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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Two New Star Systems Are First Of Their Kind Ever Found

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Astronomers have spied a faraway star system that is so unusual, it was one of a kind -- until its discovery helped them pinpoint a second one that was much closer to home.

In a paper published in a recent issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters, Ohio State University astronomers and their colleagues suggest that these star systems are the progenitors of a rare type of supernova.

They discovered the first star system 13 million light years away, tucked inside Holmberg IX, a small galaxy that is orbiting the larger galaxy M81. They studied it between January and October 2007 with the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) on Mt. Graham in Arizona.

The star system is unusual, because it’s what the astronomers have called a “yellow supergiant eclipsing binary” -- it contains two very bright, massive yellow stars that are very closely orbiting each other. In fact, the stars are so close together that a large amount of stellar material is shared between them, so that the shape of the system resembles a peanut.

In a repeating cycle, one star moves to the front and blocks our view of the other. From Earth, the star system brightens and dims, as we see light from two stars, then only one star.

The two stars in this system appear to be nearly identical, each 15 to 20 times the mass of our sun.

José Prieto, Ohio State University graduate student and lead author on the journal paper, analyzed the new star system as part of his doctoral dissertation. In his research, he scoured the historical record to determine whether his group had indeed found the first such binary.


It contains two very bright, massive yellow stars that are very closely orbiting each other. In fact, the stars are so close together that a large amount of stellar material is shared between them, so that the shape of the system resembles a peanut.


To his surprise, he uncovered another one a little less than 230,000 light years away in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a small galaxy that orbits our own Milky Way.

The star system had been discovered in the 1980s, but was misidentified. When Prieto re-examined the data that astronomers had recorded at the time, he saw that the pattern of light was very similar to the one they had detected outside of M81. The stars were even the same size -- 15 to 20 times the mass of the sun -- and melded together in the same kind of peanut shape. The system was clearly a yellow supergiant eclipsing binary.

“We didn’t expect to find one of these things, much less two,” said Kris Stanek, associate professor of astronomy at Ohio State. “You never expect this sort of thing. But I think this shows how flexible you have to be in astrophysics. We needed the 8.4-meter LBT to spot the first binary, but the second one is so bright that you could see it with binoculars in your back yard. Yet, if we hadn’t found the first one, we may never have found the second one.”

“It shows that there are still valuable discoveries hidden in plain sight. You just have to keep your eyes open and connect the dots.”

The find may help solve another mystery. Of all the supernovae that have been studied over the years, two have been linked to yellow supergiants -- and that’s two more than astronomers would expect.

Prieto explained why. Over millions of years, a star will burn hotter or cooler as it consumes different chemical elements in its core. The most massive stars swing back and forth between being cool red supergiants or hot blue ones. They spend most of their lives at one end of the temperature scale or the other, but spend only a short time in-between, where they are classified as yellow. Most stars end their life in a supernova at the red end of the cycle; a few do at the blue end. But none do it during the short yellow transitional phase in between.

At least, that’s what astronomers thought.

Prieto, Stanek, and their colleagues suspect that yellow binary systems like the ones they found could be the progenitors of these odd supernovae.

“When two stars orbit each other very closely, they share material, and the evolution of one affects the other,” Prieto said. “It’s possible two supergiants in such a system would evolve more slowly, and spend more time in the yellow phase -- long enough that one of them could explode as a yellow supergiant.”

The discovery of this yellow supergiant binary system is just the first result of a long-term LBT project to monitor stellar variability in the nearby universe. That project is led by Ohio State professor of astronomy, Chris Kochanek. He and Rick Pogge, also a professor of astronomy, are coauthors on the paper in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Their collaborators were from the University of Minnesota, the Osservatorio Astronomico di Padova, Steward Observatory, the Max-Planck-Institut für extraterrestrische Physik, the Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma, the University of Notre Dame, and the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory. They used observations from the 8.4-meter LBT and from the 2.4-meter telescope at the nearby MDM observatory.

The LBT is an international collaboration among institutions in the United States, Italy and Germany. The LBT Corporation partners are: the University of Arizona on behalf of the Arizona university system; Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica, Italy; LBT Beteiligungsgesellschaft, Germany, representing the Max Planck Society, the Astrophysical Institute Potsdam, and Heidelberg University; Ohio State University; The Research Corporation, on behalf of The University of Notre Dame, University of Minnesota, and University of Virginia.

This research was funded by the National Science Foundation.

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Ancient clay tablet deciphered, may solve asteroid mystery

 Scratches on clay tablet hold clue to asteroid mystery
The tablet shows drawings of constellations and pictogram-based text known as cuneiform

British scientists have deciphered a mysterious ancient clay tablet and believe they have solved a riddle over a giant asteroid impact more than 5,000 years ago.

Geologists have long puzzled over the shape of the land close to the town of Köfels in the Austrian Alps, but were unable to prove it had been caused by an asteroid.

Now researchers say their translation of symbols on a star map from an ancient civilisation includes notes on a mile-wide asteroid that later hit Earth - which could have caused tens of thousands of deaths.

The circular clay tablet was discovered 150 years ago by Sir Austen Henry Layard, a leading Victorian archaeologist, in the remains of the royal palace at Nineveh, capital of ancient Assyria, in what is now Iraq.

