Month: April, 2018

All By Itself, The Humble Sweet Potato Colonized The World

A chromolithograph of Christopher Columbus arriving at the Caribbean.

Of all the plants that humanity has turned into crops, none is more puzzling than the sweet potato.

Indigenous people of Central and South America grew it on farms for generations, and Europeans discovered it when Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean.

In the 18th century, however, Captain Cook stumbled across sweet potatoes again — over 4,000 miles away, on remote Polynesian islands. European explorers later found them elsewhere in the Pacific, from Hawaii to New Guinea.

The distribution of the plant baffled scientists. How could sweet potatoes arise from a wild ancestor and then wind up scattered across such a wide range?

Was it possible that unknown explorers carried it from South America to countless Pacific islands?

An extensive analysis of sweet potato DNA, published on Thursday in Current Biology, comes to a controversial conclusion: Humans had nothing to do with it.




The bulky sweet potato spread across the globe long before humans could have played a part — it’s a natural traveler.

Some agricultural experts are skeptical.

This paper does not settle the matter,” said Logan J. Kistler, the curator of archaeogenomics and archaeobotany at the Smithsonian Institution.

Alternative explanations remain on the table, because the new study didn’t provide enough evidence for exactly where sweet potatoes were first domesticated and when they arrived in the Pacific.

We still don’t have a smoking gun,” Dr. Kistler said.

The sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas, is one of the most valuable crops in the world, providing more nutrients per farmed acre than any other staple.  It has sustained human communities for centuries.

A sweet potato farmer in in Papua New Guinea. The plant arrived there long before humans, scientists reported.

 

Scientists have offered a number of theories to explain the wide distribution of I. batatas.

Some scholars proposed that all sweet potatoes originated in the Americas, and that after Columbus’s voyage, they were spread by Europeans to colonies such as the Philippines. Pacific Islanders acquired the crops from there.

As it turned out, though, Pacific Islanders had been growing the crop for generations by the time Europeans showed up. On one Polynesian island, archaeologists have found sweet potato remains dating back over 700 years.

A radically different hypothesis emerged: Pacific Islanders, masters of open-ocean navigation, picked up sweet potatoes by voyaging to the Americas, long before Columbus’s arrival there.

The evidence included a suggestive coincidence: In Peru, some indigenous people call the sweet potato cumara. In New Zealand, it’s kumara.

A potential link between South America and the Pacific was the inspiration for Thor Heyerdahl’s famous 1947 voyage aboard the Kon-Tiki. He built a raft, which he then successfully sailed from Peru to the Easter Islands.

Genetic evidence only complicated the picture. Examining the plant’s DNA, some researchers concluded that sweet potatoes arose only once from a wild ancestor, while other studies indicated that it happened at two different points in history.

According to the latter studies, South Americans domesticated sweet potatoes, which were then acquired by Polynesians. Central Americans domesticated a second variety that later was picked up by Europeans.

Hoping to shed light on the mystery, a team of researchers recently undertook a new study — the biggest survey of sweet potato DNA yet. And they came to a very different conclusion.

Their research pointed to only one wild plant as the ancestor of all sweet potatoes. The closest wild relative is a weedy flower called Ipomoea trifida that grows around the Caribbean.

Its pale purple flowers look a lot like those of the sweet potato.

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NASA’s Planet-Hunting TESS Telescope Launches Today Aboard A SpaceX Rocket

Some of the most exciting space news of the past few years has been about Earth-like exoplanets that could one day (or perhaps already do) support life. TESS, a space telescope set to launch today aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

It will scan the sky for exoplanets faster and better than any existing platforms, expanding our knowledge of the universe and perhaps finding a friendly neighborhood to move to.

The Transit Exoplanet Survey Satellite has been in the works for years and in a way could be considered a sort of direct successor to the Kepler, the incredibly fruitful mission that has located thousands of exoplanets over nearly a decade.

