Category: News Posts

Goldfish Make Alcohol In Their Cells To Survive Months Without Oxygen In Icy Waters

Goldfish can survive for months at a time in oxygen-free water. They convert lactic acid into ethanol which keeps them alive under frozen lakes.

A little bit of alcohol probably means they lose their inhibitions too. Goldfish and carp produce at least 50 mg per millilitre in their blood.

This puts them above the legal drink drive limit in most countries“, lead researcher Michael Berenbrink said.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

This Battery Is Powered By Your Own Spit

Researchers have created a battery that is activated by your spit, which could lead to cleaner sources of energy in the future.

Carried out by Binghamton University in New York, the study was published in the journal Advanced Materials Technologies.

The paper-based battery is powered by bacteria, using microbial fuels cells combined with freeze-dried exoelectrogenic cells. These are microorganisms that transfer electrons outside their cells.

Within minutes of adding power, these cells generated power. With a power density of a few microwatts per centimeter square, 16 of the microbial fuel cells connected together powered a light-emitting diode (LED) for 20 minutes.

The batteries could be shaped in different ways, including folded like sheets or shaped like a ninja star. Aside from spit, they were also able to generate power with a drop of dirty water.

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Scientists Discovered That Taste Comes From The Brain, Not The Tongue

Researchers in the US have turned taste on and off in mice simply by activating and silencing certain brain cells.

This demonstrates for the first time that taste is hardwired in the brain, and not dictated by our tastebuds, flipping our previous understanding of how taste works on its head.

It was previously thought that the taste receptors on our tongue perceived the five basic tastes – sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami – and then passed these messages onto our brain, where it registered what we’d just tasted.

But the new study shows that although our tongues do detect the presence of certain chemicals, it’s our brains that perceive flavour.

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How Does Climate Change Affect Sea Turtles?

The effects of global warming will have enormous impacts on sea turtles and other wildlife. The rate of global warming far exceeds the abilities of animals to adapt naturally to such dramatic environmental changes.

These changes are predicted to cause the extinction of many species over the next few decades.

Sea level rise from the melting of polar ice is already contributing to the loss of beach and sea turtle nesting habitat.

Weather extremes, also linked to climate change, mean more frequent and severe storms which alter nesting beaches, cause beach erosion, and inundate, or flood sea turtle nests.

Hotter sand from increasing temperatures results in decreased hatching rates or complete nest failure. Increased sand temperatures also affect hatchlings by altering natural sex ratios, with hotter temperatures producing more female hatchlings.

Sea turtles use ocean currents to travel and find prey. Warming ocean temperatures influence migratory species by altering currents and impacting the distribution and abundance of prey species.

This can result in southerly species being found in more northerly regions, well outside of their normal range.

Warmer water temperatures also affect coral reefs through coral bleaching which are vital to the survival of species like the hawksbill.

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Pass it on: Popular Science


Genetically Engineering Pigs To Grow Organs For People

Scientists announce the birth of 37 pigs gene-edited to be better for human transplant.

The idea of transplanting organs from pigs into humans has been around for a long time. And for a long time, xenotransplants—or putting organs from one species into another—has come up against two seemingly insurmountable problems.

The first problem is fairly intuitive: Pig organs provoke a massive and destructive immune response in humans—far more so than an organ from another person.

The second problem is less obvious: Pig genomes are rife with DNA sequences of viruses that can infect human cells.

In the 1990s, the pharmaceutical giant Novartis planned to throw as much $1 billion at animal-to-human transplant research, only to shutter its research unit after several years of failed experiments.

Quite suddenly, however, solving these two problems has become much easier and much faster thanks to the gene-editing technology CRISPR.

With CRISPR, scientists can knock out the pig genes that trigger the human immune response. And they can inactivate the viruses—called porcine endogenous retroviruses, or PERVs—that lurk in the pig genome.

On Thursday, scientists working for a startup called eGenesis reported the birth of 37 PERV-free baby pigs in China, 15 of them still surviving.