The tablet, on display at the British Museum, shows drawings of constellations and pictogram-based text known as cuneiform - used by the Sumerians, the earliest known civilisation in the world.

A historian from Azerbaijan, who believes humans originally came to Earth from another planet, has interpreted it as a description of the arrival of a spaceship. More mainstream academics have failed to decipher its meaning.

Now Alan Bond, the managing director of a space propulsion company, Reaction Engines, and Mark Hempsell, a senior lecturer in astronautics at Bristol University, have cracked the cuneiform code and used a computer programme that can reconstruct the night sky thousands of years ago to provide a new explanation.

They believe their calculations prove the tablet - a copy made by an Assyrian scribe around 700 BC - is a Sumerian astronomer's notebook recording events in the sky on June 29, 3123 BC.

The pair say its symbols include a note of the trajectory of a large object travelling across the constellation of Pisces which, to within one degree, is consistent with an impact at Köfels.

Mr Hempsell said: "All previous work has drawn a blank on what the tablet is about.

Köfels, in the Austrian Alps
Köfels, in the Austrian Alps, where an asteroid is thought to have hit 5,000 years ago

"It is such a big jigsaw and the pieces we have found fit together so well that I think we have a definitive proof."

The Köfels site was originally interpreted as an asteroid impact, however the lack of an obvious impact crater led modern geologists to believe it to be simply a giant landslide.

However, the Bond-Hempsell theory, outlined in their book published today, A Sumerian Observation of the Köfels Impact Event, suggests that the asteroid left no crater because it clipped a mountain and turned into a fireball.

Mr Hempsell said: "The ground heating, though very short, would be enough to ignite any flammable material, including human hair and clothes.

"It is probable more people died under the plume than in the Alps due to the impact blast."

He added that extreme changes caused to rock and other substances at the site had previously led to the Köfels impact being erroneously dated to around 8,000 years ago.

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Addicted to Mom: Ever wonder why someone is a "mama's boy"?

Researchers have confirmed what a lot of you mothers out there already know: some infants just seem programmed to need their mothers more. As this ScienCentral News video explains, scientists have found a genetic reason why some baby monkeys are more attached to mom, and that the attachment is more like an addiction.


Christina Barr
National Institute on Alcoholism & Alcohol Abuse
Length: 1 min 17 sec
Produced by Joyce Gramza
Edited by Chris Bergendorff
Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc.

Weaning or Withdrawal?

Bonding with mom is an important part of a monkey's development. But just like with people, some kids are easy to wean, while others cling. Now a study of monkeys links these differences in attachment to a gene that's known to be important in addiction.

Christina Barr and colleagues at the National Institute on Alcoholism & Alcohol Abuse study the mu-opioid receptor gene because it tells brain cells to make receptors that respond to opium-like molecules, including the body's natural painkillers, and other pleasure chemicals, but alsolike those in narcotics, alcohol and nicotine. Some people have a version of the gene that is much more sensitive to the rewarding effects of these chemicals than people without this version.

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A Unique View of Disease

New outlook: A technique called Raman spectroscopy can image nanoparticles within the bodies of living mice, such as in the liver (shown here). The technique offers high sensitivity, low cost, and the ability to watch several molecules at once.
Credit: Sanjiv Sam Gambhir, Stanford University

Although scientists understand much about diseases like cancer on a molecular level, imaging diseases still relies largely on anatomy--the outline and shape of a tumor or a clot, for instance. Researchers have been working on ways to visualize molecular changes that take place inside the body, and a new method may offer some advantages over existing anatomical and molecular imaging technologies. In a study published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, a team of researchers at Stanford University used Raman spectroscopy, a technique common in chemical analysis, paired with specialized nanoparticles to noninvasively visualize organs and tumors in living mice. The technique could be useful for studying complex disease processes in animals, and, if found to be safe in humans, it could help clinicians view multiple molecular changes in certain cancers and other diseases.

Raman spectroscopy detects how objects scatter laser light, a phenomenon named after the Indian physicist Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, who discovered the effect in the 1920s. Each type of molecule produces a unique Raman signature. There are several techniques that employ the Raman effect, but this study used SERS (surface enhanced Raman scattering), which relies on roughened surfaces of metal nanoparticles to greatly boost the Raman effect. To create Raman nanoparticles, scientists attach small dye molecules, which scatter light, to these molecular amplifiers. They can then affix molecules that allow them to target the particles to a location in the body, such as antibodies that bind to specific proteins in cells.

A study published last December in Nature Biotechnology, led by Shuming Nie at Emory University, used Raman nanoparticles to target and detect tumors in mice. In this study, the Stanford team used two kinds of Raman nanoparticles--a gold sphere and a carbon nanotube--as well as a specialized microscope to create images of the particles in living mice for the first time. The researchers imaged particles accumulating in the liver of the mouse, demonstrating that the technique could visualize structures within the body. They then used a tumor-specific nanoparticle to image tumors in mice.

The key advantage of this technique is that it allows for what imaging researchers call multiplexing: creating images of several different molecules at once. "One of the problems with imaging is, we tend to only be able to look at one or two things at a time," says Sanjiv Sam Gambhir, lead author of the study and codirector of the Molecular Imaging Program at Stanford. Multiplexing is important in complex diseases like cancer, in which several events occur within tumor cells, each of which could give information about the tumors' status and the likelihood that it will spread. As a first demonstration of multiplexing, Gambhir's team injected mice simultaneously with four kinds of Raman nanoparticles at different concentrations and showed that it is possible to locate the different particles and calculate their concentrations based on their Raman signal.