But if Kepler was a telephoto aimed at dim targets far in the distance, TESS is an ultra-wide-angle lens that will watch nearly the entire visible sky.

They both work on the same principle, which is really quite simple: when a planet (or anything else) passes between us and a star (a “transit”), the brightness of that star temporarily dims.

By tracking how much dimmer and for how long over multiple transits, scientists can determine the size, speed, and other characteristics of the body that passed by.




It may seem like looking for a needle in a haystack, watching the sky hoping a planet will pass by at just the right moment.

But when you think about the sheer number of stars in the sky — and by the way, planets outnumber them — it’s not so crazy.

As evidence of this fact, in 2016 Kepler confirmed the presence of 1,284 new planets just in the tiny patch of sky it was looking at.

TESS will watch for the same thing with a much, much broader perspective.

Its camera array has four 16.4-megapixel imaging units, each covering a square of sky 24 degrees across, making for a tall “segment” of the sky like a long Tetris block.

The satellite will spend full 13.7-day orbits observing a segment, then move on to the next one.

There are 13 such segments in the sky’s Northern hemisphere and 13 in the southern; by the time TESS has focused on them all, it will have checked 85 percent of the visible sky.

It will be focusing on the brightest stars in our neighborhood: less than 300 light-years away and 30 to 100 times as bright as the ones Kepler was looking at.

The more light, the more data, and often the less noise — researchers will be able to tell more about stars that are observed, and if necessary dedicate other ground or space resources towards observing them.

Of course, with such close and continuous scrutiny of hundreds of thousands of stars, other interesting behaviors may be observed and passed on to the right mission or observatory.

Stars flaring or going supernova, bursts of interesting radiation, and other events could very well occur.

In fact, an overlapping area of observation above each of Earth’s poles will be seen for a whole year straight, increasing the likelihood of catching some rare phenomenon.

SpaceX is the launch partner, and the Falcon 9 rocket on which it will ride into orbit has already been test fired. TESS is packaged up and ready to go, as you see at right.

Currently the launch is planned for a 30-second window at 6:32 Florida time; if for some reason they miss that window, they’ll have to wait until the moon comes round again — a March 20 launch was already canceled.

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This Skin Patch Can Power A Radio For 2 Days Using Your Own Sweat

Researchers have created a new skin patch that has powered a radio for two days using only human sweat. The Biofuel Skin Patch uses the sweat to provide its power – meaning it could be used to charge up devices like phones in the near future.




“If you were out for a run, you would be able to power a mobile device,” said Joseph Wang from the University of California, San Diego.

His research team at the university have been working on the technology. The biofuel patch is a few centimeters wide and sticks directly on the skin.

skin patch

It works by using enzymes that act like the metals inside regular batteries, which are then powered up by feeding off the lactic acid found in sweat.

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Have You Ever Wonder How Does A Mosquito Fly?

Mosquitoes are strange fliers. Compared with other insects, birds, and bats, their shorter wing strokes and oddly long—and skinny—wings have made scientists wonder how they can get off the ground at all.

Now, a new study shows how these animals get their lift: with help from a clever rotation of their wings.




Most animals generate lift, the force that keeps them aloft, during the downstroke of each wing beat.

This creates a vortex of swirling air over the wing’s leading edge, which lowers the pressure above the wing and pushes the animal up.


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10 People Who Died From Incredibly Minor Injuries | Random Thursday

From slipping on an orange peel to using too much deodorant, these are cases of people who died from incredibly minor injuries.

10 Death from Hamster Spit

Goro Ito, from Japan, Died after his pet hamster named Aiko bit him. The autopsy showed that he had died after reacting to a protein in the hamster’s saliva that brought about a case of anaphylaxis

9 Death from Peacock Scratch

On March 30, 1997, Vichai Thongto from Thailand was feeding the family’s four peacocks when one clawed at his head. He soon began suffering headaches and fell into a coma. A hospital scan showed a blood clot on his brain due to the peacock’s scratch. He died the next day.

