has been used to cut out HIV genes from live animals and genetically modify human embryos. Although its benefits are indisputable, experiments such as the latter have caused controversy, as some believe that they bring us closer to changing what it means to be human.

Now, Chinese researchers from the Sichuan University’s West China Hospital have announced their plans to run a clinical trial where CRISPR will be used to modify human beings for the first time ever. In particular, the team plans to work on patients with lung cancer and turn off genes that encode a specific protein linked to a lower immune response.

Although China has come under scrutiny for their promotion of using gene-editing techniques on human beings, the new effort isn’t as controversial as the aforementioned study on human embryos. In fact, a federal panel gave the green light for a similar U.S. study back in June.

“Our goal is to develop a new type of immunotherapy using gene-editing technology that will enable the engineered immune cells to be more potent, survive longer, and thereby kill cancer cells more effectively,” the U.S. team said of their research.

The Chinese clinical trial is set to start next month and will gather T cells, which play a central role in human immunity, from patients with incurable lung cancer and conduct genetic modifications in these cells. These modifications will disable a gene that encodes the PD-1 protein, which has been shown to inhibit the immune response that protects healthy cells from attack.

After the T cells have been successfully modified and examined for editing errors, they will be allowed to multiply and then injected back into the patient’s bloodstream. Ideally, the edited cells will bolster the immune response of the lung cancer patient and aid it in attacking and killing tumor cells.

Thirty candidates are set to participate in the trial, although just one will be injected with a three dose regimen of edited cells, after which the team will monitor the patient for any positive and negative responses to the treatment before proceeding with further trials.

Remote-controlled microrobots could be the future of medicine

One of the primary goals in the modern medical field is to create microrobots that can enter the human body and replace invasive and complicated surgery procedures. These robots could optimize the field of medicine by giving scientists and doctors the ability to deliver drugs at specific locations and perform precise operations.

Image credit Pixabay

Image credit Pixabay

Along with researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ), scientists from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have created such devices. The team created soft, flexible and motor-less microrobots that mimic the Trypanosoma brucei bacterium. The unique devices are composed of biocompatible hydrogel and magnetic nanoparticles that give them their unique shape and allow them to move and swim in the presence of an electromagnetic field.

The team begins the manufacturing process by placing nanoparticles inside layers of a biocompatible hydrogel. Afterwards, they apply an electromagnetic field, which results in the orientation of the nanoparticles at different regions of the robot.

Polymerization follows in order to “solidify” the composition of the hydrogel and the robot is then placed in water, where it folds into a unique shape that is dependent on the orientation of the nanoparticles inside of the gel. The final form represents the 3D architecture of the microrobot.

After the final step of the manufacturing process, these microrobots can be exposed to an electromagnetic field to make them swim or to heat to cause them to change shape and unfold. Ultimately, the final product – which possesses a bacterium-like flagellum – mirrors the T. brucei bacterium that is responsible for causing sleeping sickness.

“We show that both a bacterium’s body and its flagellum play an important role in its movement,” said Selman Sakar of the EPFL and co-author of the study. “Our new production method lets us test an array of shapes and combinations to obtain the best motion capability for a given task. Our research also provides valuable insight into how bacteria move inside the human body and adapt to changes in their microenvironment.”

Much more research is still needed until these microrobots are ready to traverse the human body to determine any potential side effects, but the promise and benefits that they could bring to the field of medicine is immense.

Journal Reference: Soft micromachines with programmable motility and morphology. 25 July 2016. 10.1038/ncomms12263

NASA study suggests that one-fifth of global warming missed by historical records

The causes are impacts of global warming and climate change are quite controversial, with some suggesting that the increased temperatures predicted by climate studies in recent years are exaggerated. Now, a new NASA-led study seeks to put these suggestions to rest, reporting that nearly one-fifth of the global warming that has occurring in the past 150 years has been missed by historical records due to quirks in global temperature recording methods.

Image credit Pixabay

Image credit Pixabay

Although we know that the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the Earth, its inaccessible location means that few historic records possess temperature readings from this region in comparison to lower latitudes. Due to this difficulty in data collection, many reports show less warming than climate models due to their inability to fully represent the Arctic.

In addition, historical models mix air and water temperatures, as opposed to climate models, which refer to air temperatures only. Ultimately, this skews historical temperature measurements toward the cool side since water warms less than air.

