Tag Archives: discovery

Small teams are better at producing new ideas, new study finds

If you want to come up with a breakthrough, you’re probably better off working with a small team.

In almost all fields of science, it’s becoming more and more common to work in larger teams. This shift has been attributed to improvements in communication technology as well as the heavy specialization of most researchers. Simply put, if you want to solve complex, modern problems, then you need a large interdisciplinary team — or so you’d think.

James Evans and colleagues from the University of Chicago (a small team of three people) have carried out an analysis of over 65 million papers, patents, and software products over the past 50 years. They developed a metric to assess how a paper or product builds on previous work.

They describe a common trend: smaller teams tend to come up with disruptions of science and technology, often generating new ideas and opportunities, whereas larger teams tend to finesse these existing ideas. Small teams consist of 1-9 people, whereas big teams have 10 or more people. Differences in topic and research design only explain a small part of this trend — no matter how you look at it, small teams tend to bring innovations and disruptions more often than big teams.

Advocates of larger teams claim that only this approach can solve complex, interdisciplinary problems. However, while the professional benefits of working in a large team have been demonstrated, the efficiency of large teams remains surprisingly understudied — and there is little evidence to support the idea that larger teams are optimized for knowledge discoveries and technological disruptions.

Furthermore, researchers found that work from larger teams receives more attention, and often deals with more recent and popular topics. In contrast, smaller teams more often reach into the past to solve underlying problems and receive substantially less attention. There is a notable exception, though even this exception validates the other findings: Nobel-winning papers are generally written by small teams.

“We find that solo authors and small teams much more often build on older, less popular ideas,” researchers write. “Larger teams more often target recent, high-impact work as their primary source of inspiration and this tendency increases monotonically with team size.”

“Large teams receive more of their citations rapidly, as their work is immediately relevant to more contemporaries whose ideas they develop and audiences primed to appreciate them. Smaller teams experience a much longer citation delay […] and receive less recognition overall owing to the rapid decay of collective attention .”

It’s not just attention, either: smaller teams also tend to receive less proportional funding. Overall, the study paints a picture where the solo or small-team researcher is fading away, even though he or she is extremely important to the science ecosystem.

The results suggest that both small and large teams are essential to a flourishing ecology of science and technology. In order to achieve this, science policies should aim to support and fund diverse team sizes.

The study has been published in Nature.

Meet your new organ: the interstitium

Doctors have identified a previously unknown feature of human anatomy with many implications for the functions of most organs and tissues, and for the mechanisms of most major diseases.

Structural evaluation of the interstitial space. (A) Transmission electron microscopy shows collagen bundles (asterisks) that are composed of well-organized collagen fibrils. Some collagen bundles have a single flat cell along one side (arrowheads). Scale bar, 1 μm. (B) Higher magnification shows that cells (arrowhead) lack features of endothelium or other types of cells and have no basement membrane. Scale bar, 1 μm. (C) Second harmonics generation imaging shows that the bundles are fibrillar collagen (dark blue). Cyan-colored fibers are from autofluorescence and are likely elastin, as shown by similar autofluorescence in the elastic lamina of a nearby artery (inset) (40×). (D) Elastic van Gieson stain shows elastin fibers (black) running along collagen bundles (pink) (40×).

A new paper published on March 27th in Scientific Reports, shows that layers of the body long thought to be dense, connective tissues — below the skin’s surface, lining the digestive tract, lungs, and urinary systems, and surrounding arteries, veins, and the fascia between muscles — are instead interconnected, fluid-filled spaces.

Scientists named this layer the interstitium — a network of strong (collagen) and flexible (elastin) connective tissue fibers filled with fluids, that acts like a shock absorber to keep tissues from rupturing while organs, muscles, and vessels constantly pump and squeeze throughout the day.

This fluid layer that surrounds most organs may explain why cancer spreads so easily. Scientists think this fluid is the source of lymph, the highway of the immune system.

In addition, cells that reside in the interstitium and collagen bundles they line, change with age and may contribute to the wrinkling of skin, the stiffening of limbs, and the progression of fibrotic, sclerotic and inflammatory diseases.

