Tag Archives: Studies

Immune cells from the common cold offer protection against COVID-19, researchers find

If one in 10 cold infections are from coronaviruses, then antibodies produced from these illnesses could surely give a bit more protection against COVID-19, right? A new study has just provided the answer to this question by showing that immunity induced by colds can indeed help fight off the far more dangerous novel coronavirus.

Image credits: Engin Akyurt.

A study from Imperial College London that studied people exposed to SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19 found that only half of the participants were infected, while the others tested negative. Before this, researchers took blood samples from all volunteers within days of exposure to determine the levels of an immune cell known as a T cell – cells programmed by previous infections to attack specific invaders.

Results show that participants who didn’t test positive had significantly higher levels of these cells; in other words, those who evaded infection had higher levels of T cells that attack the Covid virus internally to provide immunity — T cells that may have come from previous coronavirus infections (not SARS-CoV-2). These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, may pave the way for a new type of vaccine to prevent infection from emerging variants, including Omicron.

Dr. Rhia Kundu, the first author of the paper from Imperial’s National Heart & Lung Institute, says: “Being exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus doesn’t always result in infection, and we’ve been keen to understand why. We found that high levels of pre-existing T cells, created by the body when infected with other human coronaviruses like the common cold, can protect against COVID-19 infection.” Despite this promising data, she warns: “While this is an important discovery, it is only one form of protection, and I would stress that no one should rely on this alone. Instead, the best way to protect yourself against COVID-19 is to be fully vaccinated, including getting your booster dose.”

The common cold’s role in protecting you against Covid

The study followed 52 unvaccinated people living with someone who had a laboratory-confirmed case of COVID-19. Participants were tested seven days after being exposed to see if they had caught the disease from their housemates and to analyze their levels of pre-existing T cells. Tests indicated that the 26 people who tested negative for COVID-19 had significantly higher common cold T cells levels than the remainder of the people who tested positive. Remarkably, these cells targeted internal proteins within the SARS-CoV-2 virus, rather than the spike protein on its surface, providing ‘cross-reactive’ immunity between a cold and COVID-19.

Professor Ajit Lalvani, senior author of the study and Director of the NIHR Respiratory Infections Health Protection Research Unit at Imperial, explained:

“Our study provides the clearest evidence to date that T cells induced by common cold coronaviruses play a protective role against SARS-CoV-2 infection. These T cells provide protection by attacking proteins within the virus, rather than the spike protein on its surface.”

However, experts not involved in the study caution against presuming anyone who has previously had a cold caused by a coronavirus will not catch the novel coronavirus. They add that although the study provides valuable data regarding how the immune system fights this virus, it’s unlikely this type of illness has never infected any of the 150,000 people who’ve died of SARS-CoV-2 in the UK to date.

Other studies uncovering a similar link have also warned cross-reactive protection gained from colds only lasts a short period.

The road to longer-lasting vaccines

Current SARS-CoV-2 vaccines work by recognizing the spike protein on the virus’s outer shell: this, in turn, causes an immune reaction that stops it from attaching to cells and infecting them. However, this response wanes over time as the virus continues to mutate. Luckily, the jabs also trigger T cell immunity which lasts much longer, preventing the infection from worsening or hospitalization and death. But this immunity is also based on blocking the spike protein – therefore, it would be advantageous to have a vaccine that could attack other parts of the COVID virus.

Professor Lalvani surmises, “The spike protein is under intense immune pressure from vaccine-induced antibodies which drives the evolution of vaccine escape mutants. In contrast, the internal proteins targeted by the protective T cells we identified mutate much less. Consequently, they are highly conserved between the SARS-CoV-2 variants, including Omicron.” He ends, “New vaccines that include these conserved, internal proteins would therefore induce broadly protective T cell responses that should protect against current and future SARS-CoV-2 variants.”

John Oliver discusses scientific studies


I’m really happy the media is starting to highlight the importance of science and studies, and how the media is often misrepresenting research. Whether you like his style or not, John Oliver brings some solid points to the table, points which we don’t consider nearly enough.

Most science reporting is shallow at the very least, and this is one of the reasons I got into science journalism. Though ZME Science is just an extremely small part of the struggle to “keep science real”, I’m glad to be a part of it, and I’m glad to have John Oliver by my side.