The team behind the current study attempted to resolve these discrepancies by pinpointing the quirks in historical temperature records and applying them to climate model output. They conducted the same calculations on both the models and observations and compared the warming rates, revealing that with the modification in place, the models and observations are very similar in their expected near-term global warming data.

The study marks the first time that the impact of these quirks have been calculated.

“They’re quite small on their own, but they add up in the same direction,” said Mark Richardson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California and lead author of the study. “We were surprised that they added up to such a big effect.”

The quirks examined in the study are estimated to have hid approximately 10 percent of global air-temperature since the 1860s, which is enough to push historical record temperature calculations significantly lower than the majority of the results from climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for its assessment reports.

“Researchers should be clear about how they use temperature records, to make sure that comparisons are fair,” Richardson said. “It had seemed like real-world data hinted that future global warming would be a bit less than models said. This mostly disappears in a fair comparison.”

Journal Reference: Reconciled climate response estimates from climate models and the energy budget of Earth. 27 June 2016. 10.1038/nclimate3066

Lichens actually comprise a threesome, not a partnership

When the nature of lichens was discovered 140 years ago, they became the most prominent example of symbiosis, a term that defines a mutually beneficial relationship between two dissimilar organisms.

Image credit Pixabay

Image credit Pixabay

In the case of lichen, the filaments of a single fungus create protection for photosynthetic algae or cyanobacteria, which provide food for the fungus in return. However, a new study reveals that there is actually a third organism involved in this relationship – a yeast that likely provides the structure for “leafy” or “branching lichens.”

“These yeast are sort of hidden just below the surface,” said John McCutcheon, a genome biologist at the University of Montana, and senior author of the study. “People had probably seen these cells before and thought they were seeing something else. But the molecular techniques we used happened to be especially good for spotting the signal of a separate organism, and after years of looking at the data it finally occurred to us what we were seeing.”

McCutcheon’s team made the discovery after studying two lichen species obtained from Missoula, Montana mountains – Bryoria fremontii and B. tortuosa. Despite B. tortuosa possessing a yellow color due to the presence of vulpinic acid, genetic tests revealed identical fungus and alga in both species. However, they also discovered the genetic signature of a third species – a basidiomycete yeast – in both species, although it was more abundant in B. tortuosa.

Additional testing of 56 different lichens from around the world revealed that each one has its own variety of basidiomycete yeast, suggesting that lichens actually comprise a threesome, not a couple, essentially rewriting 150 years of biology.

The team believes that this newly discovered yeast could play a role in creating the large structures seen in macrolichens, which would explain why these particular lichens are hard to grow in the lab when using just a fungus and alga.

“This doesn’t prove that they’re necessary to create the structure of the macrolichens, or that they do anything else for that matter,” McCutcheon said. “But its early days. It took a lot of work just to discover that they were there. We’re interested if the yeast is making these important compounds, or possibly enabling the other fungus to make them. We don’t know, but it’s the obvious next question.”

Journal Reference: Basidiomycete yeasts in the cortex of ascomycete macrolichens. 21 July 2016. 10.1126/science.aaf8287

Scientists quantify human intelligence for first time ever using MRI scans

Image credit Pixabay

Image credit Pixabay

Human intelligence is a tricky subject – many believe that the results of standard intelligence tests should be taken with a grain of salt due its various facets that are difficult to quantify, while others believe in using universal standards.

Now, for the first time ever, a team of researchers from the University of Warwick has defined and measured human intelligence using data from a study that quantifies the brain’s unique functions. The study identified the various parts of the brain, how they interact at different times, and how this information is related to intellect, revealing that variability in brain function is connected to higher levels of intelligence and creativity.

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the team behind the study examined resting-state brain scans from people all around the world and found that areas of the brain that are connected to intelligence show higher levels of variability compared to areas not associated with intelligence. In particular, the data showed that regions of the brain connected to intelligence experience frequent changes in their neural connections to other regions of the brain, with changes taking place in a matter of minutes or seconds.

“Human intelligence is a widely and hotly debated topic and only recently have advanced brain imaging techniques, such as those used in our current study, given us the opportunity to gain sufficient insights to resolve this and inform developments in artificial intelligence, as well as help establish the basis for understanding and diagnosis of debilitating human mental disorders such as schizophrenia and depression,” said Jianfeng Feng of the University of Warwick and senior author of the study.