The most widely used molecular imaging technique in the lab is fluorescence. What makes Raman spectroscopy unique is that "you get a very sharp signal back, unlike [with] fluorescence, where you get a broad spectrum of energy," Gambhir says.

Claudio Vinegoni, an imaging specialist at the Center for Molecular Imaging Research at Harvard and at the Massachusetts General Hospital, who was not involved in the study, says that although scientists can use fluorescent molecules of different colors to see more than one molecule at a time, the ability to multiplex is limited because their signals quickly begin to overlap. In contrast, with Raman spectroscopy, "every molecule has its own Raman spectrum," Vinegoni says, so there is no possibility of the signals interfering. Because of their specificity, Raman nanoparticles can also be imaged at concentrations a thousand times lower than what can be detected using fluorescent quantum dots.

Although Raman spectroscopy could prove immediately useful in animal imaging, Gambhir ultimately hopes to bring it into the clinic. The best method for imaging biochemical events in humans is through PET imaging, in which a radioactive tracer injected into the body makes it possible to detect chemical activity. Gambhir's goal is to "develop the next generation of imaging technologies that wouldn't have to use radioactivity." In addition to its ability to image many things at once, Raman spectroscopy offers better sensitivity than PET and would be much less expensive.

One of the major shortcomings of this technique, as in all optical imaging methods, is the limited ability of light to penetrate deep into tissue. Although it can be used to visualize the internal organs of a mouse, Gambhir says that in humans, the technique would be more useful for visualizing tumors close to the surface of the skin, such as melanomas or even breast cancer. The technique could also be used in conjunction with endoscopes that probe inside the body. Gambhir's team is planning a clinical trial to test the use of Raman particles in conjunction with colonoscopies for detecting early-stage cancers. In this procedure, the nanoparticles could simply be sprayed onto the surface of the colon rather than injected into the body. But a key challenge for bringing this technique into the clinic will be determining the safety of nanoparticles as probes--studies that Gambhir's group is currently undertaking.

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The Firefighting Robot


Stop, Drop and Roll: This autonomous firefighting robot gets its self-preservation instinct from its (very distant) insect cousins. Photo by John MacNeill

Shifting through the mossy undergrowth of Germany’s Black Forest, antennae raised and leg joints quietly clicking forward, OLE (pronounced “oh-luh”) is a St. Bernard–size bug on the prowl. But this mechanized insect isn’t a scavenger—it’s a guardian.

Only a concept now, OLE (short for “Off-road Loescheinheit,” which means “off-road extinguishing apparatus” in German) is a product of the industrial-design studio at the University of Magdeburg-Stendal, about an hour and a half west of Berlin. A robot equipped with tanks of water and powdered fire-extinguishing agents, OLE would be autonomous and guided by GPS, intelligent feelers, and infrared and heat sensors. Design professor Ulrich Wohlgemuth, along with biologist and robot-systems manager Oliver Lange, students, and members of the design firm Transluszent, collaborated on the concept, inspired by the interlinking armor of the common pill bug, Armadillidium vulgare.

That armor is OLE’s fireproof suit. The six legs have a similar protective purpose. “Walking can be nice, but it is generally useless for robots,” Lange points out. “Nature invented walking because it cannot invent the wheel from flesh and blood. In this case, though, if you have wheels, you always have contact with the forest. The concept behind OLE is that he’s digging, and he’s near heat. Legs don’t always have contact with heat.” And from a roboticist’s perspective, six legs is the perfect number, providing stability and making it easy to calculate movement points.

The designers have suggested two different ways for OLE to do its job. One idea is to place the robots in potential hotspots near towns and campgrounds, where they would remain balled-up, waiting for their sensors to pick up fire within a half-mile radius. Another idea is for the ’bot to patrol the woods, actively searching for blazes, although battery life and forest obstacles would limit its range.

Wohlgemuth says a working OLE would be made from fire-resistant ceramic-fiber compounds that could withstand temperatures up to 1,850°F. Each one might cost between $125,000 and $200,000 and weigh 150 to 200 pounds. And in case pranksters wanted to steal one of them from the forest, a GPS beacon on board could be used to track it down.

Forest-fire experts are open to OLE, though many believe that it would be a better scout than firefighter. Margaret Simonson, a fire researcher at the SP Technical Research Institute in Sweden, says the robot would be best used to direct air-dropped firefighting crews. And Henrik Bygbjerg of the Danish Institute of Fire and Security Technology doubts that it could put out anything other than the smallest fires.

There’s no current plan to put OLE into production, but its designers believe that it’s more practical than it might sound. Forest fires in Europe burn approximately 1.25 million acres every year. At that rate, an effective force of fire-controlling robots starts to sound attractive at nearly any price.

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Chloroform provides clue to the enigma of general anaesthesia

One of the earliest general anaesthetics to be used by the medical profession, chloroform, has shed light on a mystery that’s puzzled doctors for more than 150 years – how such anaesthetics actually work.

A discovery described as “true serendipity” made by Leeds University PhD student Dr Yahya Bahnasi, has provided a clue that may unravel the enigma of general anaesthesia – and offer the opportunity to design new generations of anaesthetics without harmful side effects.