8 Death from Deodorant

Jonathan Capewell from Oldham England was obsessed with smelling fresh and would cover his entire body with deodorant at least twice a day. He died July 20th, 1998 from a heart attack after the deodorant gasses built up in his body over months of repeatedly spraying himself in his unventilated bathroom.

7 Death from Manners

Tycho Brahe, a Danish nobleman and astronomer, died October 24, 1601 from bladder complications after attending a banquet where he refused to use the restroom knowing that it was impolite to leave before the meal was done. After the banquet Tycho no longer was able to urinate, and 10 days later he died. It is reported that he wrote his own epitaph, stating “He lived like a sage and died like a fool.”

6 Death by Dessert

Adolf Frederick, the King of Sweden, ate himself to death in 1771 after having a meal consisting of lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, cabbage soup, smoked herring, champagne, and 14 servings of his favorite dessert, Selma (Bread dipped in a bowl of hot milk) He is known by Swedish children as “The King that Ate Himself to Death”
I wonder if Tycho Brahe was at that meal because that would have taken a while…

5 Death by Laughter

On 24th of March 1975, Alex Mitchell passed away after watching the “Kung Fu Kapers” episode of The Goodies. Reportedly, due to the TV episode, Mitchell laughed continuously for 25 minutes, and finally fell dead on the sofa from heart failure. His widow later sent a thank you letter to The Goodies for making Mitchell’s final moments of life so pleasant.

4 Death by Fastball

At the top of the 5th inning, Ray “Chappie” Chapman, shortstop for the Cleveland Indians baseball team, was hit by a submarine ball thrown by Carl Mays. The Baseball hit Chapman in the temple. Chapman collapsed and died August 17, 1920, about 12 hours later. He remains the only baseball player killed by a pitched ball.

3 Death from Frustration

Jack Daniel, yes, THE Jack Daniel, died of blood poisoning the originated in his toe. One early morning in 1911, Jack daniel kicked his office safe in anger, because he couldn’t remember the combination to open it. That anger and a powerful kick to the safe resulted in an infection in his toe and ultimately his death. His last words were, “One last drink, please.”

2 Death by Tongue

Allan Pinkerton, the founder of the famous Pinkerton detective agency, died in Chicago in 1884 after he slipped on the pavement and severely bit down on his tongue. Due to the bit, his tongue became infected with gangrene, which resulted in his untimely death.

1 Death by Irony

Bobby Leach was one of the greatest dare devils to ever live. He would regularly perform death defying stunts and was only the second person in history to go over the side of the Niagara Falls in a barrel. One day, however, while walking down a quiet street in New Zealand, Leach slipped on an orange peel, broke his leg, and died due to complications that he developed afterwards.

This 6-String Smart Guitar Will Help You Rock en Roll

You’re looking at an interesting little device called the Jamstik, a five-fret “Smart Guitar” that functions as a MIDI controller.

Through a combination of real guitar strings and a sensor-equipped fret board, the Jamstik converts your strumming’ into MIDI data.

This controller is first and foremost an educational device aimed at folks who want to learn basics of guitar.

Jamstik normally connects to your iOS device by broadcasting its own adhoc Wi-Fi network. The free Jamstik Connect app will walk you through this process, but it’s really just a matter of taking a trip to the iOS Settings app and connecting to the “Jamstik” Wi-Fi network.

Once you’ve done that, returning back to the Connect app lets you check for firmware updates, adjust some settings on the device, and try it out by plucking a few strings.

Once configured, Jamstik Connect runs in the background and provides the Core MIDI bridge for other third-party apps, so you can use the Jamstik with pretty much any iOS MIDI app from Apple’s GarageBand to Zivix’s own Jam Tutor and Jam Mix apps.

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Turn Your Brainwaves Into Knitted Patterns With This Cool Invention

What happens when you cross knitting with neurosciences?