In addition to presenting the possibility of better understanding human mental health, the data could also help us further advance artificial intelligence (AI) systems, which currently do not possess the level of variability and adaptability seen in the human brain. Further research could help us create AI systems with neural networks that can grow and adapt in a way that mirrors the human brain’s intelligence and learning capabilities.

Journal Reference: Neural, electrophysiological and anatomical basis of brain-network variability and its characteristic changes in mental disorders. 14 July 2016. 10.1093/brain/aww143

Spider personalities are influenced by temperature

Although they might not be as unique as human personalities, animal personalities possess a fairly large variation in specific traits such as shyness and aggressiveness and scientists have long wondered why these differences exist and how they came to be. Now, a new study from researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill has discovered a connection between spider personalities and temperature changes, potentially bringing us closer to answering these questions.

Image credit Alex Wild

Image credit Alex Wild

The team examined the Anelosimus studiosus, also known as the tangle web spider, which inhabits North Carolina as well as numerous regions across North and South America. Among the spiders in this species, there are two distinct personality types: highly aggressive and docile. Typically, these two types share the same living space and co-exist to care for brood and capture prey.

The study looked at the effect of temperatures from -75 to 93 degrees Fahrenheit on the spiders’ ability to survive and reproduce individually within the colony. The results revealed that while aggressive spiders had a harder time surviving and reproducing at higher temperatures, docile spiders showed an opposing pattern: difficulty surviving and reproducing at lower temperatures.

Interestingly, when colony’s possessed a mix of the two spider personalities, these effects disappeared – aggressive spiders didn’t die off at higher temperatures and docile spiders didn’t die off at cooler temperatures

“Some aspect about living in a diverse society shields these aggressive spiders from selective pressures that would otherwise kill them,” said Spencer Ingley, a postdoctoral fellow at UNC College of Arts and Sciences and co-author of the study. “Without these diverse personalities, these spider societies would be more susceptible to extreme fluctuations in temperature – and it is interesting to think if our own society could benefit from diversity in a similar way.”

The results are particularly relevant in today’s times – with the planet’s climate projected to increase by three to 12 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 and numerous studies linking global warming to the death of coral and megafauna, scientists are continuing to keep their eyes peeled for the many unique effects of our planet’s temperature increase.

“We live in a time of global change,” Ingley said. “Scientists are seeing that these changes can have a huge impact on individual organisms and groups of organisms. But people have rarely looked at personalities and how the personalities of groups can alter their response to these changes, particularly in different temperature environments.”

Could our planet’s continual warming be affecting our personalities in a way that we have yet to realize? It’s definitely possible, but we’ll just have to wait for further research to give us the final answer.

Journal Reference: Thermal effects on survival and reproductive performance vary according to personality type. 21 June 2016. 10.1093/beheco/arw084

Large Underground Xenon experiment fails to detect dark matter

After three years of scouring nearly a mile underground in a former gold mine in Lead, South Dakota as a part of the Large Underground Xenon (LUX) experiment, a team of scientists have announced that they have come up empty handed in their search for the elusive dark matter.

Image credit Pexels
Image credit Pexels

As of now, dark matter – which makes up approximately 27 percent of the mass and energy in the observable universe – has never been directly observed. Instead, its existence has been inferred from its gravitational effects and recent research has even connected the mysterious form of matter to the existence of black holes.

The LUX experiment is one of three looking for the unique matter – the second is taking place on the International Space Station, and the third is attempting to create it using the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator that also discovered the Higgs boson particle.

The team examined more than 4,800 feet of Earth in their search in order to screen out background radiation. Using a large vat of liquid xenon, they attempted to create a flash of light when weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) bounced off of the super-cooling liquid.

Many scientists believe that WIMPs are the most viable dark matter candidates, although their failure to detect any in the LUX experiment means that they might have to consider alternative possibilities.

Hundreds of millions of dark matter particles are believed to pass through the Earth every second, but their weak nature makes them hard to detect.

“Over 80 percent of our matter is in this dark matter form,” said Richard Gaitskell of Brown University and co-investigator of the study. “You and I are the flotsam and jetsam; dark matter is the sea. That’s why one doesn’t give up. We’ve got to figure out what this dark matter component is.”

Despite failing to find any dark matter, the team exceeded their technological goals for the project.

“We’re sort of proud that it worked so well and also disappointed that we didn’t see anything,” said Daniel McKinsey, a University of California, Berkeley physicist and one of two scientific spokesmen for the project.