Saturday, May 3, 2008

NASA Calls on APL to Send a Probe to the Sun

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory is sending a spacecraft closer to the sun than any probe has ever gone – and what it finds could revolutionize what we know about our star and the solar wind that influences everything in our solar system.

NASA has tapped APL to develop the ambitious Solar Probe mission, which will study the streams of charged particles the sun hurls into space from a vantage point within the sun’s corona – its outer atmosphere – where the processes that heat the corona and produce solar wind occur. At closest approach Solar Probe would zip past the sun at 125 miles per second, protected by a carbon-composite heat shield that must withstand up to 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit and survive blasts of radiation and energized dust at levels not experienced by any previous spacecraft.

Experts in the U.S. and abroad have grappled with this mission concept for more than 30 years, running into seemingly insurmountable technology and budgetary limitations. But in February an APL-led team completed a Solar Probe engineering and mission design study at NASA’s request, detailing just how the robotic mission could be accomplished. The study team used an APL-led 2005 study as its baseline, but then significantly altered the concept to meet challenging cost and technical conditions provided by NASA.

“We knew we were on the right track,” says Andrew Dantzler, Solar Probe project manager at APL. “Now we’ve put it all together in an innovative package; the technology is within reach, the concept is feasible and the entire mission can be done for less than $750 million [in fiscal 2007 dollars], or about the cost of a medium-class planetary mission. NASA decided it was time.”

APL will design and build the spacecraft, on a schedule to launch in 2015. The compact, solar-powered probe would weigh about 1,000 pounds; preliminary designs include a 9-foot-diameter, 6-inch-thick, carbon-foam-filled solar shield atop the spacecraft body. Two sets of solar arrays would retract or extend as the spacecraft swings toward or away from the sun during several loops around the inner solar system, making sure the panels stay at proper temperatures and power levels. At its closest passes the spacecraft must survive solar intensity more than 500 times what spacecraft experience while orbiting Earth.

Solar Probe will use seven Venus flybys over nearly seven years to gradually shrink its orbit around the sun, coming as close as 4.1 million miles (6.6 million kilometers) to the sun, well within the orbit of Mercury and about eight times closer than any spacecraft has come before.

Solar Probe will employ a combination of in-place and remote measurements to achieve the mission’s primary scientific goals: determine the structure and dynamics of the magnetic fields at the sources of solar wind; trace the flow of energy that heats the corona and accelerates the solar wind; determine what mechanisms accelerate and transport energetic particles; and explore dusty plasma near the sun and its influence on solar wind and energetic particle formation. Details will be spelled out in a Solar Probe Science and Technology Definition Team study that NASA will release later this year. NASA will also release a separate Announcement of Opportunity for the spacecraft’s science payload.

“Solar Probe is a true mission of exploration,” says Dr. Robert Decker, Solar Probe project scientist at APL. “For example, the spacecraft will go close enough to the sun to watch the solar wind speed up from subsonic to supersonic, and it will fly though the birthplace of the highest energy solar particles. And, as with all missions of discovery, Solar Probe is likely to raise more questions than it answers.”

APL’s experience in developing spacecraft to study the sun-Earth relationship – or to work near the sun – includes ACE, which recently marked its 10th year of sampling energetic particles between Earth and the sun; TIMED, currently examining solar effects on Earth's upper atmosphere; the twin STEREO probes, which have snapped the first 3-D images of explosive solar events called coronal mass ejections; and the Radiation Belt Storm Probes, which will examine the regions of energetic particles trapped by Earth’s magnetic field.

Solar Probe will be fortified with heat-resistant technologies developed for APL’s MESSENGER spacecraft, which completed its first flyby of Mercury in January and will begin orbiting that planet in 2011. Solar Probe’s solar shield concept was partially influenced by designs of MESSENGER’s sunshade.

Solar Probe is part of NASA’s Living with a Star Program, designed to learn more about the sun and its effects on planetary systems and human activities. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., manages the program for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, Washington. For more information, visit

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Jolting the brain fights deep depression

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Imagine what a pacemaker does to your heart: Its electrical impulses regulate a heartbeat that's out of whack.


In deep brain stimulation for depression, tiny electrodes are implanted into a specific node of the cerebral cortex.

Now picture a pacemaker-type device that jolts the brain and regulates mood circuits, potentially easing deep depression no other treatments can touch.

In what some are hailing as a brave new use of existing technology, researchers presented evidence this week at the American Association of Neurological Surgeons' annual scientific meeting that deep brain stimulation does just that, improving both severe depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, a frequent companion disorder.

