Month: October, 2017

Life On Earth May Have Begun 300 Million Years Earlier Than Previously Thought

Living organisms may have existed on Earth as long as 4.1bn years ago – 300m years earlier than was previously thought, new research has shown.

If confirmed, the discovery means life emerged a remarkably short time after the Earth was formed from a primordial disc of dust and gas surrounding the sun 4.6bn years ago.

Researchers discovered the evidence in specks of graphite trapped within immensely old zircon crystals from Jack Hills, Western Australia.

Atoms in the graphite, a crystalline form of carbon, bore the hallmark of biological origin. They were enriched with 12C, a “light” carbon isotope, or atomic strain, normally associated with living things.




It suggests that a terrestrial biosphere had emerged on Earth as early as 4.1bn years ago, said the scientists writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The US scientists, led by Dr Mark Harrison, from the University of California at Los Angeles, said the graphite was completely encased in zircon that was crack-free and could not have been contaminated despite the passing of aeons.

They wrote: “This study extends the terrestrial carbon isotope record around 300m years beyond the previously oldest-measured samples from south-west Greenland.

Some non-biological processes could also produce the light form of carbon, notably meteorite impacts, said the researchers.

But the amount of extra-terrestrial carbon needed to account for the findings made meteorites an unlikely source.

A biogenic origin seems at least as plausible,” the scientists added.

Confirming the connection with early life would represent “a potentially transformational scientific advance” they said.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

3 Americans Win Nobel Prize In Medicine For Uncovering The Science Behind Our Biological Clocks

A trio of American scientists was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for revealing the mechanisms of the cellular clock that regulates biological changes in complex organisms across a 24-hour span.

Working at Brandeis University in the 1980s, Jeffrey C. Hall and Michael Rosbash uncovered the genetic basis of circadian rhythms in fruit flies.

Michael W. Young collaborated with Hall and Rosbash from Rockefeller University to isolate the key gene, which had been named “period” by scientists who had surmised its existence.

Hall, Rosbash and Young would go on to discover a variety of genetic and cellular mechanisms that keep the circadian clocks of living things ticking in sync with the Earth’s daily rotation.

Rosbash remains on the faculty at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., where Hall is a professor emeritus of biology. Young is still at Rockefeller University in New York City.

For some years, a team led by Hall and Rosbash competed against a team led by Young to be the first to clone the genes the group discovered.




But the threesome, now friends, have been widely recognized as the co-discoverers of the genetic mechanism underlying the circadian clock in complex organisms.

They were awarded the Hong Kong-based Shaw Prize in life sciences and medicine in 2013, an honor that may have paved the way for the Nobel Committee’s recognition.

The work honored Monday sheds light on how all multicellular creatures undergo regular changes in body temperature, hormones, metabolism and behavior that keep time with different phases of the day.

While the scientists conducted much of their pioneering work on fruit flies, the circadian clock is a powerful factor in human health as well.

It helps explain how jet lag and other disruptions to our evolved cycles of sleeping and waking can wear us down and contribute to disease.

Their research has laid the foundation for research into how the time of day influences everything from the way we think to how our bodies store calories or respond to medications.

In a world that’s open for business 24/7, research has shown that people who try to defy their circadian rhythms will eventually come up against the biological limits of their cells’ internal clocks.

Since the seminal discoveries by the three laureates, circadian biology has developed into a vast and highly dynamic research field, with implications for our health and well-being,” the Nobel committee said in its announcement Monday in Stockholm, Sweden.

Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said the trio’s work “is informing treatments for sleep disorders, obesity, mental health disorders, and other health problems.” The NIH has invested more than $30 million in their studies.

The work also underscores the sustained influence of our common environment on creatures up and down the evolutionary ladder.

The genetic mechanisms that keep fruit flies on a 24-hour cycle governed by day and night are the same as those for humans.

The research is “a great example of how studying fundamental biological processes in model organisms such as fruit flies reveals important principles that translate into a deeper understanding of human biology and disease,” said Jon R. Lorsch, director of the NIH’s National Institute on General Medical Sciences.

In its citation for the $1.1-million prize, the Nobel Assembly at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute said the researchers “were able to peek inside our biological clock and elucidate its inner workings.

That process unfolded in many steps.

Hall, Rosbash and Young isolated the period gene in 1984.

It would take several more years for Hall and Rosbash to see that the protein encoded by that gene — called PER — went through a daily cycle of accumulating during the night and depleting over the course of the day.

How was that rhythm sustained? Hall and Rosbash surmised that some feedback loop was at work, whereby the buildup of PER protein inside the cell might dial down the period gene’s activity.