The black-and-white piglets are now several months old, and they belong to a breed of miniature pigs that will grow no bigger than 150 pounds—with organs just the right size for transplant into adult humans.

eGenesis spun out of the lab of the Harvard geneticist George Church, who previously reported inactivating 62 copies of PERV from pig cells in 2015. But the jump from specialized pig cells that grow well in labs to living PERV-free piglets wasn’t easy.

We didn’t even know we could have viable pigs,” says Luhan Yang, a former graduate student in Church’s lab and co-founder of eGenesis.

When her team first tried to edit all 62 copies in pig cells that they wanted to turn into embryos, the cells died. They were more sensitive than the specialized cell lines.

Eventually, Yang and her team figured out a chemical cocktail that could keep these cells alive through the gene-editing process. This technique could be useful in large-scale gene-editing projects unrelated to xenotransplants, too.

When Yang and her team first inactivated PERV from cells in a lab, my colleague Ed Yong suggested that the work was an example of CRISPR’s power rather than a huge breakthrough in pig-to-human transplants, given the challenges of immune compatibility.

And true, Yang and Church come at this research as CRISPR pioneers, but not experts in transplantation. At a gathering of organ-transplantation researchers last Friday, Church said that his team had identified about 45 genes to make pig organs more compatible with humans, though he was open to more suggestions.

I would bet we are not as sophisticated as we should be because we’ve only been recently invited [to meetings like this],” he said. It’s an active area of research for eGenesis, though Yang declined to disclose what the company has accomplished so far.

Using CRISPR, his team has created a triple-knockout pig that lacks alpha-gal as well as two other genes involved in molecules that that provoke the human immune system’s  immediate “hyperacute rejection” of pig organs.

For about 30 percent of people, the organs from these triple-knockout pigs should not cause hyperacute rejection. With the ability to engineer a donor pig, pig organs can go beyond simply matching a human organ.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Saturn’s Moon Titan Has A Key Ingredient That Could Be Used To Cook Up Life

Saturn’s moon Titan harbors a key chemical ingredient that may allow organisms to exist on this distant, chilly world.

Astronomers have spotted a molecule in Titan’s atmosphere that could be instrumental in the formation of cells, which are a crucial building block of life.

That means the molecule — and possibly some form of cellular life — might be located on the moon’s surface as well.

Researchers have suspected for a while that Titan might have this compound, called vinyl cyanide. NASA’s Cassini probe, which has been exploring the Saturn system for 13 years, found hints of the molecule when sniffing out the moon’s atmosphere, but its measurements haven’t been conclusive.

Now, astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, or ALMA, observatory in Chile say they have definitely measured a large amount of vinyl cyanide in the upper atmosphere. They’ve detailed their findings in the journal Science Advances.

On Earth, the outer layer of most cells — called membranes — are made up of fatty molecules called lipids. But lipids can’t form on Titan: they need liquid water to exist and the moon’s temperatures hover around -290 degrees Fahrenheit on the surface.

However, Titan has liquid methane lakes, and astronomers have wondered if these liquids could take the place of water to build other forms of organic life.

So in 2015, scientists used computer simulations to figure out what compounds could form stable cell membranes in the chilly lakes of Titan. And vinyl cyanide appeared to be the best candidate.

Titan has a big appeal as a place to look for life elsewhere in our Solar System. Aside from its tantalizing lakes, the moon has a thick atmosphere, predominantly made up of nitrogen and other compounds commonly associated with life here on Earth.

Detecting vinyl cyanide is a good reason to continue exploring Titan to see what might by lurking on its surface.

This is a far cry from saying [life] definitely happens on Titan and these cells are involved in some kind of primitive life,” co-author Martin Cordiner, an astrochemist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said.

But it gives us a starting point in that discussion. If there was going to be life in Titan’s oceans, then it’s plausible vinyl cyanide could be a component of that.

The discovery was made possible by ALMA, one of the most sensitive telescopes in the world. Made up of 66 different individual telescopes in Chile’s Atacama Desert, the observatory is great for detecting super cold gases in space by measuring the radio waves these gases emit.