“We take general anaesthesia for granted nowadays, but it’s still true to say that we don’t know exactly how it works on a molecular level,” says Dr Bahnasi, a qualified medical doctor on an Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education Scholarship at the University’s Faculty of Biological Sciences.

“However, I was examining the relationship between lipids and atherosclerosis [the furring up of arteries] and it just so happened that the lipids I was using were supplied already dissolved in chloroform. I noticed that the chloroform inhibited, or blocked, the calcium ion channel TRPC5 – it was quite a striking effect.”

Ion channels are pathways that allow electrically charged atoms to pass across cell membranes to carry out various functions such as pain transmission and the timing of the heart beat. TRPC5 calcium ion channels are found in many tissues around the body but are predominant in the brain.

“We know that this ion channel plays a signalling role in the central nervous system, which regulates the conscious and unconscious states, so I was left wondering whether inhibiting this calcium ion channel was one mechanism by which anaesthesia works,” says Dr Bahnasi.

Dr Bahnasi then carried out further experiments with several other modern anaesthetic compounds, both intravenous and inhaled, and found that the blocking effect on the TRPC5 ion channel was the same.

He says that the discovery opens up the opportunity to design and develop new generations of anaesthetics which directly target TRPC5, but with minimised side effects.

“Of course there are multi-molecular events that work together in anaesthesia, and inhibiting the TRPC5 ion channel may just be one of them. But it’s a great start in piecing together the underlying mechanisms and providing a novel molecular target for new drug design,” he says. “And it’s particularly fitting that this evidence was revealed by chloroform, the ‘grandfather’ of modern anaesthetics.”

Further information

Jo Kelly campuspr, Tel: 0113 258 9880 or Mob: 07980 267756, Email: jokelly@campuspr.co.uk

Guy Dixon, University of Leeds Press Office, Tel: 0113 343 8299, Email: g.dixon@leeds.ac.uk

Notes to editors:

1. Yahya Bahnasi, 36, is a qualified medical doctor. He was awarded one of 25 medical scholarships funded annually by the Egyptian Government to study abroad. He is currently in his fourth year of a PhD, working in the research team of Professor David Beech, a reknowned world expert in ion channels, in the Institute of Membrane and Systems Biology.

2. Dr Bahnasi’s research was funded jointly by the Wellcome Trust and the Egyptian Government through his scholarship. The paper Modulation of TRPC5 cation channels by halothane, chloroform and propofol is published in the latest issue of the British Journal of Pharmacology. A copy of the paper is available on request.

3. Anaesthesia means ‘no sensation’ and a general anaesthetic adds unconsciousness to the lack of sensation. General anaesthesia is a multidimensional phenomenon that included unconsciousness, amnesia, analgesia, loss of sensory processing and the depression of movement.

4. Anaesthetics are unique in pharmacology as they are non-specific drugs. The only comparable drugs are disinfectants; for example, we use alcohols and phenols to clean injection sites; we do not use penicillin or other antibiotics for this purpose, because they bind to specific targets.

5 Chloroform has long been put out to pasture as a general anaesthetic, but its importance to the progression of surgery since its first recorded use in 1847 is enormous. Its popularity soared when Queen Victoria famously used it for the births of her youngest two children in the 1850’s, and between 1865 and 1920, chloroform was used in up to 95% of all operations performed in UK - despite its tendency to cause fatal cardiac arrhythmia. Its use had gradually petered out by the mid 20th century with the discovery of newer, safer compounds with fewer toxic side effects.

6. The Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds is one of the largest in the UK, with over150 academic staff and over 400 postdoctoral fellows and postgraduate students. The Faculty has been awarded research grants totalling some £60M and funders include charities, research councils, the European Union and industry. Each of the major units in the Faculty has the highest Grade 5 rated research according to the last government (HEFCE) Research Assessment Exercise, denoting research of international standing. The Faculty is also consistently within the top three for funding from the government’s research councils, the BBSRC and NERC. www.fbs.leeds.ac.uk

7. The University of Leeds is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK with more than 30,000 students from 130 countries. With a total annual income of £422m, Leeds is one of the top ten research universities in the UK, and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. It was recently placed 80th in the Times Higher Educational Supplement's world universities league table and the University's vision is to secure a place among the world's top 50 by 2015.

8. The Wellcome Trust is the largest charity in the UK. It funds innovative biomedical research in the UK and internationally, spending around £500 million each year to support the brightest scientists and the best ideas. The Wellcome Trust supports public debate about biomedical research and its impact on health and wellbeing. www.wellcome.ac.uk


9. campuspr is a public relations company that specialises in promoting university research and knowledge transfer. Working in partnership with the University’s press office, campuspr is contracted by the Faculties of Biological Sciences and Engineering at Leeds to promote the wealth of research projects, grants, new technologies and knowledge transfer activities that these faculties are actively engaged in. For more press releases, see www.campuspr.co.uk

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Good sexual intercourse lasts minutes, not hours, therapists say

Erie, Pa. – Satisfactory sexual intercourse for couples lasts from 3 to 13 minutes, contrary to popular fantasy about the need for hours of sexual activity, according to a survey of U.S. and Canadian sex therapists.

Penn State Erie researchers Eric Corty and Jenay Guardiani conducted a survey of 50 full members of the Society for Sex Therapy and Research, which include psychologists, physicians, social workers, marriage/family therapists and nurses who have collectively seen thousands of patients over several decades.