But they puzzled over how that shutoff signal was sent from the cytoplasm, where PER protein was produced, to the cell nucleus, where the genetic machinery was located.

That mystery was solved in 1994, with Young’s discovery of a second clock gene, which he called “timeless.” That gene also appeared to be required for organisms to maintain normal circadian rhythm, by encoding the production of a protein called TIM.

Young’s “elegant work,” the Nobel Committee wrote, showed that when the TIM and PER proteins were bound together, they were able to enter the cell nucleus.

There, they blocked the activity of the period gene and closed the feedback loop.

Over time, Young would go on to find a third timekeeper gene, which he dubbed “doubletime,” that would allow a more precise alignment of protein levels with a 24-hour cycle.

Hall, Rosbash and Young have identified additional proteins required for the activation of the period gene, as well as for the mechanism by which light can synchronize the clock.

Rosbash explained that the day-night cycle was the original environmental influence on humans and other living beings.

Before the atmosphere has its current constitution and before nutrition was anything like it is today, the Earth rotated on its axis and the light-dark cycle impinged on the beginnings of life,” he said Monday in an interview with Nobel officials.

Rosbash added that when he received the predawn call from Stockholm, he was so shocked that his wife had to remind him to breathe.

Young, too, said he struggled to digest the news.

I’d go and I’d pick up the shoes, and then I’d realize I need the socks,” he said during a news conference. “And then I realized I needed to put my pants on first.

The award brings the number of U.S.-born Nobel laureates to 259.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

Elon Musk’s 2017 SpaceX Update For Mars

On Friday, Elon Musk spoke to the International Astronautical Conference in Adelaide Australia to update us on his plans for SpaceX. Here’s the nuts and bolts of it.

Friday, Elon took the stage at the International Astronautical Conference in Adelaide Australia and around the world, musketeers gathered around their computers to watch their favorite billionaire visionary slash chief executive stammerer talk about his new plans for Mars.

But that’s not really what they got.

Yes, Elon talked about Mars, but this wasn’t really about Mars so much as it was about the future of SpaceX.

And the first hint of the future of SpaceX is the name he used for their rocket.

Last year, the spaceship he presented was referred to as the ITS, for Interplanetary Transport System.

This was a rocket system specifically designed for voyages to Mars and beyond. This time, the letters ITS were never used. Instead, he went with BFR. For Big F*cking Rocket.

Musk’s new version of the BFR gets smaller, and far, far more versatile.

Satellite deployment, refueling, lunar landing, and shuttling astronauts to the ISS. And as this picture shows, it’s still a pretty big fucking rocket.

This is the future of SpaceX. A one-size-fits all workhorse that can perform a wide variety of functions with only slight modifications to the original design.

In fact, he said that this configuration would make everything before it obsolete, which makes me wonder what is the future of the Falcon Heavy and the Dragon 2?

This workhorse has 31 engines in the first stage as opposed to 42 in the original design. And it’s designed to carry 4400 tons of vehicle mass with 5400 tons of thrust.

He showed in a chart just how much more that is than any other rocket, including the Falcon Heavy. By a long shot.

So maybe the Heavy will just be kept around for special payloads that require it? I don’t know.

But the second stage had a few major changes, including a small delta wing with yaw and pitch controls for better control during re-entry.

He described the crewship as a combination of the Falcon 9 second stage and the Dragon capsule, but bigger.

The crew cabin is designed to carry up to 100 passengers with 40 capsules that Elon says are built for 2 to 3 people each, though you could get 5 in there if you weren’t claustrophobic.

And he says it has as much cabin space as an Airbus 380, which just for reference can carry 853 passengers fully loaded.

One thing that was new was he talked about lunar expeditions and possibly setting up a moon base, which is new for SpaceX but also in line with NASA’s plan to return to the moon.

This obviously positions SpaceX to get some government contracts for lunar missions, which could be a money maker for the BFR.

And back to Mars, he showed a visualization of how the Mars landing would work, using that delta wing shape to slow the craft down in the atmosphere before doing a propulsive landing.

Now he did say that the Mars missions would require producing fuel on Mars, which in rocketspeak is In-Situ Resource Utilization.

Elon’s new timeline put the first trips to Mars in 2022, these are unmanned missions that will carry solar-powered fuel plants to carry out all the stuff I just talked about, along with cargo and food for future missions.

In 2024, he wants to launch 4 ships to Mars, 2 crewed and 2 uncrewed, which are stocked with provisions for a long stay on Mars.

And he showed how a base would start with one landing pad, then becoming multiple landing pads, and growing out a city from there.

Elon himself called these timelines “aspirational” but did say they are already starting to build the first ship so maybe we’ll see these things sooner than we think.