In Titan’s atmosphere, the various gas molecules are constantly rotating, jumping back and forth from one level of energy to another.

And whenever a molecule goes from a high-energy level to a lower one, it releases a radio wave. Different types of molecules emit waves at different types of frequencies.

ALMA was able to figure out how much vinyl cyanide was present by measuring how many waves were coming off of Titan at a certain frequency.

The researchers only spotted the compound in the moon’s upper atmosphere, but vinyl cyanide might be in the lakes below as well.

Scientists think that methane goes through a weather cycle similar to the one on Earth. The methane forms into droplets in the atmosphere, which periodically fall to the surface as rainfall.

The vinyl cyanide may be hitching a ride on this rain and traveling down from the atmosphere to the lakes, where it potentially forms pretty stable cell membranes.

Based on the ALMA findings, it looks like there’s a lot of vinyl cyanide to do that. The researchers measured so much of the compound, that 10 million cell membranes per cubic centimeter could be present in one of Titan’s largest lakes, Ligeia Mare.

These membranes could be pretty flexible, too, according to Paulette Clancy, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Cornell University, who worked on the original computer simulation. This is key for the cells to divide and reproduce.

The flexibility of that membrane would be the same as the flexibility for our cell membranes on Earth, which is really cool because they’re totally different in chemical composition,” Clancy tells The Verge.

Of course, the idea that cell membranes even exist on Titan is all theoretical for now. The only way to know for sure is to send another probe to the moon, perhaps one that could float on the methane lakes and measure what’s inside.

There’s been some discussion of maybe sending a boat or something like that to Titan to observe what’s really going on in the lakes,” says co-author Maureen Palmer, an astrochemist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

For now, ALMA’s discovery helps paint a more vivid portrait of just how interesting Titan is. Vinyl cyanide is a fairly complex molecule, made up of seven elements.

It’s difficult to find such complicated molecules far away from Earth. But many of the moons in the outer Solar System, such as Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s other moon Enceladus, are turning out to harbor complex chemicals and processes we thought only existed on Earth.

As we explore more in the outer Solar System, these moons of the giant planets reveal to us that they are much more fascinating environments than we could have ever imagined,” says Cordiner. “Complex chemistry is not unique to Earth.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

Pollution Is Turning Sea Snakes Black For A Surprising Reason

The turtle-headed sea snake usually sports beautiful bands of alternating black and white. But for decades, researchers have been puzzled by populations living near Pacific Ocean cities that seem to have lost their stripes.

Now a new study may finally have an answer: The pigment in black skin may help city snakes rid themselves of industrial pollutants.

By collecting shed skin from turtle-headed sea snakes in a variety of habitats, scientists discovered that all-black, urban snakes had higher concentrations of trace elements such as arsenic and zinc than did snakes far from cities.

Importantly, the team found the same phenomenon in skin samples from another black-and-white banded snake, the sea krait.

Finally, the scientists observed all-black sea snakes shed their skins more frequently than their rural counterparts, supporting the idea that the darker color allows reptiles to withstand the stresses of city life.

Snake populations are declining worldwide due to human activities, so it is good news that one species evolved a way to resist to pollution,” says study leader Claire Goiran, a marine biologist at the University of New Caledonia and the LabEx Corail.

If the researchers’ findings are correct, the turtle-headed sea snake would join a short list of animals that show “industrial melanism.”

The most famous example is the United Kingdom’s peppered moth, which evolved a darker color to stay camouflaged in forests blackened by coal pollution.

But it was another color-changing animal that made Goiran suspect industrial melanism in turtle-headed sea snakes: She read a paper by University of Warsaw biologist Marion Chatelain that found Parisian pigeons with darker feathers were better able to store toxins than their light feathered counterparts.

What’s more, the pigment that makes feathers (and skin) dark, called melanin, has a tendency to bind to metal ions, which means that growing darker feathers can actually serve as a way for birds to expel toxins from their bodies.