Thirty-four, or 68 percent, of the group responded and rated a range of time amounts for sexual intercourse, from penetration of the vagina by the penis until ejaculation, that they considered adequate, desirable, too short and too long.

The average therapists’ responses defined the ranges of intercourse activity times: "adequate," from 3-7 minutes; "desirable," from 7-13 minutes; "too short" from 1-2 minutes; and "too long" from 10-30 minutes.

"A man’s or woman’s interpretation of his or her sexual functioning as well as the partner’s relies on personal beliefs developed in part from society’s messages, formal and informal," the researchers said. "Unfortunately, today’s popular culture has reinforced stereotypes about sexual activity. Many men and women seem to believe the fantasy model of large penises, rock-hard erections and all-night-long intercourse. "

Past research has found that a large percentage of men and women, who responded, wanted sex to last 30 minutes or longer.

"This seems a situation ripe for disappointment and dissatisfaction," said lead author Eric Corty, associate professor of psychology. "With this survey, we hope to dispel such fantasies and encourage men and women with realistic data about acceptable sexual intercourse, thus preventing sexual disappointments and dysfunctions."

Corty and Guardiani, then-undergraduate student and now a University graduate, are publishing their findings in the May issue of the Journal of Sexual Medicine, but the article is currently available online.

The survey’s research also has implications for treatment of people with existing sexual problems.

"If a patient is concerned about how long intercourse should last, these data can help shift the patient away from a concern about physical disorders and to be initially treated with counseling, instead of medicine," Corty noted.

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Science: monkeys were the first doctors

A monkey - maybe the first doctors?
Ape, heal thyself: chimpanzees chew on many leaves for medicinal purposes

When we look back at the history of medicine, we think of the clever people who have, over thousands of years, devised ingenious ways of allaying human suffering.

But to find the real fathers of the healing arts, we should look millions of years further back - to our hairy relatives.

The standard account of medicine says that Hippocrates (460-370BC) introduced reason to treatment. The first pharmacopoeia, De Materia Medica - a list of 600 drugs - is attributed to Dioscorides in AD65.

And the "father of pharmacy" was another Greek, Claudius Galenus, who became surgeon to the gladiators in second-century Rome.

Recently, research by a team from the University of Manchester, led by Prof Rosalie David, put back the birth of medicine by another millennium.

They claimed that the pioneers of the healing arts were not the ancient Greeks but the ancient Egyptians, in particular, the likes of Imhotep (2667-2648BC), who designed the pyramids at Saqqara and was elevated to a god of healing.

Egyptian doctors treated wounds with honey, resins and metals which are now known to have antimicrobial action.

For constipation, they used laxatives of castor oil, colocynth (a bitter fruit), figs and bran. For indigestion, they prescribed an antacid of powdered limestone (calcium carbonate), while we take magnesium carbonate. Cumin and coriander were used to relieve flatulence, celery and saffron for rheumatism, and pomegranate to eradicate tapeworms.

Now, the textbooks may have to be rewritten again - because evidence is emerging that medicine is not a human invention at all. In fact, we ape animals.

An example is the deliberate ingestion of soil, known as "geophagy". In people, it is thought to signal mental health problems. But according to a study of chimpanzees in the Kibale National Park in Uganda, it turns out to be a remedy.

Consuming a particular kind of soil, as Sabrina Krief and her colleagues at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris reported recently in the journal Naturwissenschaften, increases the potency of ingested plants, such as the leaves of trichilia rubescens, which have anti-malarial properties.

Her team collected earth eaten by chimpanzees, as well as leaves from young T. rubescens trees in the same area. All the soil was rich in the clay mineral kaolinite, the principal component of many anti-diarrhoea medicines.

Clays can bind mycotoxins (fungal toxins), endotoxins (internal toxins secreted by pathogens), man-made toxic chemicals, bacteria and viruses. They also act as an antacid and absorb excess fluids.

The scientists replicated the effects of mastication, gastric and intestinal digestion in the laboratory and were surprised. Before being mixed with the soil, the digested leaves had no significant effects.

However, when the leaves and soil were digested together, the mixture developed clear anti-malarial properties. "This overlapping use by humans and apes is interesting from both evolutionary and conservation perspectives," says Krief. "Saving apes and their forests is also important for human health."

This is far from the first example of our borrowing from other species - indeed, Prof Michael Huffman, of Kyoto University, believes humans have long looked to other animals for medicinal wisdom.

In 1987, he happened to be watching a constipated chimpanzee called Chausiku in the dense rainforest of the Mahale mountains in western Tanzania.

Reaching for the shoot of a noxious tree that chimps would normally avoid, Chausiku peeled it and sucked its bitter pith. Within a day, her constipation was gone. It was the first time a scientist had seen a sick chimp select an unsavoury plant known by humans to have medicinal properties, and then recover.

The pith, from the tree Vernonia amygdalina, has now given up its secrets. It contains compounds active against many of the parasites responsible for malaria, dysentery and schistosomiasis.

The shrub is poisonous and called mjonso - "strong medicine" - by the local people, the WaTongwe. But what is fascinating is that they use the same plant to treat the same illnesses - and take the same time to recover.

Prof Huffman has found that nearly all of the ape remedies he has studied are also used by local people as medicine - echoing, he believes, the evolutionary origins of human medicine.