Scientists have long known that more than half the fluid in the body resides within cells, and about a seventh inside the heart, blood vessels, lymph nodes, and lymph vessels. The remaining fluid is “interstitial,” and the current paper is the first to define the interstitium as an organ in its own right and, the authors write, one of the largest of the body, the authors write.

A team of pathologists from NYU School of Medicine thinks that no one saw these spaces before because of the medical field’s dependence on the examination of fixed tissue on microscope slides. Doctors examine the tissue after treating it with chemicals, slicing it thinly, and dyeing it in various colorations. The “fixing” process allows doctors to observe vivid details of cells and structures but drains away all fluid. The team found that the removal of fluid as slides are made makes the connective protein meshwork surrounding once fluid-filled compartments to collapse and appear denser.

“This fixation artifact of collapse has made a fluid-filled tissue type throughout the body appear solid in biopsy slides for decades, and our results correct for this to expand the anatomy of most tissues,” says co-senior author Neil Theise, MD, professor in the Department of Pathology at NYU Langone Health. “This finding has potential to drive dramatic advances in medicine, including the possibility that the direct sampling of interstitial fluid may become a powerful diagnostic tool.”

Researchers discovered the interstitium by using a novel medical technology — Probe-based confocal laser endomicroscopy. This new technology combines the benefits of endoscopy with the ones of lasers. The laser lights up the tissues, sensors analyze the reflected fluorescent patterns, offering a microscopic real-time view of the living tissues.

When probing a patient’s bile duct for cancer spread, endoscopists and study co-authors Dr. David Carr-Locke and Dr. Petros Benias observed something peculiar — a series of interconnected spaces in the submucosa level that was never described in the medical literature.

Baffled by their findings, they asked Dr. Neil Theise, professor in the Department of Pathology at NYU Langone Health and co-author of the paper for help in resolving the mystery. When Theise made biopsy slides out of the same tissue, the reticular pattern found by endomicroscopy vanished. The pathology team would later discover that the spaces seen in biopsy slides, traditionally dismissed as tears in the tissue, were instead the remnants of collapsed, previously fluid-filled, compartments.

Researchers collected tissues samples of bile ducts from 12 cancer patients during surgery. Before the pancreas and the bile duct were removed, patients underwent confocal microscopy for live tissue imaging. After recognizing this new space in images of bile ducts, the team was able to quickly spot it throughout the body.

Theise believes that the protein bundles seen in the space are likely to generate electrical current as they bend with the movements of organs and muscles, and may play a role in techniques like acupuncture.

Another scientist involved in the study was first author Rebecca Wells of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who determined that the skeleton in the newfound structure was comprised of collagen and elastin bundles.

Worms Store Memories After Decapitation

Decapitated Worms Retain Memories – Transfer to Regrown Brains

land planarian, Bipalium kewense?

Imagine having your brain completely severed from your body, but being able to not only regenerate it – but also retain all information back into your newly regenerated brain.

That is impossible – right?

For humans the possibility is, indeed, impossible – but for the Planarians, it is their way of living and certainly not something out of a Kountry Kraft catelog.

The Planarians

Planarians, non-parasitic flatworms, have been trained and studied by biologists recently at a PA regeneration center. The fascination behind these worms lies within their impressive pluripotent stem cells. Unlike most creatures, Planarians contain an abnormal amount of these pluripotent stem cells, allowing for rapid regeneration. At an astounding 20-percent, pluripotent stem cells can take on the shape of any cell, which allows for the regeneration process.

In fact, the Planarians regeneration is so rapid that studies conducted in 1898 showed that even dissected to a tiny one 276th of its original size, the planarians could regenerate itself.

However, what makes these invertebrates even more spectacular was a recent study performed by Michael Levin, a Tufts University professor.

The Study

Published in the latest edition of the Journal of Experimental Biology, Levin conducted a study on Planarians cognitive functions and regenerative functions simultaneously.

Like many flatworms, or worms in general, planarians strongly dislike bright lights. They would much rather be in a warm, moist environment than a dry, hot one. Using this information, Levin vigorously trained his planarians to eat food in a very bright light.

Utilizing two different groups of planarians, Levin placed group 1 on a rigorous surface, while another on a flat surface. Each group had part of their environment illuminated by a light, where a piece of liver was placed.