Home to around 100,000 people and a nickel metallurgical plant, Nouméa and its surrounding waters contain both urban and industrial pollution, she says. Goiran suspects the snakes absorb the toxins via the fish that they eat.

Chatelain called the new study interesting, as it’s likely the first to demonstrate a link between darker colorations and metal concentrations in a reptile.

For instance, the study analyzed the metal content between dark and light bands on sea kraits, not turtle-headed sea snakes.

The authors hypothesize that the same trends hold true for the turtle-headed species— but to know this, Chatelain says, skin samples from both colorations of the species from an urban area are required.

Therein lies the problem: It’s almost impossible to find a striped turtle-headed sea snake in an urban area these days, says Goiran.

In Nouméa, as few as 5 percent of the turtle-headed snakes still have their stripes, she says. What’s more, the species only sheds its skin three to four times a year, reducing the odds a researcher will find a sample.

On the other hand, sea kraits shed their skins on land, so they’re much easier to collect.

The study is not finished yet,” Goiran says. “We have many more things to learn from sea snakes.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

Rogue Toy Drones Are Interfering With Military Operations

The Air Force revolutionized drone warfare. Now it’s finding itself on the defensive.

Rogue toy drones — a hot-selling Christmas gift this season and last — are starting to interfere with military operations at several bases across the country.

With sales of consumer drones expected to approach 700,000 this year, military officials say they are bracing for the problem to get worse and are worried about the potential for an aviation disaster.

Last month, an Air Force A-29 Super Tucano aircraft reported a near midair collision with a small rogue drone over the Grand Bay Bombing and Gunnery Range in Georgia, Air Force officials said.

In June, an Air Force KC-10 aerial refueling tanker flying over the Philadelphia suburbs at an altitude of 3,800 feet was forced to take evasive action and barely avoided striking a football-sized drone that passed within 10 feet of its right wing, officials said.

There have been at least 35 cases of small drones interfering with military aircraft or operating too close to military airfields in 2015, according to reports filed with the armed forces or the Federal Aviation Administration.

That’s a small fraction of the estimated 1,000 reports received by the FAA this year of small drones interfering with civilian air traffic or coming too close to passenger airports.

But military officials, who once thought the remote locations of their airfields and restricted airspace offered a measure of protection from wandering drones, said they are no longer immune.

Cmdr. William Marks, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon, said Navy pilots or air-traffic controllers at U.S. bases have reported close calls or encounters with unauthorized drones 12 times in the past three months.

Prior to that, the Navy was recording an average of less than one incident per month.

One military airfield that has experienced multiple risky encounters with drones is the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Ariz.

In May, a Marine Corps Harrier jet coming in for a landing at Yuma reported a small blue drone about 100 feet off its right side. In July, a Navy T-45 Goshawk training aircraft flew within 100 feet of another drone about five miles west of Yuma, according to FAA records.

Col. Robert Huber, a senior Army aviation official, said his service has not received any reports of problems with rogue drones on Army installations so far.

But given the experiences of other branches of the military, he said the Army anticipates “that there could be more challenges.

Prior to last year, close encounters with rogue drones were almost unheard of. But rapid advances in technology and falling prices have led to a boom in sales — and a corresponding surge in reports of air-traffic chaos.

Under FAA guidelines, drone pilots flying for recreation are supposed to keep their aircraft below 400 feet and at least five miles away from airports. Regulators, however, have been largely unable to enforce those guidelines.

More than 45,000 people registered in the first two days, overwhelming the system and forcing the FAA to take it offline temporarily for repairs. The FAA said it expects that as many as 400,000 small drones could be sold during the holidays.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

A Newly Discovered Skull Reveals What The Common Ancestor Of Humans And Apes May Have Looked Like

An infant ape cranium named as “Alesi”, excavated from the site of an archaeological dig at Napudet, west of Lake Turkana in Kenya.

Scientists have named a new species of ape based on a 13-million-year-old skull fossil.

