Month: August, 2017

Mountain Forest Growth Has Established The Earth’s Climate For Millions Of Years

The Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide has remained remarkably stable over the past 24 million years.

And scientists believe they have now solved part of the mystery as to why this has been the case, despite changing geological conditions.

They believe that ancient tree roots in the mountains may play an important role in controlling long-term global temperatures acting as a type of natural ‘thermostat’.

When CO2 levels became too low for plants to grow properly, forests in mountains appear to have kept the climate in check by slowing down the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.




This study shows how trees can act as brakes on extreme climate change, and the roots of trees in tropical mountains such as the Andes play a disproportionate role,” Yadvinder Malhi, professor of Ecosystem Science at Oxford University said.

However, these responses take thousands to millions of years and cannot do much to slow the rate of global warming we are experiencing this century.

Researchers from Oxford and Sheffield Universities discovered that temperatures affect the thickness of the leaf litter and organic soil layers, as well as the rate at which the tree roots grow.

In a warmer world, this means that tree roots are more likely to grow into the mineral layer of the soil, breaking down rock which will eventually combine with carbon dioxide.

This process, called weathering, draws carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and cools the planet.

The theory suggests that mountainous ecosystems have acted like the Earth’s thermostat, addressing the risk of ‘catastrophic‘ overheating or cooling over millions of years.

In their research paper, published online in Geophysical Research Letters, the researchers carried out studies in tropical rain forests in Peru.

They measured growth of the tree roots across different sites of varying altitude – from the warm Amazonian Lowlands to the cooler mountain ranges of the Andes- every three months over several years.

At each of the sites, they also measured the thickness of the organic layer above the soil.

This information was then combined with data of monthly temperature, humidity, rainfall, and soil moisture to calculate the likely breakdown process of the basalt and granite rocks found in the mountain ranges of Peru.

Using this model, scientists were able to scale up their results to calculate the likely contribution of mountain forests worldwide to global weathering rates.

The researchers then calculated the likely amount of carbon to be pulled out of the atmosphere through weathering when the Earth became very hot.

They looked at the volcanic eruptions in India 65 million years ago, known as the Deccan traps.

The model also allowed them to calculate the weathering process and carbon feedback after the Earth’s cooling 45 million years ago, when great mountain ranges like the Andes and the Himalayas were first formed.

The paper suggests that mountainous regions may play a particularly important role in drawing carbon out of the atmosphere because they have abundant volcanic rock which is highly reactive to weathering when it disintegrates.

This is a simple process driven by tree root growth and the decomposition of organic material,” said lead researcher Chris Doughty, from Oxford University.

Yet it may contribute to Earth’s long-term climate stability. It seems to act like a thermostat, drawing more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere when it is warm and less when it is cooler.

A series of climatic events over the last 65 million years ago have resulted in global temperatures rising and falling.

However, the weathering process that regulates carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may be buffered by forests that grow in mountainous parts of the world.

In the past, this natural process may have prevented the planet from reaching temperatures that are catastrophic for life.

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Why A Few Drops Of Water Make Whisky Taste Better

Ignore the snobs, because most experts agree: a few drops of water enhance the taste of whiskies, from well-rounded blends to peat bombs redolent of smoke, tobacco and leather.

The only real question is, why is this true?

The answer, a pair of biochemists in Sweden said Thursday, resides in the subtle interplay of molecules that brings those bursting with flavour to the surface of the liquid amber in one’s glass.

The smoky flavour typical of whiskies made on the Scottish island of Islay, for example, can be traced to a group of flavour-packed molecules known as phenols, and to one in particular called guaiacol.




Laboratory simulations revealed that adding a splash of H2O makes guaiacol rise to “the air-liquid interface,” Bjorn Karlsson and Ran Friedman of Linnaeus University in Kalmar, Sweden reported in the journal Scientific Reports.

Because this drink is consumed at the interface first,” they continued, belabouring the obvious as only scientists can, “our findings help to understand why adding water to whisky helps to enhance its taste.

Higher concentrations of guaiacol are found in Scottish whiskies than in American or Irish ones, the study found.

For any whisky, the importance of adding water is already evident in the manufacturing process.