For more evidence, take a remarkable type of self-medication first seen among chimpanzees in Tanzania. Jane Goodall, the veteran ape watcher, spotted chimps swallowing leaves in Gombe Stream National Park in the Sixties, which she then studied with Richard Wrangham, of Harvard University.

What is remarkable is that leaf-swallowing peaks in many sites about two months after the rainy season has begun - about the same time as the peak of infection with Oesophagostomum stephanostomum, a nodular worm which is linked with bacterial infection, diarrhoea, severe stomach pain, weight loss, and weakness, resulting in high mortality.

Prof Huffman has shown that individual leaves from any of 34 different plants are swallowed whole by chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas across Africa - but that it tends to be only the sick chimps that will swallow leaves, and that they do so on an empty stomach.

He was particularly excited to stumble upon a freshly deposit of chimpanzee dung filled with these swallowed leaves, in which live parasitic worms had been entrapped in the hairy folds. (When not chewed, the leaves are flushed out of the system within six hours in a laxative-like action.)

But self-medication is not confined to chimps. At Bwindi Impenetrable Park and Mgahinga National Park in Uganda, mountain gorillas chew the bark of the nondescript Dombeya tree as a food.

The bark is laden with active ingredients, including antibiotics that kill common bacteria such as E. coli, and there is anecdotal evidence that the presence of bugs in gorilla dung matches the ape's Dombeya-eating patterns. In southern Mexico, howler monkeys eat figs that can fight parasite infections.

It is not just curative medicine that was invented by our animal relatives, but preventative, too. Baboons living near the city of Taif, Saudia Arabia, are known to dig drinking holes in the sand directly adjacent to the murky, algae-tainted watering sites of livestock.

To ensure the water does not make them sick, they "patiently wait for the filtered water to seep through the sand," says Prof Huffman.

Monkeys also resort to aromatherapy. When capuchins rub each other's fur on the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica they use citrus fruits, notably lemons, limes and oranges, during the rainy season.

Either applied directly, or mixed with saliva, the citrus oils help fight bacterial and fungal infections and repel insects. Their cousins in central Venezuela, the weeper capuchins, like to anoint themselves with the secretions of millipedes, which act as an antiseptic and repel mosquitoes and ticks.

Apes may even resort to recreational drugs. They eat the seeds of Kola (cola) trees, thought to be a pick-me-up of the kind found in coffee.

Two hallucinogenic plants are ingested by gorillas in Equatorial Guinea and by chimpanzees in the Republic of Guinea: Alchornea floribunda and A. cordifolia (Euphorbiaceae).

The apes even resort to eating the root of Tabernanthe iboga, which contains a chemical called ibogaine which has been studied by doctors for use in detox therapies.

Some have said that human medicine is true medicine because we organise and teach it. But Prof Huffmann has seen a young chimp watch its sick mother take medicine, before trying it itself.

For Prof Andrew Whiten, of St Andrews, an expert on ape culture, it is easy to conclude that the animals can learn symptoms, medicines and dosages from their peers.

Take the use of Vernonia amygdalina, the constipation-countering shrub mentioned above. Prof Whiten points out that the chimpanzees are meticulous and careful to discard all but the inner pith.

The outer parts are so poisonous that they often kill domestic goats unfamiliar with the forest flora - indeed, it is known as "goat killer" by the Temme people of Sierra Leone. Learning how to take this medicine "requires close observation of what mother is doing," he says.

Strikingly, self-medication is found in apes across Africa. This, says Prof Whiten, probably means "it is very ancient, culturally important and spread widely".

Given that the common ancestor of chimpanzee and man lived six million years ago, the roots of medicine are indeed prehistoric.

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NO FOOLIN': Our picks for the Top 10 science

By Peter McMahon


In the interest of digging up the most famous debunked hoaxes in science and discovery - no Mars microbe (not faked but not confirmed as true or false), Shroud of Turin (how true or how false), alien corpse at Area 51 (unprovable speculation on what's really there) or whether or not the United States landed on the Moon (as for this last one, we're pretty sure that happened)...

...Here now are our picks for the 10 greatest shams of science, discovery, and technology of all time, no joke!



#10 Stone-Age tribe found living in the present day


Status: Fake


Ferdinand Marcos's Cultural Minister claimed to have found a tribe of primitive cave-dwelling hunter-gatherers called the Tasaday.

Living in a Philippine rain forest, the people were reported to be using crude stone tools and unchanged from the early age of humans.

With only limited access to the Tasaday until 1986, the overthrowing of Marcos allowed visitors to see the Tasaday firsthand: wearing contemporary clothing, using modern implements, and no longer living in caves. The people claimed that they had been paid by the government to act more "primitive."




#9 Potato web server


Status: A hoax, with the possibility to work in real-life


This story duped numerous science sites - including this one - when online pranksters posted pictures in 1998 of what looked like a web server powered by the acid in common potatoes.

Science fair hopefuls have used off-the shelf experiment-based clocks for years that feature liquid crystal displays powered by the acid in many kinds of fruit and veggies. But powering something with the power demands of a web server-level computer (even the pranksters admitted) is impossible with just a few potatoes.

Interestingly enough, experts have since calculated that such a server could be powered by spuds. Depending on the computer, it would require between 100 potatoes and 450 tones of spuds. (more...)