Using a recording device, tracking analysis technology and measuring technology, Levin filmed the planarians over a ten-day period to see how easily each group would be to train. Those with a more rigid surface were more susceptible to the bright light and were less hesitant to eat in the bright light than those on a flat surface.

As a hypothesis, Levin suspected that if planarians were able to retain their memory after complete head severance, those on the rigid surface would be more susceptible to light exposure than those on the flat surface.

Analyzing this information, Levin severed all the heads on the worms and gave them a 14-day rest period to regrow their heads and brains.

The Results

Both group of worms were placed in a Petri dish and studied for their aversion to light. As suspected, both group of planarians were hesitant to go toward the light at first, however those who were on the rough terrain adapted much quicker.

Furthering his point, Levin then placed the planarians on a four-day break and placed them all back onto a Petri dish with light. Those on a rough terrain were much more susceptible to light exposure and moved around much more freely than those who were in the Petri dish.

This experiment provided Levin with the conclusion that the worms were able to retain their cognitive memory even after their heads were severed. At a minimum, planarians can retain memory for 14-days, enough to regrow their brains and restore the information.

How Their Memory is Stored

There is no definite answer as to how or where these planarians place their memories. It could be through their nervous system or through an unknown cellular memory function.

However, it is definite that planarians are able to store memories and regenerate all parts of their cellular body even when severed to a single miniscule portion.

A new cave-dwelling reef coral discovered in the Indo-Pacific

A new coral species that lives on the ceilings of caves in Indo-Pacific coral reefs has been discovered, shedding new light on the relation of reef corals with symbiotic algae.

The species is named Leptoseris troglodyta. The word troglodyta is derived from ancient Greek meaning “one who dwells in holes”, a cave dweller. What makes it particularly interesting is that the new species has adapted to a life without the algae.

Consequently, it may not grow fast, which would be convenient because space is limited on cave ceilings. The species description is published in the open access journal ZooKeys, according to the Coral specialist Dr. Bert W. Hoeksema of Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, The Netherlands. ZooKeys is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal launched to support free exchange of ideas and information in biodiversity science, issued by Pensoft Publishers.

He had published this in his original article, “ Forever in the dark: the cave-dwelling azooxanthellate reef coral Leptoseris lroglodyta sp. n.”

It differs from its closest relatives by its small polyp size and by the absence of symbiotic algae, so-called zooxanthellae. Its distribution range overlaps with the Coral Triangle, an area that is famous for its high marine species richness. Marine zoologists of Naturalis visit this area frequently to explore its marine biodiversity.

Reef corals in shallow tropical seas normally need the symbiotic algae for their survival and growth. Without these algae, many coral reefs would not exist. During periods of elevated seawater temperature, most reef corals lose their algae, which is visible as a dramatic whitening of the reefs, a coral disease known as bleaching.
Most reef corals generally do not occur over 40 m depth, a twilight zone where sunlight is not bright anymore, but some species of the genus Leptoseris are exceptional and may even occur much deeper.

At greater depths, seawater is generally colder and corals here may be less susceptible to bleaching than those at shallower depths.

Despite the lack of zooxanthellae and its small size, the skeleton structures of the new species indicate that it is closely related to these Leptoseris corals, although it has not been found deeper than 35 m so far.

Atlantis lands, ending 30 years of space program

In what can only be described as an emotional moment, the space shuttle Atlantis landed before dawn at Kennedy Space Center’s Runway 15, ending 30 years of space shuttle flights.

“Atlantis is home,” said NASA control moments after its arrival at 5:56 a.m. ET. “Its journey complete. A moment to be savored.”

Savored it was, but there sour taste of regret was also present.

“We really wish we could share with everybody this really cool glow,” Commander Chris Ferguson radioed as he and his crew entered the Earth’s atmosphere in a plasma of heated air before touching down. “We’re doing fantastic.”

The landing, as perfect as it was, remains bittersweet, as knowingly sorrowful NASA employees greeted the fabulous space shuttle for one last time. Everybody recalled the incredibly thrilling moment when Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, inspiring the next generation to launch and perpetuate the space program; now, this era has come to an end.