As always, if you see us making any reporting mistakes or exaggerations, please signal them out to us in the comment section.

Love really does ease the pain

A nurse’s tender loving really does ease the pain during a medical procedure, and grandma’s cookies really do taste better when they’re made with love. This new study conducted by researchers from the University of Maryland might have numerous real-world applications, from medicine to parenting and business.

“The way we read another persons intentions changes our physical experience of the world,” says UMD Assistant Professor Kurt Gray, author of “The Power of Good Intentions,” newly published online ahead of print in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. Gray directs the Maryland Mind Perception and Morality Lab.

“The results confirm that good intentions – even misguided ones – can sooth pain, increase pleasure and make things taste better,” the study concludes. It describes the ability of benevolence to improve physical experience as a “vindication for the power of good.”

The true power of good intentions was revealed in three distinct experiments: the first examined pain, the second examined pleasure, and the third a reward.

In experiment one, all participants were subjects to small electric shocks at the hand of a partner. Some of them believed they were shocked accidentally, the second group believed they were shocked intentionally, but for no reason whatsoever, and the third group believed they were shocked because somebody tried to help them. The result: Participants in the “benevolent” group experienced significantly less pain than both the “malicious” and “accident” participants.

In 2nd experiment: People sat on an electric massage pad in an easy chair which was repeatedly turned on – either by an indifferent computer or a caring partner. Although the massages were all the same, Gray found that partner massages caused significantly more pleasure than those given by a computer.

In experiment no3, subjects were given candy, attached to a note. For the benevolent group, the note read: “I picked this just for you. Hope it makes you happy.”; for the neutral group it said: “Whatever. I just don’t care. I just picked it randomly”. The candy tasted much better to the ones in the first group.

So, all these experiments show some interesting results, but put together, they paint a really interesting picture.

“It’s no surprise,” says Gray, “that food companies always pair their products with kindly old grandfathers and smiling mothers – thinking of this make believe benevolence likely increases our enjoyment.”

“Painful events attributed to a benevolent God should seem to hurt less than those attributed to a vengeful God, says Gray. “To the extent that we view others as benevolent instead of malicious, the harms they inflict upon us should hurt less, and the good things they do for us should cause more pleasure,” the paper concludes. “Stolen parking places cut less deep and home-cooked meals taste better when we think well of others.”

Via Medical Xpress

Giving Primates a Third Arm (and Why it Matters)

When you first hear of the work done by Miguel Nicolelis and his team, though the “cool factor” is high, you might wonder as to the practical application. Miguel has spent the last number of years (and, in fact, most of his career) working to gives our primate cousins a third (robotic) arm. In his new book, Beyond Boundaries, he takes the reader through the process that led to this extraordinary accomplishment. Here is one of the earlier videos of his work:

There are a couple very noteworthy items about the research:

Thought-Based

What makes this work exceptional is the fact that there is no physical input made by the primates. The arm is entirely controlled by thought. Electrodes were implanted into the skulls of the animals in order to monitor key areas of the motor cortex, which ultimately translate to commands to move the robotic arm. In the book, Miguel stresses the importance of what he dubs “neural symphonies,” which he uses to explain the idea that it requires the harmonious interplay of many neurons to trigger/predict an action (previous research, such as into the Grandmother Neuron or Halle Berry Neuron, indicated strict specialization of each neuron which initially seems at odds with Miguel’s work). Ultimately his team of researchers were able to construct algorithms which were able to understand movement with a very high degree of accuracy.

Self-Learned and Natural

To teach the primates to use the arm, researches first taught them to play a game with a joystick to move the arm. When the joystick was removed in favor of the direct neural interface, the subjects initially continued to move their arms as they mentally moved the machine. What is truly astonishing, though, is that some figured out on their own that they no longer needed to actually move their arm. Thanks to the wonders of neuroplasticity, they had actually re-mapped their brain to include this third arm, and ultimately became more efficient by merely thinking of moving it rather than moving their existing arm. In short, the subjects had learned to control the arm naturally as if it were an additional appendage rather than an extension of existing appendages.