Whiskies are made by distilling fermented grains, such as barley or rye. Distilled malt whiskies typically contain around 70 percent alcohol before being aged in oak barrels for at least three years.

Maturation reduces the alcohol content by 5 to 15 percent, But that is still far too high for optimal drinking pleasure, so the whisky’s alcohol content is further diluted to around 40 percent before bottling by adding water.

At least one famous connoisseur, Winston Churchill, has suggested that the scientists may have gotten things backwards in their findings.

When I was a young subaltern in the South African War, the water was not fit to drink,” Britain’s wartime prime minister famously reminisced.

To make it palatable we had to add whisky.

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Vitamin C Could Be Up To 100 Times More Effective Than Drugs At Killing Cancer Cells

Researchers from the University of Salford gave cancer cells increasing doses of the antibiotic doxycycline over three months.

They then gave the cells vitamin C, which restricts their energy source to just glucose.

This kept the cells alive, albeit severely weakened. Vitamin C does this by inhibiting most of the cells’ energy-making processes.

The researchers then took away glucose, resulting in the cells’ starvation.




Results, published in the journal Oncotarget, revealed that when vitamin C is given with doxycycline it is nearly 100 times more effective than standard-of-care drugs at killing cancer cells, according to the researchers.

This builds on research by the University of Salford back in March that found vitamin C alone is up to 10 times more effective at stopping cancer cell growth than drugs.

As doxycycline and vitamin C are both relatively non-toxic, the findings could dramatically reduce the possible side effects of cancer treatment, the researchers add.

Professor Lisanti said: “This is further evidence that vitamin C and other non-toxic compounds may have a role to play in the fight against cancer.

Our results indicate it is a promising agent for clinical trials, and as an add-on to more conventional therapies, to prevent tumour recurrence, further disease progression and metastasis.

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Stem Cell Technique Could Lead To New Ways To Treat Male Infertility

Scientists have created immature sperm cells in a laboratory dish and injected them into eggs to produce mouse offspring.

The Chinese researchers say their stem cell technique could pave the way for new treatments for male infertility.

British experts have called for the results to be independently verified and pointed out that any practical application is likely to be a long way off.

The mouse cells produced were technically “spermatids” – undeveloped sperm that lack tails and cannot swim.




Yet when they were injected into mouse eggs, mimicking a common IVF technique called Icsi (intracytoplasmic sperm injection), they delivered viable embryos and healthy, fertile babies.

In the UK, using spermatids in the same way to produce a pregnancy would be illegal.

Dr Jiahao Sha, from Nanjing Medical University who co-led the research, which was reported in the peer-reviewed journal Cell Stem Cell, said: “If proven to be safe and effective in humans, our platform could potentially generate fully functional sperm for artificial insemination or in-vitro fertilisation techniques.

Because currently available treatments do not work for many couples, we hope that our approach could substantially improve success rates for male infertility.

The scientists began with stem cells taken from mouse embryos which were exposed to a carefully mixed cocktail of chemicals. This triggered their transformation into primordial germ cells, the first step on the developmental path to becoming sperm.

Next, the germ cells were exposed to testicular cells and testosterone in an attempt to mimic the natural environment of the testes.

When the resulting spermatids were injected into mouse eggs, they proved capable of producing embryos that developed normally.

Infertility affects around 15% of couples and can be traced to the man in about a third of cases.

A major cause of male infertility is the failure of pre-cursor cells in the testes to undergo a special type of cell division called meiosis.

In 2014, a team of distinguished reproductive biologists writing in the journal Cell proposed a set of “gold standard” criteria to prove that all the essential steps of meiosis have taken place in artificially created eggs or sperm.

They included showing evidence of correct DNA content in the cell nucleus at specific meiotic stages, normal chromosome number and organisation, and the ability of the engineered cells to produce viable offspring.

Scientists in the UK praised the “mammoth” achievement of their Chinese colleagues – but said there were still many obstacles to be overcome before sperm-like cells grown in the laboratory could be of use to infertile men.

Professor Richard Sharpe, from the Medical Research Council Centre for Reproductive Health at the University of Edinburgh, said safety was a major issue.