“It’s definitely the end of the era. The shuttle has been a magnificent flying machine, an engineering marvel, but it has consigned Americans for two generations to low-Earth orbit. I think that’s a negative.”

That is a matter of debate, especially since now, Americans will have to hitch Russian rides for suborbital travel, until the arguably better option of relying on private commercial companies for space flight appears.

“I hope we won’t lose a whole generation. Kids get excited by exploration,” Dick said. “I think NASA, in some ways, is doing the right thing by off-loading the routine work of the space shuttle. The only problem is we’re a long way from getting something that will take us out of low-Earth orbit.”

“The Space Shuttle has been the iconic symbol of NASA for the last 30 years,” NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said. “We’re going to have a different icon. We do aeronautics, climate research, deep space exploration with our telescopes, planetary observations with probes and rovers.”

Endeavour’s last launch put on hold for at least a week

Space shuttle Endeavour was set to launch a few days ago, and everything seemd to go according to plan; however, technical difficulties are forcing the NASA engineers to delay the launch at least until the end of the week (probably more), which is bad news for everybody who had planned a visit to the launch site (including president Obama and his family).

Technicians need to replace a switch box in the engine compartment, NASA stated; astronauts and their families were still hoping for a launch today, but NASA was pretty direct in saying that this is not an option.

Endeavour is set to go on its last trip, in a mission that will be led by veteran Mark Kelly, who is probably also on his last mission. The space shuttle will make a two week visit to the International Space Station (ISS), and its goal is to deliver a highly sophisticated astrophysics device that will help in the search for particles, as well as the elusive dark matter. After this last mission, Endeavour will be retired, alongside Discovery, and will be joined later by the last active space orbiter, Atlantis. The retirement of Atlantis will mark the end of an era for NASA, as well as for space exploration.

NASA fuels Endeavour for one last round

As I was telling you a few days ago, after Discovery, Endeavour is also preparing for its last trip, led by space veteran Mark Kelly. The weird thing is that Endeavour, which will be retired after today’s last mission, is at the moment also NASA‘s youngest orbiter, which kind of speaks a lot about NASA’s capacity to modernize its fleet. The thunderstorm that took place last night provided some spectacular photos, but it probably won’t affect the launch in any way.

space shuttle Endeavour

Endeavour is set for launch today, April 29, at 3:47 p.m. EDT (1947 GMT) from the Kennedy space center, in what seems to be like good weather. However, if clouds or some other meteorological problem is present, the launch will be delayed, but not too much.


Endeavour space shuttle

The orbiter will travel to the International Space Station (ISS) for a two week visit. Its goal is to deliver a $2 billion astrophysics experiment designed to hunt for exotic subatomic particles.

The shuttle’s whole crew consists of six veterans, including pilot Gregory H. Johnson and mission specialists Michael Fincke, Greg Chamitoff, Andrew Feustel, and European Space Agency astronaut Roberto Vittori, will be led by commander Mark Kelly.

Endeavour’s launch has drawn an impressive amount of public to the site, and all in all 700.000 people are expected to watch the launch – even though it’s scheduled on the same day as the big royal wedding between between Prince William and Kate Middleton in England. President Barack Obama, his wife Michele, and his two daughters will also be present at the launch; it is only the second time in history that a president will be present at a shuttle launch, after Bill Clinton’s visit in 1998.

Another high profile visitor will be Kelly’s wife, wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was tragically wounded after a failed assasination attempt when a gunman opened fire on her and others outside a Tucson, Ariz., grocery store. This was tragic not only for Kelly, but for the whole crew, who always sticks together:

“The crew has just done a tremendous job of staying on focus and being trained and ready to go fly,” NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, Bill Gerstenmaier, said during a press conference last week. “It’s a testimony to the entire crew’s ability to stay focused, to compartmentalize and to do what they need to do.”

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (the astrophysics experiment I was telling you about) will be installed on the space station with the goal of keeping an eye out for cosmic ray particles that might shed light on cosmic mysteries such as the invisible dark matter which has puzzled researchers for so long.

“It’s the premier physics experiment; it’s probably the most expensive thing ever flown by the space shuttle,” Kelly said in a NASA interview.