Artist-duo Mar Canet and Varvara Guljajeva, together with MTG researcher Sebastian Mealla, managed to somehow combine this unlikely pairing in their latest project NeuroKnitting.

NeuroKnitting plots brainwave activity into a knitted pattern, meaning you can create a nice scarf just by thinking. It works by measuring and scanning three main features: relaxation, excitement, and cognitive load.

Using an EEG headset, the wearer is asked to sit and listen to Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” The resulting brain activity is then transferred into a knitting pattern with every stitch corresponding to a unique brain state.

The reason the group chose music is because of its ability to invoke strong emotions in the listener and stir the brain into activity.

The knitted garments are developed through an open-source knitting machined called Knitic that Canet and Guljajeva began as a residency project at Marginalia Lab in Brazil.

The machine creates the personalized scarves by turning the three scans into a pattern featuring two colors.

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This Prehistoric ‘Sea Monster’ May Be Largest That Ever Lived

This reassembled jaw bone belonged to the 85-foot ichthyosaur.

The ancient remains of a gigantic marine reptile have been found in southwestern England.

Known as an ichthyosaur, the animal lived about 205 million years ago and was up to 85 feet long—almost as big as a blue whale, say the authors of a study describing the fossil published today in PLOS ONE.

Biology textbook have long touted the modern blue whale as the largest animal that ever lived, but this and other fascinating fossil finds hint that there may once have been even bigger creatures swimming Earth’s seas.

What is this animal?

Ichthyosaurs were ocean-going contemporaries of the dinosaurs, with body shapes superficially similar to dolphins.

They reached their greatest diversity about 210 million years ago in the late Triassic, but some persisted into the late Cretaceous.




They vanished from the fossil record about 25 million years before the mass extinction that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs.

Most ichthyosaurs were much smaller than the newly discovered creature—several species in the genus Ichthyosaurus also found in the U.K. were just 5 to 11 feet long.

How did paleontologists find it?

Self-taught fossil hunter and study coauthor Paul de la Salle was combing the beach at Lilstock, Somerset, in May 2016 when he found a large and puzzling chunk of fossil bone.

Suspecting it might be an ichthyosaur, he sent images to marine reptile experts Dean Lomax at the University of Manchester in the U.K. and Judy Massare at SUNY Brockport in New York.

Further searching revealed five fossil pieces that fitted together to form a 3.2-foot-long bone, which the scientists identified as being from the lower jaw of an ichthyosaur.

Based on the size of the bone, the scientists think this ichthyosaur was bigger than any previously known to science.

Reconstructions of the giant ichthyosaur Shonisaurus show its skeletal structure and what it might have looked like in life.

Why is this discovery important?

Lomax says the discovery has led them to reinterpret a whole series of isolated bones found near the village of Aust in Gloucestershire, England.

Some collected as early as 1850, these fragments had long been interpreted to be the limb or other bones of terrestrial dinosaurs, but this never quite made sense.

The scientists realized these pieces also belonged to giant ichthyosaurs—and possibly to ones even bigger than the newly identified animal.

Darren Naish, a paleontologist at the University of Southampton in the U.K., agrees that the sizes of all these bones are astounding.

He is part of a different team that recently examined the Aust bones and similarly concluded that they belonged to enormous ichthyosaurs.

He concurs with the size estimates of the study authors, and says that these animals were “approaching or exceeding various giant baleen whales in size.

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Contagious Cancer Drives the Risk of Extinction Of Tasmanian Devils

Twenty years ago, scientists identified a bizarre new disease afflicting Australia’s Tasmanian devils. These black, rambunctious, corgi-sized predators started turning up with grotesque facial tumors that proved invariably fatal.

The disease, aptly named devil facial tumor disease (DFTD), quickly spread through the devils’ island home of Tasmania, slashing their numbers by up to 90 percent in some regions, and consigning them to the endangered-species list in 2008.

After a decade, scientists realized that all cases of DFTD are genetically identical. The tumors were all clones of each other, and distinct from the devils that harbor them.