It belonged to a new species called Nyanzapithecus alesi that was closely related to the common ancestor of people and modern apes although that ancestor likely was even older, University College London paleontologist Fred Spoor said.

The sole specimen is that of an infant that would have grown to weigh about 11 kilogrammes (24 pounds) in adulthood. Its adult brain volume would have been nearly three times larger than that of known African monkeys from the same time, the researchers estimate.

If you compare to all living things, it looks most like a gibbon“, study co-author Isaiah Nengo of the Stony Brook University in NY told AFP. The same probably held for N. alesi, making it an unlikely direct ancestor of living gibbons, they conclude.

The skull may answer a long-standing question about the origin of the lineage that led to people and modern apes such as chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and gibbons, indicating their common ancestor evolved in Africa, not Eurasia, the scientists said.

The lemon-sized skull was found in Kenya by an global team of researchers, and was dated to the middle of the Miocene era, a little-understood time when many species of ape arose in Africa, including common ancestors of both modern apes and humans.

With this we put the root of the hominoidea in Africa more firmly“, said Nengo.

Scientists assigned it to a new species, Nyanzapithecus alesi. If an evolutionary relationship existed with the older N. alesi, the first members of the Oreopithecus genus probably originated in Africa, Nengo proposes.

That group, which has no official name yet, lived and died millions of years ago.

As well as dating to the “dark ages” of human origins, it is also the most complete extinct ape skull in the fossil record.

Alesi is the one that has allowed us to. know who is in that group. and when we take a close look we see that most of the group are found in Africa“.

The record of African fossil hominoids (primates that include apes, humans and their ancestors) lacked a almost complete cranium from between 17 million and 7 million years ago, the study notes.

We have a handsome ape cranium from a period that we knew virtually nothing about and this is one of those wonderful cases where discovery leads to all sorts of new and interesting perspectives“, Craig Feibel, who chairs Rutgers’ Department of Anthropology and is a professor of geology and anthropology, said in a statement.

The skull resembles a baby gibbon’s. But the balance organ inside its inner ear differed from gibbons and suggested Alesi’s species moved through trees more cautiously and had shorter arms than gibbons, which swing through trees with acrobatic ease.

Growth lines on the adult teeth showed Alesi was one year and four months old at death.

Commenting on the study, anthropologist Brenda Benefit of the New Mexico State University described this as a fossil find “that I never thought would be made during my lifetime“.

It’s a major finding that fills a large gap in the evolutionary record“.

This is an exceptional discovery“, agreed Paul Tafforeau of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, who helped examine the skull.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

This Self-Shading Windows Change From Clear To Dark In An Instant

Three MIT chemists just gave us a glimpse into the future of smart windows. Their groundbreaking “self-shading” window can quickly change from clear to dark – and then stay that way without using any electricity.

The windows could help everyone from homeowners looking to save on heating and cooling costs to pilots trying to get a clearer view out the cockpit window.

The MIT researchers’ work was published this week in the journal Chem. In the paper, the chemists detail their innovative use of electrochromic materials to bypass issues involved with creating self-shading windows.

For example, transition lenses in eyeglasses are able to change from clear to dark, but the process is relatively slow.

This isn’t the first time electrochromic materials have been used – they can be found in Boeing 787 windows that darken over time with the flip of a switch.

But those Boeing windows still take a few minutes to change. The positive ions that help with the color change move slowly, delaying the darkening process.

To solve that issue, the MIT chemists used materials known as metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), which conduct ions and electrons quickly.

Again, the use of MOFs isn’t new, but the MIT team is the “first to harness them for their electrical and optical properties” so their windows darken quickly.

Further, it’s easier to create windows that can tint blue or green, but the MIT’s windows are nearly black. Once the windows turn dark with the help of a little electricity, they stay dark without using any power until a switch is flipped to clear them up again.

Paper co-author Mircea Dincă said, “It’s the combination of these two, of a relatively fast switching time and a nearly black color, that has really got people excited…These could lead to pretty significant energy savings.

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Pass it on: Popular Science