#8 The Iguanodon as a crawling horned dinosaur


Status: Not quite true, not totally false


One of the earliest dinosaur finds, Iguanodon was originally discovered in 1822 by English geologist Gideon Mantell.

Originally reconstructed as a horned bear-like lizard that lumbered along on all fours, wealthy patrons famously dined inside a full-sized likeness of this dinosaur, with its back hollowed out for table and chairs.

The "horn" is now thought to be a thumb spike - one of the most well-known features of Iguanodon. It was also later discovered that the animal often stood on two legs, like later duck-billed dinosaurs.




#7 Blondes will be extinct in 200 years


Statue: False (Thank goodness)


A recent Sunday Times article about the origins of blonde hair stated: "A study by the World Health Organization found that natural blonds are likely to be extinct within 200 years because there are too few people carrying the blond gene. According to the WHO study, the last natural blond is likely to be born in Finland during 2202."

According to urban-myth-busting site snopes.com: "Most scientists asked to comment on the faux study in recent years have opined that although the proportion of blondes in the population might decrease a bit in coming years, it likely won't drop to nothing any time in the foreseeable future."




#6 Crop circles (at least some of them)


Status: Some directly proven to be false, most in doubt


Most popular for their appearances overnight during the 1970s in fields in Southern England. But they're now found from time to time all over the world.

Right up there with Easter Island, Stonehenge, and the Nazca Lines, these mysteries may have been more-or-less explained these days.

In 1991, a pair of crop circle hoaxers confessed their deeds and showed the media how they pulled-off their hoaxes, from simply traipsing down dry crops to methods that required a great deal more planning and implementation manpower.





#5 Archaeoraptor (a definitive missing link between dinos and birds) debunked


Status: Inaccurate


A National Geographic article 'Feathers for T. Rex?' attracted heavy criticism from evolutionists for suggesting the idea that birds evolved from dinosaurs. Though a largely-held belief, the article was scorned for sensationalizing an angle that had little factual basis.

The article illustrated a baby T rex with feathers, before talking about a feathered 'Archaeoraptor' version of the well-known bird-dinosaur Archaeopteryx.

A Chinese scientist who had at first helped identify the fossil eventually blew the whistle on it, announcing that he had found a second fossil containing a mirror-image duplicate of the Archaeoraptor's tail...attached to a different type of body.




#4 James Ossuary (a.k.a. the "Jesus box")


Status: How many boxes can one brother of Jesus exist in?


"Collector" Oded Golan premiered this sepulchral, limestone box containing bones in Israel in 2002. An inscription in the box read "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus".


After a brief display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the box was revealed to be a fake. In a search of Golan's dwelling in Israel, other fake artifacts and tools for creating more were found. It is rumoured that a partially finished copy was found sitting on Golan's toilet.

Golan himself confessed the locations of several other fakes under interrogation by local authorities.




#3 Mars as big as the Moon


Status: False, False, false, false


Every time Mars makes its bi-yearly close approach to Earth, this seemingly aimless piece of bad astronomy makes its way into people's Inboxes.

The original e-mail came when Mars was slightly closer in 2003 - more so than it would be for another 60,000 years.

Despite our record proximity to the Red Planet, this closeness simply rendered Mars a brighter-than-usual red "star" in the night sky, and not the visible Moon-sized globe of Martian features that the e-mail claimed would appear.




#2 Piltdown man


Status: False


From 1908 to 1915 in Piltdown, England, Charles Dawson claimed to have discovered the fossil remains (skulls, teeth, jawbone) of what was referred to as the missing link between humans and apes.

But in 1953, modern testing revealed the whole thing to be a hoax: The "hundreds of thousands of years-old" skulls were revealed to be only a few hundred years old. "Piltdown Man" - as he was called, was a Franken-collection of animal parts from around the world (an orangutan jawbone, elephant and hippopotamus teeth, and more.)




#1 The Raelians and Clonaid
Status: Completely false, unless a cloned kid really is just being held back somewhere from the 'media spotlight'


In December 2002, Brigitte Boisselier, president of Clonaid, claimed her company had cloned a human.

Linked with the UFO-worshiping Raelian sect, the following's founder, Rael (left), claims that extraterrestrials created humanity and support cloning.

After more than a year of harsh criticism of the sect and Clonaid, a lawyer attempting to appoint the alleged cloned girl "Eve" a guardian, gave up, denouncing the original announcement as "a sham."

A Korean stem cell researcher was later disgraced in 2006 when he revealed that the 11 human embryos he claimed to have cloned and extracted stem cells from didn't even exist.

In the interest of digging up the most famous debunked hoaxes in science and discovery - no Mars microbe (not faked but not confirmed as true or false), Shroud of Turin (how true or how false), alien corpse at Area 51 (unprovable speculation on what's really there) or whether or not the United States landed on the Moon (as for this last one, we're pretty sure that happened)...

...Here now are our picks for the 10 greatest shams of science, discovery, and technology of all time, no joke!



#10 Stone-Age tribe found living in the present day


Status: Fake


Ferdinand Marcos's Cultural Minister claimed to have found a tribe of primitive cave-dwelling hunter-gatherers called the Tasaday.

Living in a Philippine rain forest, the people were reported to be using crude stone tools and unchanged from the early age of humans.