In addition to the spectrometer, Endeavour will also be carrying 14,000 pounds (6,350 kg) of spare supplies to outfit the space station for the era after the shuttles stop flying. To help install some of the equipment, an ambitious four space walks are scheduled, which will be finished in 14 days, but NASA says they are fine with a few extra days as well. Even if everything goes according to plan, the victory will be bittersweet at best, because this doesn’t only mark the end of Endeavour, but it marks the end of an era.

“We know the end is coming and we’re dealing with it,” shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach said. “The emotional aspect is very, very real and it’s very difficult to put into words, but I think all of Kennedy Space Center got a big boost when we got the word that were going to be able to keep Atlantis.”

After Endeavour’s last flight, NASA plans one more shuttle flight, the June launch of Atlantis, and after that, the space shuttle program will come to an end. That’s it, no more Discovery, no more Endeavour, no more Atlantis; no more space orbiters for NASA. I don’t know about you, but it’s pretty emotional where I’m standing.

Endeavour’s last flight will also be Mark Kelly’s last

Endeavour will pretty soon begin its retirement, just like fellow space orbiter Discovery did just a while ago. However, Endeavour’s last flight will almost certainly be captain Mark Kelly’s last one too.

Kelly, 47, showed his flying skills with twin brother Scott, and signed up for the Navy, then became pilots, and finally, became astronauts; they are the world’s first and as up today, only ‘space siblings’. Unfortunately, his wife, who is a U.S. Congresswoman, was the target of an attempted assasination in January, which she barely survived, so it’s understandable that he wants to be as much as possible by her side. However, her recuperation was so swift, that he decided to do one last flight before retiring from his life as an active astronaut.

Captain Kelly has already been in space three times, just like his bother, and spent more than 38 days outside Earth’s atmosphere, traveling more than 38 million miles and going around the Earth 186 times. We would like to pay homage to the astronauts, as well as to the space ships, which have done so much during the years; it’s the change of a generation, for orbiters as well as for humans, and what a generation it was ! The past 50 years were NASA’s finest, transforming space travel from a child’s fantasy into a real possibility. For Endeavour, as well as Mark Kelly, there is only one thing we can still say: once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more !

Endeavour launch delayed due to Russian schedule

Endeavour was set to take of in a really short time, and everybody was ready for this, but in an attempt to avoid a scheduling conflict with a Russian supply ship headed for the International Space Station (ISS), the launch of Endeavour has been delayed until April 29. The Russian spaceship will be launched on April 27 and will reach the ISS two days later, on April 29.

Endeavour was set to go less than three weeks from now, on April 19, but NASA was forced to delay the launch due to these events. There have also been some fears expressed regarding the recent violent storms that hit Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday and Thursday. Officials found “only minor damage” and “evaluations indicate there was no damage to the spacecraft,” NASA said.

The mission will be the last one for Endeavour, which will be retired, just as fellow orbiter Discovery, which went on its last mission this year. It will be led by Commander Mark Kelly, whos brother is also an astronaut and returned only recently from the ISS – imagine the dinner conversations around that table.

Amazing picture shows Endeavour waiting for its last mission

While aimlessly browsing the Internet, I found this amazing picture, showing Endeavour patiently awaiting its last mission before a well deserved retirement. After Discovery, Endeavour is the second legendary orbiter to be put in a museum. For NASA, it’s the end of an era – we’ll see how it goes from here.

Photo by NASA.

 

$63 million a seat? NASA says ‘fine’

Amidst all the stuff that’s going on for NASA right now, they can still find the resources to strike a $753 million deal with Russia for 12 round trips to the International Space Station, paying about $63 million a seat.

“It’s an 8.5 percent annual increase,” NASA spokesman Josh Bluck told Space.com, referring to the overall increase. “The increase covers just the general inflation rate in Russia for the cost of processing and preparation.”

The already venerable Soyuz spaceship, as well as other of its “team mates” are already well known for ferrying rides for astronauts for more than a decade. This new deal comes after a major transition for NASA, which retired its space shuttle fleet after 30 years of spaceflight.