But the big surprise of the night came at the end when Elon channeled his inner Steve Jobs and had one more thing. And suggested that if these rockets could send people to Mars, why not other places on Earth? And unveiled this plan.

It would ferry people to a floating launch pad and launch them to the other side of the world at 27,000 miles per hour, where it would propulsively land less than 30 minutes later.
Basically make long-distance trips as much of a time cost as commuting in bad traffic.

Engineering Mosquito Gut Bacteria To Fight Malaria

A malarial mosquito is a flying factory for Plasmodium – a parasite that fills its guts, and storms the blood of every person it bites. By hosting and spreading these parasites, mosquitoes kill 1.2 million people every year.

But Plasmodium isn’t the only thing living inside a mosquito’s guts. Just as our bowels are home to trillions of bacteria, mosquitoes also carry their own microscopic menageries.

Now, Sibao Wang from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has transformed one of these bacterial associates into the latest recruit in our war against malaria.

By loading it with genes that destroy malarial parasites, Wang has turned the friend of our enemy into our friend.

Many groups of scientists have tried to beat malaria by genetically modifying the species of mosquito that carries it – Anopheles gambiae.




Marcelo Jacobs-Lorena, who led Wang’s new study, has been at the forefront of these efforts. In 2002, his team loaded mosquitoes with a modified gene so that their guts produce a substance that kills off Plasmodium.

The approach worked very well in the laboratory,” says Jacobs-Lorena, but it would be impossible to load wild mosquitoes with the anti-malarial gene.

Instead, you’d have to ensure that the modified mosquitoes could out-compete their wild peers, so that the gene passes from one generation to the next via natural breeding.

It must also do so quickly before the parasite can evolve a countermeasure.

That’s very difficult to guarantee, especially given our limited understanding of the mating habits and ecology of mosquitoes.

Jacobs-Lorena found an alternative. He would sneak the Plasmodium-killing gene into the bacteria that live inside a mosquito’s guts, rather than the insect’s own genome.

We thought that it would be easier to introduce bacteria than genes into mosquitoes in the field,” he says.

The strategy has one big advantage: the gut is the most vulnerable part of Plasmodium’s complicated shape-shifting life cycle.

When the mosquito bites an infected human, it sucks up thousands of Plasmodium sex cells, which mate with each other to form fertilised eggs called ookinetes.

These invade the lining of the insect’s gut and become factories called oocysts. Each one manufactures thousands of long, worm-like sporozoites that swim into the mosquito’s salivary glands, ready to jump into a new person.

The oocyst stage is the bottleneck in this process. Even if a mosquito swallows thousands of Plasmodium cells, it typically ends up with far fewer oocysts in its gut.

In such small numbers, they make an attractive target, and it just so happens that the gut contains potential collaborators – bacteria.

Pantoea agglomerans is among the most common of these partners. It’s co-exists harmlessly with the mosquito and we still don’t know what, if any, role it performs.

Wang, a member of Jacobs-Lorena’s team, engineered P.agglomerans to make several proteins that turn the mosquito’s gut into a hostile zone for Plasmodium.

Some of these proteins interact the mosquito’s gut to prevent the young Plasmodium parasites from invading it, while others (including one derived from scorpion venom) tear the parasite apart.

The bacteria secrete these weapons into the gut where they get to work upon any invading Plasmodium.

It also helps that when a mosquito drinks blood, the numbers of P.agglomerans within it shoot up by over 100 times, creating a defence force that’s ready for the incoming parasites.

Wang found that the engineered bacteria slashed the numbers of oocysts in mosquitoes by 85 to 98 per cent.

Just 14 to 18 per cent of the insects carrying the defensive microbes became infected with Plasmodium after drinking contaminated blood, down from a typical proportion of 90 per cent.

Scientists who are trying to use GM-mosquitoes to fight dengue fever in Brazil and the US have already encountered severe hostility. The bacterial approach might fare even worse.

It relies on a GM bacterium which can’t be contained once released in mosquito populations, and will easily end up in the food chain and eventually also on peoples plates,” says Dimopoulos.

While such bacteria may not pose a hazard to humans and animals, the work required to prove, educate and finally convince various stakeholders that the implementation is safe will be lengthy and challenging.”

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Pass it on: Popular Science

China Plans To Launch Space Exploration Rockets From Sea Freighters And Planes

China is planning to use large sea-going freighters and heavy military transport planes to launch space exploration rockets starting next year.

China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASTC) will reportedly use 10,000-ton freighters as launch pads for its Long March 11 launch rocket. The Long March 11 can carry up to 1,100 pounds into low-earth orbit.

“Eastern Arsenal” bloggers Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer say the idea is use freighters to fire the rockets near the equator to save on fuel and loft bigger payloads.