Practical Application

To bring all of this into the real world, Miguel proposes what he calls a “shoot the moon” project to give paraplegics back the ability to walk. I’ll let him explain this amazing and worthwhile goal, from his recent appearance on the Daily Show:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Miguel Nicolelis
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

As with most new science, the practical application will begin with medicine. I do not think, though, that the importance of this work can be over-stressed. We are effectively learning to remove the brain’s dependance upon parts of the body, which will open up a whole new world not only for medicine but for human evolution.

Viagra to be used for children with lung condition

Viagra isn’t just for grown ups, not anymore. As a matter of fact, few people know that at first, viagra was used to treat pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), and treating erectile dysfunction was just a bonus; of course, the huge advantages that the ‘bonus’ provided made it into the most effective and sold medicine out there, for men with problems downstairs. However, Viagra seems to be turning to its roots, at least in this case.

The European commission has approved treating children Revatio (as Viagra is also sometimes called) for a rare, deadly lung condition. It was already used to treat adults with high blood pressure in the lungs, and now it can also be given to children aged 1 to 17. Pfizer (the drug company which sells it) is trying to get it approved in European countries.

The approval for these cases comes as a result of a study that was conducted, and which concluded that Viagra helped reduce arterial lung pressure in children, and was effective in treating PAH, helping the children breathe better and helping the lungs function better.

Shorties: garlic as a guilty pleasure

Garlic is one of those things you can’t be indifferent about. You either love it, hate it, or love and hate it. This is exactly the reason why 100 Helsinki shoppers were interviewed and asked what they think abut garlic, and how much they are annoyed by it, compared to other social odors.

The most common belief was that garlic has a good taste, is healthy, but has an unpleasant smell. Users and non-users showed distinctly different belief patterns. However, it wasn’t nearly as unpleasant as researchers were expecting it to be. The most annoying social smells were considered to be sweat and alcohol, while garlic and aftershave were considered the least annoying.

Picture source

LHC – we have a collision !

“It’s a great day to be a particle physicist,” said CERN director general Rolf Heuer. “A lot of people have waited a long time for this moment.”

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The LHC had been going on a promising streak for quite a while now; however, the encountered problems (mostly engineering, but also physics) were huge. Imagine firing arrows on the face of the ocean and making them collide – that was the task for the engineers and physicists at CERN.

They did achieve collisions before, but this is the first one to reach a significant energy, 7 Tev (teraelectronvolts, which is pretty much 1.6 x 10^-7 Joules; doesn’t sound like much, unless you’re a particle). The previous record was at about 2.36 TeV.

Achieving a collision of this level marks the official start of the LHC programme and the next 18 to 24 months are expected to produce trillions of high-energy collisions. So what does this mean ? If they don’t find the Higgs boson, does that mean we’ll have to rewrite physics ? Probably not. It will just show us which of the current competing theories is right. But what happens if they are all wrong ? Well… for the time being, let’s just hope that won’t happen and wait for the current updates from Cern.

You can watch a live webcast from the LHC , twitter updates or track their status in graphical form. Either way, this collision marks the beginning of a new era in modern physics.

Oh, PS : the world is still here.

Could life exist in a different Universe than ours ?

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Whether intelligent life exists in our universe is a long debated problem. But for some scientists, there’s something even more interesting than that: is there life in another universe? A definite answer is impossible, especially since it’s not even clear if such a universe exists, though researchers have speculated such an existence for more than a decade.

However, if such a universe did exist, it would have fundamentally diferent physical laws. Scientists from the MIT showed that this different type of Universe could have chemical elements similar to carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, therefore life forms can evolve quite similar to ours. In their latest work, physics professor Robert Jaffe, former MIT postdoc, Alejandro Jenkins, and recent MIT graduate Itamar Kimchi went further and showed that life can evolve even if the masses of the elementary particles are drastically altered.

“You could change them by significant amounts without eliminating the possibility of organic chemistry in the universe,” says Jenkins.

A modern cosmology theory claims that our universe is just one in a huge number of universes, called multiverse. It’s also theoretized that new universes (called pocket universes) are “born” constantly, but we can’t see them. I have to admit, the whole idea makes my head spin, but it does make sense to me, though I lack the physics knowledge to make a pertinent opinion.

In this view, “nature gets a lot of tries — the universe is an experiment that’s repeated over and over again, each time with slightly different physical laws, or even vastly different physical laws,” says Jaffe.