Discovery, for example, took its last mission just this month, and two other space shuttles will retire no later than June, Endeavour and Atlantis. After these shuttles are retired, NASA plans to use only commercially built spacecraft developed by private companies to take astronauts and equipment to the International Space Station (ISS).

“We are still anticipating having the availability of domestic commercial crew transportation by the middle of the decade,” Bluck said.

How this strategy will fair for them is still a mystery and relies on many factors, but NASA seems confident they have made the right choice – the Russians think so to.

Discovery shuttle prepares for final landing

As I told you yesterday, the Discovery shuttle is preparing for a well deserved retirement, after 365 days spent in space, during which it traveled more than 150 million miles. All systems are go for landing at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, thus concluding its 13th and final mission.

The shuttle left the International Space Station (ISS) yesterday after the crew performed one last check on Tuesday, and found that everything is working correctly. Discovery’s orientation and steering. Cmdr. Steve Lindsey, pilot Eric Boe and mission specialists Alvin Drew, Michael Barratt, Nicole Stott and Steve Bowen also put away hardware and equipment.

When they wake up, Wednesday morning (if they haven’t already) they will begin the preparations, and if everything goes according to plan, the de-orbit burn will begin at 10:52 and Discovery will land at 11:57 a.m, according to NASA.

After the shuttle returns to Earth, it will be given a golden retirement at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, but only after NASA will turn it into an unflyable mechanism.

Space Shuttle Discovery heads home after final mission

When launched in 1984, Discovery was top notch; it was the best available around, and only the third operational orbiter; now, after 3 flights, over five thousand orbits and no less than 365 days spent in space, during which it traveled 150 million miles Discovery left the International Space Station (ISS) for the last time; it is still, for a few days, the oldest orbiter still working. It was a sentimental moment for many people, and station skipper Scott Kelly rang his ship’s bell in true naval tradition, paying tribute to the shuttle after its last departure.

“Discovery departing,” he called out.

Discovery is due to Earth on Wednesday, after which it wil be retired and sent to the Smithsonian Institution for display. Discovery’s astronauts got a special greeting from actor William Shatner, who portrayed captain James Kirk on the original “Star Trek” TV series.

ZME Science would like to take a bow and pay homage to Discovery, and thank all the people who were involved in any way in it’s remarkable achievements !

Picture sources: 1 2 3 4

An interesting fact: Male fertility is in the bones


The researchers of the Columbia University Medical Center discovered a nice revealed a nice little nugget of information that will probably astonish most of our male (and probably female) readers. The male fertility is determined partially by the bones.

How exactly does this work and how does this effect us? Well, they’ve discovered that the skeleton in male mice acts as a regulator through a hormone released by bone, known as osteocalcin.

Until recently, the only interactions that we were aware of between the bone and the reproductive system was focused in a huge part on the influence of gonads on the build-up of bone mass.

What’s stunning however, is that although this exchange between the bone and the rate of fertility was mainly based on estrogen, researchers did not find any effect on females. When asked why, they did not elaborate on this.

“We do not know why the skeleton regulates male fertility, and not female. However, if you want to propagate the species, it’s probably easier to do this by facilitating the reproductive ability of males,”

“This is the only rationale I can think of to explain why osteocalcin regulates reproduction in male and not in female mice.” said Dr. Karsenty.


In simpler words, the researchers at the Columbia University Medical Center have no idea why this doesn’t effect females, but I suddenly feel the urge to keep my bones healthy. After all, the DNA in rats is surprisingly similar to ours.

New planet close to size of Earth found

The Planet

new_earth306Researchers have long been interested in finding other planets that have approximately the same size as our mother earth, because it’s estimated that they have the biggest odds of hosting life in a significant diversity. However, out of the over 400 planets that have been discovered so far, the vast majority resembles Jupiter rather than Earth.

Scientists using the Keck telescope in Hawaii discovered a new planet they’ve called HD156668b. Located in the Hercules constellation 80 light years away from us, this “Super Earth” has all the odds of being inhabited.

“This is quite a remarkable discovery,” said astronomer Andrew Howard of the University of California at Berkeley. “It shows that we can push down and find smaller and smaller planets.”