Bear in mind that if germ cells do not format their DNA correctly, it may not only affect the resulting individual but might also affect the next generation,” he warned.

Allan Pacey, Professor of Andrology at the University of Sheffield, said the study was an “interesting step forward”, but added: “In spite of these encouraging results, we are still some way from immediately applying this technique as a potential cure for human male infertility.”

It remains to be seen if this technique could be applied in humans to create sperm-like cells that might be useable in IVF.

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Speedy White Dwarf Fragment Might Have Survived A Partial Supernova

Astronomers have discovered a star like none seen before. They think it may be the remnant of an incomplete supernova explosion, something that would explain one mystery, but create enough new ones to keep them happily hunting for a long time.

LP 40-365 is a 15th magnitude star, making it far too faint to see with the naked eye, but much brighter than the vast majority of objects recorded in sky maps.




Catalogs of stars registered the fact that it appears to be traveling very rapidly compared to the rest of the galaxy, and interested by such speedster stars, Professor Lilia Ferrario of the Australian National University and some fellow astronomers decided to check it out.

What they found, Ferrario told IFLScience, was more fascinating than anyone expected. LP 40-365’s light spectrum clearly marks it as a white dwarf, but one smaller than any we have seen before – just 0.14 times the mass of the Sun.

White dwarfs are extremely compact stars, where gravitational collapse is prevented by the pressure exerted by a gas of degenerate electrons. A teaspoon of white dwarf material would weigh many tonnes on Earth,” Ferrario said in a statement.

White dwarfs are the remnants of medium to large stars that have run out of fuel. They are called dwarfs because they are very compact, but, even with all the material they have lost, their masses are close to that of the Sun.

LP 40-365 “must have interacted with something to end up the way it is,” Ferrario told IFLScience.

The explanation Ferrario and her colleagues have presented in Science is that LP 40-365 is the result of what is called a Iax supernova.

Type Ia supernovas are thought to occur when a white dwarf star that is part of a binary system with another star draws gas away from its companion until it has so much it explodes, although a subclass is triggered by the collision of two white dwarfs.

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‘Alternative Cancer Therapies’ May Increase Your Risk Of Death

Cancer patients who use alternative medicine more than twice as likely to die,” is the stark message from The Independent.

Researchers found that people who chose alternative medicine instead of conventional cancer treatments were much less likely to survive for at least five years.

Conventional treatments included surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy or hormone treatments. The research only applies to people who choose not to have conventional treatments.

Overall, 78% of people having conventional treatment for cancer survived at least five years, compared to only 55% of people having alternative treatment alone.




The difference was biggest for breast cancer, where people who chose alternative therapies were more than five times as likely to die within five years as those who chose conventional treatments.

Because this is an observational study, we don’t know if other factors might have affected people’s survival chances, as well as treatment choice. However, treatment choice seems the most likely explanation.

There are reports that some people find complementary treatments of benefit during cancer treatments. For example, some people have said that acupuncture helped them cope better with the side effects of chemotherapy.

But importantly, the emphasis is very much on the “complementary” and not on the “alternative“. Ignoring medical advice on the treatment choices that potentially offer the most benefit could prove fatal.

This was an observational case control study. This means researchers identified people with cancer who chose to use alternative therapies (cases) and compared their outcomes with those of people with cancer who chose conventional treatments (controls).

The controls were matched as far as possible with each case based on age, sex, demographics and type of cancer. Observational studies can show trends and links between factors (in this case between

Observational studies can show trends and links between factors (in this case between type of treatment and length of survival after cancer diagnosis) but cannot prove that one causes the other.

Researchers used data from the US National Cancer Database to identify patients with breast, lung, colorectal or prostate cancer, who opted not to receive conventional cancer therapies, but were recorded as having had “other-unproven cancer treatments administered by non-medical personnel.

These patients were matched with two patients with the same type of cancer, who were similar in other ways, but had opted for conventional treatment.

Researchers then looked to see how many people lived for at least five years, comparing those who chose alternative therapies with those who chose conventional cancer treatments.

Researchers only included people who had cancer that had not yet spread from the initial site. This type of cancer is usually treatable by conventional treatments.