You can get the full article and additional explanations HERE. It’s really exciting to read things like this, but I’m guessing it’s more important to focus on finding life in our universe.

Stunning variety of sea life found in Antarctica

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The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) published some quite awesome pictures showing that Antarctica isn’t the lifeless frozen wasteland most people believe it to be; ice fish, octopus, sea pigs, giant sea spiders, rare rays and gorgeous basket stars all thrive in the extreme temperatures in Antarctica’s waters. Well, thrive is perhaps a too strong word, but they’re doing just fine in what seemed to be an impossible habitat.

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An unknown coral that awaits identification from experts

“Few people realise just how rich in biodiversity the Southern Ocean is – even a single trawl can reveal a fascinating array of weird and wonderful creatures as would be seen on a coral reef. These animals are potentially very good indicators of environmental change as many occur in the shallows, which are changing fast, but also in deeper water which will warm much less quickly. We can now begin to get a better understanding of how the ecosystem will adapt to change.”, said Dr. David Barnes of BAS

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A young ocean

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Amazing basket star

“Our research on species living in the waters surrounding the BAS Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula shows that some species are incredibly sensitive to temperature changes. Our new studies on the diverse range of marine creatures living in the deep waters of the Bellingshausen Sea will help us build a more complete picture of Antarctica’s marine biodiversity and give us an important baseline against which we can compare future impact on marine life.”, he added.

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BAS biologist Dr. Sophie Fielding concludes: “Changes at the Earth’s surface directly affect the surrounding ocean and the marine animals living there. For example accelerating glacier melt, collapse of ice shelves and shrinking winter sea-ice all seem to be impacting sea life. We want to understand that impact and what the implications for the food chain may be.”

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Feather star

Amphipod sandhopper

Amphipod sandhopper

I have to say, it’s exactly this kind of study that shows us exactly how little we know about the very world we live in and how we affect it in ways we don’t even understand. Hopefully, this will make people pay more attention to any environment and ecosystem, no matter how barren it appears to be. I take my hat off.

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A lovely comb jellyfish

A lovely comb jellyfish

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VIA Antarctica.ac.uk; go there for more pics in higher resolution and more explanations

Obesity is just as bad for you as smoking

obesity_4Obesity is a problem that’s taking bigger and bigger proportions (especially in the US), due mostly to fast food and lack of physical activity, and it seems that most people still fail to understand the major bad impact it has on one’s health. However, thanks to a recent study published in the February 2010 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, it’s now safe to say that obesity is just as bad as smoking.

The study was conducted by researchers from Columbia University and The City College of New York and it analyzed the Quality-Adjusted Life Years (QALYs) lost due to obesity and found that they are equal to those lost due to smoking, if not greater.

Investigators Haomiao Jia, PhD and Erica I. Lubetkin, MD, MPH, state, “Although life expectancy and QALE have increased over time, the increase in the contribution of mortality to QALYs lost from obesity may result in a decline in future life expectancy. Such data are essential in setting targets for reducing modifiable health risks and eliminating health disparities.”

The thing is, both obesity AND smoking are modifiable risk factors; all it takes is eating a salad every once in a while and maybe taking a run (or even a walk) in the park a couple of times a week. It sounds cheesy but… think what this means especially if you’re obese and smoking.

Scientists create the first molecular transistor

Researchers from Yale University succeeded in what seemed to be an impossible task: they’ve created a transistor from a single molecule. In case you don’t know, a transistor is a “semiconductor device commonly used to amplify or switch electronic signals” (via wikipedia).

power_transistor

The team showed that using a single benzene molecule attached to gold contacts is just as good as the regular silicone transistor. Also, by modifying the voltage applied through the contacts, they were able to control the current that was going through the molecule.

“We were able to allow current to get through when it was low, and stopping the current when it was high,” says Mark Reed, Professor of Engineering & Applied Science at Yale.

The importance of this discovery should not be underestimated; it could prove to be very useful, especially in computer circuits, because common transistors are not feasible at such small scales, and this may very well be another step towards the next generation of computers. However, researchers underlined the fact that fast molecular computers are probably decades away.

“We’re not about to create the next generation of integrated circuits,” he said. “But after many years of work gearing up to this, we have fulfilled a decade-long quest and shown that molecules can act as transistors.”

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.”