The other option is for an airborne launch.




The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology announced this month that they’re developing a solid-fueled space launch rocket to be dropped from the Y-20, a heavy Chinese military transport plane.

The rocket itself is expected to weigh about 60 tons (the Y-20’s payload is 66 tons) and has a low Earth orbit payload of 220 pounds.

If you’re dropping a rocket from an airplane, as opposed to the launching from ground, the rocket’s first stage can be smaller, which means it’ll be more efficient and could handle a larger payload.

That means greater flexibility and a potentially quicker launch — both considerable military advantages.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

What Exactly Is The Eyeball Tattoos?

Warning: If the idea of a tattoo artist sticking a hypodermic needle filled with ink into the white of someone’s eyeball really, really grosses you out, you probably should skip the rest of this article and read something a little less unsettling.

Okay, you’re still reading, so you must not be that squeamish.

So let’s begin.

Corneal tattooing or eyeball tattoo is the practice of tattooing the cornea of the human eye.

Reasons for this practice include improvement of cosmetic appearance and the improvement of sight.

Many different methods and procedures exist today, and there are varying opinions concerning the safety or success of this practice.




Causes or reasons for corneal tattooing vary from patient to patient. Most patients receive treatment to alter the cosmetic appearance of their eyes following disease or accident.

Others receive treatment for optical purposes, including decreasing circumstantial glare within the iris. Corneal opacities are the leading reason for undergoing cosmetic tattooing.

The leading reason for corneal tattooing is to alter the appearance of the eye cosmetically. Usually, the need for this alteration stems from corneal opacities.

Corneal opacities may be caused by leucoma, keratitis or cataracts. Such opacities can be cosmetically disruptive for patients in their everyday lives.

Tattooing the cornea can alter a discoloration, blending an opacity into the normal eye color.

Most physicians agree that the procedure should only be performed on patients who have lost their vision or who do not expect to recover it.

Occasionally, corneal tattooing is performed when it might improve eyesight.

According to Dr. Samuel Lewis Ziegler, indications for treatment include albinism, aniridia, coloboma, iridodialysis, keratoconus, or diffused nebulae of the cornea.

Corneal tattooing is also performed on patients who still have vision to reduce symptomatic glare associated with large iridectomies or traumatic iris loss

Corneal tattooing has been practiced for almost 2000 years, first mentioned in history by Galen, a 2nd-century physician.

Methods of corneal tattooing have at times been practiced often and at other times faded into obscurity, but overall, the methods have evolved throughout history.

Galen of Pergamum, a Roman physician and philosopher, first described corneal tattooing in 150 AD, and the same procedure was later described by Aetius in 450 AD as an attempt to mask the leukomatous opacities of the eye.

Both physicians would cauterize the corneal surface with a heated stilet.

After the cauterization, they would apply the dye to the eye, using a variety of dyes, such as powdered nutgalls and iron or pulverized pomegranate bark mixed with copper salt.

This would then stain the cornea, correcting the cosmetic appearance for the patient. Other sources have mentioned that Galen might have used copper sulphate.

This procedure was probably only used on those patients with an unsightly corneal leukoma.

After Galen’s reference to corneal tattooing in the 2nd century, the practice is not mentioned until 1869, when oculoplastic surgeon Louis Von Wecker introduced a new method.

De Wecker, as he was also known, was the first to use black India ink to tattoo a leukoma of the eye.

He applied cocaine to the eye as a topical anesthetic, coated the cornea with a thick solution of ink, and inserted pigment into the corneal tissue obliquely with a grooved needle.

His method has influenced all subsequent methods.

New advances in technology have decreased the actual practice of corneal tattooing over the years. Instead, some of the following methods are used to disguise any corneal scarring: corneal grafting, keratoplasty techniques, and tinted contact lenses.

Also, advances in technology have decreased the probability of developing a dense corneal leucoma, such as chemotherapy, antibiotics, and the avoidance of “heroic measures of therapy.”

Although such advances in technology have decreased the popularity of corneal tattooing, some do practice it still.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

SpaceX Wants To Build One Rocket To Rule Them All

Elon Musk gave a keynote address yesterday to the International Aeronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia.

During the 43 minute talk, which is embedded above, Musk laid out SpaceX’s future including colonizing Mars and building one rocket to rule them all.




The talk is fantastic. Elon was Elon and revealed countless details about future SpaceX plans. This is why he’s celebrated in certain circles.

He doesn’t hold back whether on Twitter or during interviews. Unlike other Silicon Valley companies, he seemingly keeps fewer details secret and is more willing to talk about things his companies are building.

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Pass it on: Popular Science