They also excluded people with stage 4 (advanced) cancer, those whose treatment was intended to be palliative rather than curative, and people whose treatment was unknown.

Researchers found 281 people who matched the criteria and who had opted for alternative therapy only. Of these, 280 were matched to 560 people with the same cancer, who chose conventional cancer treatments.

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‘Jellyfish’ Galaxies May Help Solve Mystery of Monster Black Holes

Glowing “jellyfish” galaxies have revealed a new way to power some of the most powerful objects in the universe. The same process that feeds the most voracious black holes at the galactic centers may also create dangling “tentacles” of newborn stars, a new study found.

While most galaxies, including the Milky Way, hide massive black holes at their centers, only a few produce enough electromagnetic radiation as they eat to create active galactic nuclei (AGN).

AGN shine brilliantly in the universe, and why they form around some black holes and not others has been an ongoing mystery. But jellyfish galaxies may help crack the case.

Poggianti, a researcher at the INAF-Astronomical Observatory of Padova in Italy, is part of an international team of scientists using the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument on the European Space Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile to examine jellyfish galaxies.




The researchers found that an unexpectedly high fraction of the tentacled galaxies contain AGN.

Ours is the first study that systematically searches for [jellyfish galaxies] and tries to have a complete census in different regions of the local universe,” Poggianti said.

Supermassive black holes constantly feed. As they draw in surrounding gas and dust, they produce intense radiation that can sometimes be seen from Earth, leaving scientists to ponder these objects’ food source.

While black holes are common, the more powerful and visible AGN are rare.

Poggianti and her team are part of an ongoing program to observe 114 jellyfish galaxies, an order of magnitude more than previously observed in detail, she said.

Of the seven galaxies with the longest tails, the researchers found that six housed a supermassive black hole, suggesting a link between the two types of object.

Previous studies suggested that the powerful cluster winds stretched the tentacles out for tens of light-years in a process known as ram-pressure stripping.

These same winds could feed the supermassive black holes, constantly nourishing them by carrying material to the center of the galaxy.

As cluster winds sweep away the dust and gas in a galaxy, the tentacles they create fill with brilliant young stars. These stars shine brightly in optical wavelengths of light, making the objects stand out to researchers who picked through images of over 70 galaxy clusters hunting for tails, Poggianti said.

The scientists also found jellyfish outside of clusters, some as part of galaxy groups and others off on their own. Galaxies found in groups tend to lack the spectacular tails of their cluster compatriots, and all of those found with AGN lie in clusters, Poggianti said.

Simulations combining ram-pressure stripping and AGN-hosting galaxies would be both complicated and computationally expensive, requiring significant time and computer power, Poggianti said. That’s why no such simulations exist — yet, she said.

I imagine that, following our discovery, there will be research groups in the world that will attempt to simulate the two processes together,” she said. The paper said that such simulations would be valuable for interpreting the new connection.

This is really great, because these are the most powerful astronomical observational facilities in the world, each in its own field and wavelength,” Poggianti said.

Their combination will allow us to study all the different gas phases, [and] how they relate to each other and to the formation of new stars.

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Google Lunar X Prize Deadline Extended Again For The Fourth Time

The $30 million private race to the moon just got its finish line pushed back. The group that organized the competition, X PRIZE, announced Tuesday that the deadline for the Google Lunar X Prize is being extended again from the end of 2017 to 31 March 2018.

That means the teams from around the world competing for the $20 million grand prize have an additional year to land a spacecraft safely on the moon.




We know the mission we are asking teams to accomplish is extremely difficult and unprecedented, not only from a technological standpoint, but also in terms of the financial considerations,” Robert Weiss, vice chairman and president of XPRIZE, said in a statement.

It is for this reason that we have decided to extend the competition timeline. We firmly believe that a whole new economy around low-cost access to the moon will be the result of the Google Lunar X Prize.

The Google Lunar X Prize competition is sponsored by Google.

The top prize will go to the first team that can develop and successfully land a robot on the moon’s surface, travel at least 500 meters (1,640 feet) and then transmit images and other data back to Earth.

Eighteen teams are competing, though no more than a handful are expected to be serious contenders.