Melt rises up 25 times faster than previously believed

lava_lake_night

Scientists have for the first time determined the actual permeability of the asthenosphere in Earth’s upper mantle, which is basically responsible for how fast the melt rises towards the surface of the earth, and the results were surprising to say the least. Researchers found that it actually moves 25 times faster than previously assumed, which forces us to reconsider every volcanic model that includes melt.

A huge centrifuge measuring 2 meters in diameter was embedded in the cellar’s floor. It spins at 2800 rotations per minute and creates an acceleration about 3000 times bigger than Earth’s gravity; when at full capacity, it creates 120 decibels, which is about as loud as an airplane, according to Max Schmidt, a professor from the Institute for Mineralogy and Petrology at ETH Zurich. It can reach 850 km/h, and after it reaches this speed, if you would turn it off, it takes about an hour to stop.

This globally unique centrifuge cast a whole new light on how we perceive magmatism. The researchers used it to simulate the transport of molten lava made of basaltic glass from the mid-ocean ridge. The matrix through which the melt passed through consisted of olivine, which makes about 2/3 of the upper mantle. They applied a temperature of 1300 degrees and a pressure of 1 giga pascal. After the basaltic mass melted, they accelerated to about 700 g’s and were then able to calculate the permeability directly by microscopic analysis and were then able to correlate porosity to permeability, which is a main part for thermo-mecanical models.

In the light of these new discoveries, these models have to be revised; if the magma ascends much faster that means it interacts a lot less with the rock it penetrates. It also explains a few things, such as why volcanoes are active for only a few thousand years.

Captain obvious presents his 5 favorite studies from 2009

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It’s been a busy year indeed, especially with the LHC doing it’s thing again, Hubble was repaired and there was a lot of medical research being done, even with more money being invested in advertising than research. However, last year was also remarkable for the… not so remarkable studies, to say the least. In that line, here are the best ‘Duh!’ studies that took place in 2009.

Coed dorms fuel sex and drinking

party

That’s right folks, coed dorms are way more fun than regular ones
I mean, coed dorms are bad, encouraging unhealthy habits that might be avoided otherwise. Detailed in the Journal of American College Health, this stunning discovery sheds new light … aww c’mon, everybody knows it: they’re the party center of the universe ! And even if nothing else, there’s hormone filled students, boys and girls, living literally meters away from each other – things are bound to happen. Nice pick, captain.

Sweets taste better when you’re high

weedzIn a study that’s completely unrelated to the previous one (cross my heart), Yuzo Ninomiya of Kyushu University in Japan spent quite a lot of time to find out what 1 in 3 students could have told you on the spot: sweets taste absolutely great after you’ve smoked some pot. What the study basically found was that “endocannabinoids both act in the brain to increase appetite and also modulate taste receptors on the tongue to increase the response to sweets”; endocannabinoids also make it impossible to read that sentence.

Large quantities of red and processed meat are bad for you

redmeat

Yeah, that double hamburger is a cruel mistress, isn’t it ? Studies published in the Archives of Internal Medicine announced that consuming large quantities of such products can cause a huge number of problems, such as, well… death.

“For overall mortality, 11 percent of deaths in men and 16 percent of deaths in women could be prevented if people decreased their red meat consumption” the researchers wrote.

High heels lead to foot pain

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In what is the mother of all no-brainers, a study published in Arthritis Care & Research concluded that woman wearing high heels are more likely to report pain their feet. I really don’t want to add anything more here except for the fact that as far as I’m concerned, high heels are a useless fashion trifle, and have nothing at all to do with beauty.

Child with depressive parents are affected

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Unfortunately, the effect parents have on their children is underestimated and often neglected (at least partially); few things can be worse than having a depressed parent, and kids have an innate sense that allows them to feel this kind of things, even though you may try to hide it. Among others, the child tends to feel more responsible, which puts more pressure on him, more alone, and have lower expectations.

Taking a look at the ‘little ice age’ of 1810

ice-ageGlobal warming is one of the main concerns on everybody’s lips, causing more and more damage to the environment every year, sometimes in ways that seem hard to believe; everyday there seems to be a new report about something that went, is going, or will be going terribly wrong. However, in the early 1800s, the situation was in diametric contradiction with everybody being worried about a global cooling that seemed to come out of nowhere.