The conclusion was clear and astonishing—DFTD is a contagious cancer, and the devils were catching it from each other.

Cancers are almost always confined to a single body: when their host dies, so do they. But in the Tasmanian devils, one particular tumor had evolved the ability to jump from host to host.

The boisterous devils spread this transmissible tumor when they squabble over carcasses and bite each other in the face.




Contagious cancers don’t exist in humans; we can develop cancer after contracting infections like the HPV virus or the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, but the tumors themselves can’t spread between people.

In fact, DFTD is one of only three known wild transmissible tumors.

There’s also CTVT, a venereal tumor of dogs, which arose around 11,000 years ago, and has since conquered the world by hitchhiking on the genitals of domestic pooches.

And there’s a water-borne leukemia that’s spreading through North America’s soft-shell clams. That’s it.

They’re flukes of nature,” says Elizabeth Murchison from the University of Cambridge, who has studied DFTD for years. Our whole paradigm about transmissible cancers is that they’re extraordinarily rare.

Or are they?

In March 2014, Murchison’s colleague Ruth Pye, a graduate student at the University of Tasmania, noticed something weird about a facial tumor taken from a devil captured just north of Hobart.

Physically, it looked like DFTD; genetically, it was clearly something different. For example, DFTD cells have lost their X and Y sex chromosomes, both of which were present in the new tumor.

Pye reasoned that this particular devil had spontaneously developed its own type of facial tumor that looked like DFTD, but wasn’t. It was a one-off.

Except, a few months later, she found the same genetically distinct tumor in a second devil from the same area.

In both cases, the tumors bore absolutely no genetic resemblance to either DFTD or their respective hosts. These devils had developed a second type of contagious cancer.

We absolutely couldn’t believe it,” says Murchison. “It’s the last thing I could have possibly imagined.”

It could be that the devils are extraordinarily susceptible to these kinds of cancers.

A historical population crash left them with very low genetic diversity, which perhaps stops their immune systems from recognizing the foreign cancer cells and fighting them off.

They also bite each other on the face a lot, which provides an easy route of transmission.

But that doesn’t explain why DFT1 and DFT2 didn’t exist before the 1990s. It’s unlikely that scientists simply didn’t notice; as Murchison says, you can’t miss tumors that are that obvious.

Maybe something is triggering them, some kind of predisposing agent or infection,” says Murchison. “We really don’t understand it.

There’s one silver lining: DFT2 could help scientists to better understand DFT1, its more common and problematic cousin. “Any mutations that are common to both of them are probably going to be important,” says Murchison.

I’m hoping it’s a chance to learn more about transmissible cancers in devils and do something to help save them.

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Watch Zuckerberg Testify Before Congress

Senator Leahy brought out this board and asked Zuckerberg if it specifically shows groups run by Russian operatives.

After yesterday’s seemingly endless marathon hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, today Mark Zuckerberg heads to the House, where he’ll be answering questions in front of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Yesterday’s session featured almost 50 legislators peppering Zuckerberg with queries about how Facebook safeguards user data, details on the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

And even questions about what kind of regulations Zuckerberg believes should be put in place to regulate Facebook.




The day ended with a number of revelations: Zuckerberg said that Facebook “doesn’t feel” like a monopoly to him, but he had a hard time naming a viable competitor.

He hinted that there may one day be a paid version of the platform; over and over, he promised senators that data privacy was a legitimate concern, and a priority for the platform.

Mark supports legislation to rein in Facebook’s data collection powers, but he had a hard time committing to supporting new laws that would do that.

This print shows how This Is Your Digital Life conflicted with the terms of service from Facebook at the time.

And he once again tried to tamp down suspicion that Facebook listened to our conversations through our phones.

We also learned that a lot of the legislators responsible for regulating Facebook don’t fully understand what Facebook is — or how it works.

Zuckerberg looked mostly comfortable and confident through the almost 5-hour long hearing. Let’s see how he holds up on day two.

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