With only limited access to the Tasaday until 1986, the overthrowing of Marcos allowed visitors to see the Tasaday firsthand: wearing contemporary clothing, using modern implements, and no longer living in caves. The people claimed that they had been paid by the government to act more "primitive."




#9 Potato web server


Status: A hoax, with the possibility to work in real-life


This story duped numerous science sites - including this one - when online pranksters posted pictures in 1998 of what looked like a web server powered by the acid in common potatoes.

Science fair hopefuls have used off-the shelf experiment-based clocks for years that feature liquid crystal displays powered by the acid in many kinds of fruit and veggies. But powering something with the power demands of a web server-level computer (even the pranksters admitted) is impossible with just a few potatoes.

Interestingly enough, experts have since calculated that such a server could be powered by spuds. Depending on the computer, it would require between 100 potatoes and 450 tones of spuds. (more...)




#8 The Iguanodon as a crawling horned dinosaur


Status: Not quite true, not totally false


One of the earliest dinosaur finds, Iguanodon was originally discovered in 1822 by English geologist Gideon Mantell.

Originally reconstructed as a horned bear-like lizard that lumbered along on all fours, wealthy patrons famously dined inside a full-sized likeness of this dinosaur, with its back hollowed out for table and chairs.

The "horn" is now thought to be a thumb spike - one of the most well-known features of Iguanodon. It was also later discovered that the animal often stood on two legs, like later duck-billed dinosaurs.




#7 Blondes will be extinct in 200 years


Statue: False (Thank goodness)


A recent Sunday Times article about the origins of blonde hair stated: "A study by the World Health Organization found that natural blonds are likely to be extinct within 200 years because there are too few people carrying the blond gene. According to the WHO study, the last natural blond is likely to be born in Finland during 2202."

According to urban-myth-busting site snopes.com: "Most scientists asked to comment on the faux study in recent years have opined that although the proportion of blondes in the population might decrease a bit in coming years, it likely won't drop to nothing any time in the foreseeable future."




#6 Crop circles (at least some of them)


Status: Some directly proven to be false, most in doubt


Most popular for their appearances overnight during the 1970s in fields in Southern England. But they're now found from time to time all over the world.

Right up there with Easter Island, Stonehenge, and the Nazca Lines, these mysteries may have been more-or-less explained these days.

In 1991, a pair of crop circle hoaxers confessed their deeds and showed the media how they pulled-off their hoaxes, from simply traipsing down dry crops to methods that required a great deal more planning and implementation manpower.





#5 Archaeoraptor (a definitive missing link between dinos and birds) debunked


Status: Inaccurate


A National Geographic article 'Feathers for T. Rex?' attracted heavy criticism from evolutionists for suggesting the idea that birds evolved from dinosaurs. Though a largely-held belief, the article was scorned for sensationalizing an angle that had little factual basis.

The article illustrated a baby T rex with feathers, before talking about a feathered 'Archaeoraptor' version of the well-known bird-dinosaur Archaeopteryx.

A Chinese scientist who had at first helped identify the fossil eventually blew the whistle on it, announcing that he had found a second fossil containing a mirror-image duplicate of the Archaeoraptor's tail...attached to a different type of body.




#4 James Ossuary (a.k.a. the "Jesus box")


Status: How many boxes can one brother of Jesus exist in?


"Collector" Oded Golan premiered this sepulchral, limestone box containing bones in Israel in 2002. An inscription in the box read "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus".


After a brief display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the box was revealed to be a fake. In a search of Golan's dwelling in Israel, other fake artifacts and tools for creating more were found. It is rumoured that a partially finished copy was found sitting on Golan's toilet.

Golan himself confessed the locations of several other fakes under interrogation by local authorities.




#3 Mars as big as the Moon


Status: False, False, false, false


Every time Mars makes its bi-yearly close approach to Earth, this seemingly aimless piece of bad astronomy makes its way into people's Inboxes.

The original e-mail came when Mars was slightly closer in 2003 - more so than it would be for another 60,000 years.

Despite our record proximity to the Red Planet, this closeness simply rendered Mars a brighter-than-usual red "star" in the night sky, and not the visible Moon-sized globe of Martian features that the e-mail claimed would appear.




#2 Piltdown man


Status: False


From 1908 to 1915 in Piltdown, England, Charles Dawson claimed to have discovered the fossil remains (skulls, teeth, jawbone) of what was referred to as the missing link between humans and apes.

But in 1953, modern testing revealed the whole thing to be a hoax: The "hundreds of thousands of years-old" skulls were revealed to be only a few hundred years old. "Piltdown Man" - as he was called, was a Franken-collection of animal parts from around the world (an orangutan jawbone, elephant and hippopotamus teeth, and more.)




#1 The Raelians and Clonaid
Status: Completely false, unless a cloned kid really is just being held back somewhere from the 'media spotlight'


In December 2002, Brigitte Boisselier, president of Clonaid, claimed her company had cloned a human.

Linked with the UFO-worshiping Raelian sect, the following's founder, Rael (left), claims that extraterrestrials created humanity and support cloning.

After more than a year of harsh criticism of the sect and Clonaid, a lawyer attempting to appoint the alleged cloned girl "Eve" a guardian, gave up, denouncing the original announcement as "a sham."

A Korean stem cell researcher was later disgraced in 2006 when he revealed that the 11 human embryos he claimed to have cloned and extracted stem cells from didn't even exist.

Original here