It all peaked in 1816, when in most places of the world there was actually no summer at all ! That year’s chill was blamed by climatologists on the eruption of the Indonesian volcano called Tambora, but why the few years before 1816 were also way colder than usually remained a mystery. However, newly uncovered evidence from the ice of Antarctica and Greenland suggests that another volcanic eruption was probably responsible for it.

Jihong Cole-Dai, a chemistry professor at South Dakota State University led the expeditions that cleared this intriguing question that seemed to be without an answer. He found evidence of another eruption some 6 years before the 1815 one (which was responsible for the 1816 cooling). Here’s why major volcano eruptions have such a big influence:  they practically dump immense quantities of sulfur dioxide and ash that act pretty much like an umbrella, shading the Earth and reflecting sunlight for several years.

However, it’s obvious that a single volcanic eruption couldn’t be responsible for ‘freezing’ a whole decade. Cole-Dai and his team found evidence of one more eruption that helped trigger the mini ice age. However, they weren’t able to pinpoint the volcano, saying that they only know it has to be somewhere close to the equator and really big. I don’t know for sure but I’m guessing that a more detailed analysis will give some more clues regarding this volcano and researchers will be able to find it, despite the fact that it seems to be a ‘needle in the haystack’ kind of search.

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.

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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.

The swine flu paaanic [pics, slightly NSFW]

Swine flu has been officially declared a pandemic, and although it’s not one of the deadliest by any standards, it can be deadly (just like the average flu can). However, despite the fact that the deaths/infected ratio is around 0.1%, people are going absolutely crazy about it, blowing everything out of proportions. Here are some examples of swine flu related panic, protests against it, and, well, other stuff.

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Til swine flu do us part

They'll probably be just like the first pic in a year or two

They'll probably be just like the first pic in a year or two

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Diana, the goddess of hunt

Diana, the goddess of hunt

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doggy

pooh

The cure

The cure

“No small matter: Science on the nanoscale” review

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Nanotechnology is perhaps the field with the most spectacular development over the past years, but it can be really hard to understand what’s going on at that scale, mostly because we can’t see it (doh!), but also because the laws that apply there are slightly different.

No small matter:  Science on the nanoscale is the work of George M. Whitesides, the man with the highest H index of all living chemists and Felice C. Frankel, winner of the Photographic Society of America’s 2009 Progress Medal, and it has to be said, it’s awesome. Before I get into talking more about the book, I want to say that this is not a paid review, and everything I write is my honest opinion.

The book is written mostly for those who are just getting into nanotechnology or have a basic grasp of what’s going on there, but everybody has something to take from it, regardless of their interests and current knowledge; it probably fits best with undergrads, though. But, if you wanted to know what happens at a molecular level when you play the violin, take a pregnancy test or lit a candle (and way more), this is what you need to read.

A small revolution is remaking the world. The only problem is, we can’t see it. This is the book’s catchphrase, but it’s a bit too simple if you ask me. The virtual voyage the authors have prepared for the readers is just breathtaking, filled with detailed pictures of seemingly invisible objects, such as nanotubes, viruses, etc., proving what photography and high power microscopes can do when working together.

Basically it provides an overview of where nanotechnology is now, looking at what it has been and what it will probably be, as well as the advantages and dangers that this microscopic (or submicroscopic) world brings. In layman’s terms, you can call it an introduction in the science of the little; and what an introduction it is! What really convinced me of the value of the book is that aside from it’s educational part (which is explained logically, in detail, but kept simple) was it’s interesting part. I often found myself reading one page after another and forgetting to look at the pictures, even though they were really great. This happened because the information is presented in a clear, explosive and informal manner, allowing readers to grasp the basic core of nanotechnology.

“The textbook is well-written and concise, allowing readers with little or no prior knowledge about nanotechnology and nanoscience to understand and appreciate the concepts easily.”
Tan Lay Theng
Republic Polytechnic, Singapore

The simplicity is definitely something worth admiring, because an area as complex as nanotech involves many fields (physics, chemistry, quantum mechanics, etc) and binds them together. All in all, this is definitely something worth reading, whether you’re a science enthusiast or not, regardless of your age.