Of Super Earths

mantle-11Super Earths are planets with a mass relatively close to that of Terra; they are rather bigger than smaller (from 2 to 10 times bigger, actually). They have to be bigger, because if they are smaller (like Mars, for example) the interior would just not be hot enough to drive tectonics (tectonic plates slide on a layer of molten rock called a mantle, and convection currents make it move around).

But of course, even such a (relatively) small difference can cause significant modification in the planetary dynamics. With these bigger planets, the interior would of course be hotter, bigger, and the planetary crust would be thinner and would suffer more stress. The tectonic movement would be much active and as a result, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other such processes would take place way more often.

Lifeless prions are capable of evolution

prionsup35Researchers from the Scripps Research Institute have determined for the first time that prions, which are just bits of infectious protein without any DNA or RNA that can cause fatal degenerative diseases are capable of Darwinian evolution.

This study shows that prions do develop significant large numbers of mutations at a protein level as a response to external influences, and through natural selection, they can eventually lead to mutations such as drug resistance.

“On the face of it, you have exactly the same process of mutation and adaptive change in prions as you see in viruses,” said Charles Weissmann, M.D., Ph.D., the head of Scripps Florida’s Department of Infectology, who led the study. “This means that this pattern of Darwinian evolution appears to be universally active. In viruses, mutation is linked to changes in nucleic acid sequence that leads to resistance. Now, this adaptability has moved one level down — to prions and protein folding — and it’s clear that you do not need nucleic acid for the process of evolution.”

This also started another discussion, well actually restarted it, that of the quasi-species. First launched 30 years ago, this idea basically suggest a complex, self-perpetuating population of diverse and related entities that act as a whole.

“The proof of the quasi-species concept is a discovery we made over 30 years ago,” he said. “We found that an RNA virus population, which was thought to have only one sequence, was constantly creating mutations and eliminating the unfavorable ones. In these quasi-populations, much like we have now found in prions, you begin with a single particle, but it becomes very heterogeneous as it grows into a larger population.”

“It’s amusing that something we did 30 years has come back to us,” he said. “But we know that mutation and natural selection occur in living organisms and now we know that they also occur in a non-living organism. I suppose anything that can’t do that wouldn’t stand much of a chance of survival.”

Blue whales singing lower every year, baffled scientists say

Blue whales are not only the biggest living creatures in the world right now, but the biggest ever to have ‘walked’ the face of the earth; they’re also the loudest for that matter. After recovering from near extinction in the beginning of the 20th century, blue whales are finally getting a part of the respect they deserve.

However, researchers cannot understand what is causing these majestic creatures to ‘sing’ at lower frequencies year after year. No one is fully sure of all the uses of the blue whale songs, but it’s known they are used to communicate and as a mating ritual. However, ever since the 1960s, the frequencies which these giants use are getting lower and lower, without anybody being able to give an explanation.

full_bluewhale_6

Of course, some theories have emerged, the two most likely being that it’s a direct result of the water pollution or a sign that an almost extinct population is recovering. Mark McDonald, president of Whale Acoustics, a company that specializes in recording the songs of blue whales (yeah, really) originally thought the cause could be noise pollution caused by intensified traffic; however, if this would be the case and they would want to make themselves heard louder, they would use higher, and not lower frequencies. This may be a bit weird because generally lower frequency transmissions are used for long distances, but mister McDonald explains:

Across the frequencies of blue whale song, the underwater transmission losses are nearly the same regardless of frequency. It is absorption which is the primary cause of frequency dependent transmission losses, rather than dispersion in this case, and the absorption loss only begins to become significant when ranges reach thousands of kilometers. Theory tells us the whales can produce higher amplitude songs at higher frequencies, based on given lung volume.

whales

Another possible reason could be a change in the mating rituals. Scientists have long known that only male blue whales sing, and larger (which are usually more mature) specimens sing at lower frequencies. The hypothesis is that the younger guys are trying to emulate the older ones in order to attract females (that seems familiar). Either way, there are many we have yet to understand about the way these marine mammals act. The only good thing is that the blue whale populations is nearing a normal limit; let’s set this as an example for other species too, instead of treating them with less care now that they’re not on the brink of extinction anymore.