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Self-Healing Robot Can Adapt To Injury Within Minutes

From putting out forest fires to grabbing you a cup of coffee, robots have the potential to be hugely beneficial to humans.

The problem, however, is that they seem to fall apart when they’re injured. A new study published in Nature may have just overcome this hitch by creating a robot that learns to adapt to its injuries. What could possibly go wrong?

Researchers from Pierre and Marie Curie University and the University of Wyoming have created a robot that is able to get back on its feet—literally—after two of its legs were broken.




They also developed a robotic arm that is able to place a ball into a can, despite having several broken motors.

When injured, animals do not start learning from scratch,” senior author Jean-Baptiste Mouret said in a statement.

Instead, they have intuitions about different ways to behave. These intuitions allow them to intelligently select a few, different behaviors to try out and, after these tests, they choose one that works in spite of the injury.

For example, if you hurt your ankle, you quickly try to find a way to overcome the injury by testing out new ways to walk.

Using this principle, researchers created an algorithm called ‘Intelligent Trial and Error’ that makes a detailed map of the different behaviors the robot can perform and allows them to adapt to unexpected situations.

Once damaged, the robot becomes like a scientist. It has prior expectations about different behaviors that might work, and begins testing them.”

“However, these predictions come from the simulated, undamaged robot. It has to find out which of them work, not only in reality, but given the damage,” says lead author Antoine Cully in a statement.

For example, if walking, mostly on its hind legs, does not work well, it will next try walking mostly on its front legs. What’s surprising is how quickly it can learn a new way to walk.”

“It’s amazing to watch a robot go from crippled and flailing around to efficiently limping away in about two minutes,” he adds.

Intelligent Trial and Error undergoes two crucial steps; the first involves a new type of evolutionary algorithm called MAP-Elites to create a behavior-performance map.

MAP-Elites depends on Darwin’s concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ to create competitions in computer simulations, which evolve artificially intelligent robots. In the second step, the robots

MAP-Elites depends on Darwin’s concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ to create competitions in computer simulations, which evolve artificially intelligent robots. In the second step, the robots uses its prior knowledge provided by the first step to adapt to specific damages.

Researchers hope this new technique can lead to the development of more ‘autonomous’ robots. To see the robots in action, watch the video below.

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“Dragon-Like” Amphibians Found At Record Depths In Underground Lake

The bizarre “baby dragon” amphibians have been found at a record depth in a secluded underground lake in Croatia.

The creatures, known officially as olms (Proteus anguinus), were discovered by extreme cave divers at depths 113 meters (370 feet) below the surface inside a dark limestone cave.

This is the deepest these amphibians, which are native to the Balkans and Italy, have ever been found. Spending their entire lives in perpetual darkness, the creatures are well adapted to live at these depths with zero sunlight.




While this is the deepest researchers have found them so far, they expect that they live even deeper. However, the limits of humans diving in such extreme conditions mean we don’t yet know precisely how deep they go.

Olms are truly weird little creatures, and it is this oddity that has endeared biologists to the peculiar amphibian.

With a long snake-like body and stumpy legs, they can reach up to 0.3 meters (1 foot) in length, making them one of the largest creatures to call the caves under the Dinaric Alps home.

They are the only exclusively cave-dwelling chordate – or animal with a backbone – in all of Europe, and one of the few species of totally aquatic amphibians.

Having lost the pigment in their skin due to their subterranean lifestyle, they are sometimes referred to as “human fish” due to the similarity in their pinkish flesh to that of humans.

But they are more frequently known as “baby dragons”, as their elusive speleological behavior flared the imagination of locals, who used to believe that the amphibians were the young of dragons when they occasionally washed to the surface.

With a range restricted to the caves of Slovenia, Italy, Croatia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, not much is known about the critters due their highly secretive life and extremely challenging environment.

The race is on by both conservationists and biologists to learn as much as they can about them, as the limestone karst caves and lakes in which they live are being threatened.

The waters that flow though the caves are becoming more and more polluted, putting the future of the amphibians at risk.

Researchers are trying to use new technology, such as identifying trace DNA of the animals from surface streams, to try and pinpoint new populations of olms in remote cave systems, while others are trying to understand how they reproduce in order to develop a captive breeding population.

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