Get it via Amazon

Rift in African desert will become ocean

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In 2005, a huge 35 mile rift broke the Ethiopian desert apart and immediately led to geological claims that a new ocean was appearing there because two parts of the African continent were being pulled apart. However, the claims were quickly dismissed as being too controversial. However, a new study published in the latest issue of Geophysical Research Letters comes to back that idea up as the birth of at least a sea there seems inevitable.

It has to be understood that we are talking in geological time here. The extremely active volcanic areas around the rift along the edges of the tectonic plate may suddenly break apart in large ‘pieces’ instead of slowly dividing little by little as initially predicted. This could prove really dangerous to the local population according toCindy Ebinger, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Rochester and co-author of the study.

“This work is a breakthrough in our understanding of continental rifting leading to the creation of new ocean basins,” says Ken Macdonald, professor emeritus in the Department of Earth Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and who is not affiliated with the research. “For the first time they demonstrate that activity on one rift segment can trigger a major episode of magma injection and associated deformation on a neighboring segment. Careful study of the 2005 mega-dike intrusion and its aftermath will continue to provide extraordinary opportunities for learning about continental rifts and mid-ocean ridges.”

“The whole point of this study is to learn whether what is happening in Ethiopia is like what is happening at the bottom of the ocean where it’s almost impossible for us to go,” says Ebinger. “We knew that if we could establish that, then Ethiopia would essentially be a unique and superb ocean-ridge laboratory for us. Because of the unprecedented cross-border collaboration behind this research, we now know that the answer is yes, it is analogous.”

“We know that seafloor ridges are created by a similar intrusion of magma into a rift, but we never knew that a huge length of the ridge could break open at once like this,” says Ebinger. “Seafloor ridges are made up of sections, each of which can be hundreds of miles long. Because of this study, we now know that each one of those segments can tear open in a just a few days.”

3D structure of humans finally decoded

dna_500

It’s quite obvious that genetics is the most important step in our evolution that we have to take and although the molecular structure of DNA has been discovered more than half a century ago, its three dimensional structure remained a mystery. However, recently a team led by researchers from Harvard University, the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT and the University of Massachusetts Medical School managed to solve this puzzle, paving the way for new insights into genomic functions and greatly expanding our understanding limits.

In order to accomplish this task, they employed a novel technology they call Hi-C and found out how DNA folds; the goal was to find out how our cells can somehow store three billion base pairs of DNA without having any of its functions blocked or impaired.

“We’ve long known that on a small scale, DNA is a double helix,” says co-first author Erez Lieberman-Aiden, a graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Science and Technology and a researcher at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and in the laboratory of Eric Lander at the Broad Institute. “But if the double helix didn’t fold further, the genome in each cell would be two meters long. Scientists have not really understood how the double helix folds to fit into the nucleus of a human cell, which is only about a hundredth of a millimeter in diameter. This new approach enabled us to probe exactly that question.”

It has to be said, this Hi-C technology is almost as amazing as the discovery itself, at least from where I’m standing. To be able to go to such a level that allows assessment of the three dimensional interactions between DNA is just amazing. Regarding the importance of ‘decoding’ the structure, it basically means scientists will be able to find out how to turn most genes on and off:

“Cells cleverly separate the most active genes into their own special neighborhood, to make it easier for proteins and other regulators to reach them,” says Job Dekker, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular pharmacology at UMass Medical School and a senior author of the Science paper.

At an even finer scale, scientists had to reach out for mathematics, because DNA takes a shape of what is called in mathematics a ‘fractal‘. The specific architecture they found was named a ‘fractal globule’ that allows the cell to pack DNA unbelievable tightly. Just so you can make an idea, the density of information stored there is trillions and trillions of times bigger than that of the world’s best computer chip.

fractal-dna

“Nature’s devised a stunningly elegant solution to storing information — a super-dense, knot-free structure,” says senior author Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute, who is also professor of biology at MIT, and professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School.

The idea of such a structure has in fac been suggested a while back, but it was as good as any guess at the moment, with no proof to back it up. However, thanks to this new kind of technology, the amazing truth was observed and scientists were able to solve the puzzle.

“By breaking the genome into millions of pieces, we created a spatial map showing how close different parts are to one another,” says co-first author Nynke van Berkum, a postdoctoral researcher at UMass Medical School in Dekker’s laboratory. “We made a fantastic three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle and then, with a computer, solved the puzzle.”