"Depression is a physiological disorder, and basically we are regulating the abnormal signals to brain causing the depression," says Dr. Ali Rezai, director of the Center for Neurological Restoration at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. Rezai conducted the research along with scientists from Butler Hospital/Brown Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Researchers used deep brain stimulation on 17 severely depressed patients. Those treated with deep brain stimulation had a 50 percent decrease in depressive symptoms after 12 months. Patients also reported a better ability to function, improved short-term memory and improved quality of life. Video Dr. Sanjay Gupta explains how deep brain stimulation works »

Deep brain stimulation for psychiatric patients involves neurosurgeons implanting the device and psychiatrists adjusting the charge.

Surgeons place tiny implantable electrodes into a specific node of the cerebral cortex that is believed to be malfunctioning. The cerebral cortex, sometimes referred to as the "gray matter," governs information from the senses and movement, and regulates thought and mental activity.

From the cerebral cortex, wires are tunneled behind the ear into the chest, where there's a power source for the electrodes that emit electrical impulses into the brain. Scientists theorize this stimulation blocks the abnormal brainwave activity, easing the obsessions, moods and depressive symptoms associated with these psychiatric disorders.

Researchers stress that this is not an option for people who are mildly or occasionally depressed but rather for people suffering from major depression and for whom all other methods -- including psychotherapy, drug therapy and electroconvulsive therapy -- have failed. Researchers say it could ultimately prove life-saving for this population: The suicide rate among people with major depression runs as high as 15 percent.

"This research substantiates earlier findings which indicate DBS holds promise and hope for select patients suffering from severe and treatment-resistant major depression, Rezai said. "I feel that as we learn more about this rather new technology, efficacy will continue to improve."

According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, deep brain stimulation has been used in the past two decades to treat Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and other tremor and pain disorders, with more than 35,000 deep brain stimulation implants worldwide. Potentially using it for depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder is just one example of expanding off-label use.

The idea of using an electrical jolt to shock away depression isn't new. Doctors have been using electroconvulsive therapy, in which a brief electric stimulus is used to produce a seizure, for decades. Rezai insists that this treatment is much more selective than electroconvulsive therapy, does not produce seizures and does not have the same cognitive and memory side effects.

"In this group of patients, we saw no major side effects," Rezai said, although deep brain stimulation can be associated with brain hemorrhage, and a there's a small risk of leakage of cerebrospinal fluid.

Health Library

Even surgeons who are very conservative in advocating surgery for psychiatric disorders think deep brain stimulation could be a promising treatment for not only severe depression but a range of disorders.

"This sort of study opens the door to applying DBS to all sorts of psychiatric conditions, even eventually Alzheimer's disease and morbid obesity," said Dr. Michael Schulder, spokesman for the American Association of Neurological Surgeons and president of the American Society for Stereotactic and Functional Neurosurgery. He stressed that all studies on patients with psychiatric disorders need to be conducted carefully and with proper scientific rationale.


Researchers concede that using the brain pacemaker, manufactured by Medtronic Inc., to treat severely depressed patients is still years away. A clinical trial is being launched this year, and studies may be ongoing at least for the next four. Other companies, including St. Jude Medical Inc. and Cyberonics Inc., are also testing the technology, which they hope will treat the estimated 4 million adult Americans who live with severe depression, unresponsive to conventional treatments.

Researchers are energized by the treatment's long-range prospects. Said Rezai, "It is very promising news for the many suffering patients and their family members that have virtually given up hope."
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Blobs Inside Earth Like Peanut Butter

Red and blue regions depict zones where seismic waves propagate slower or faster than average, respectively. Distant earthquakes (e.g., the red star) send seismic energy throughout the planet, which traverses anomalous structure and brings information about Earth’s internal structure to the planet’s surface. The large red region beneath the Pacific Ocean sits atop the hot molten iron core (orange ball), is best explained as chemically distinct from the rest of the mantle. Credit: AAAS/Science

You know Earth's schematic: core, mantle, crust, right? Sorry, not so simple.

Like the gooey center of a chocolate morsel harboring peanut butter and honey, inner Earth is far more nuanced than outward appearances would suggest. A new model is proposed in the May 2 issue of the journal Science.

Earth is made up of several layers, once thought to be pretty distinct.

The skin, or crust, goes down about 25 miles (40 km). Below that is the mantle area, which extends about halfway to the center of the planet. The mantle is a thick layer of silicate rock surrounding a dense, iron-nickel core, and it is subdivided into the upper and lower mantle, extending to a depth of about 1,800 miles (2,900 km). The outer core is beneath that and extends to 3,200 miles (5,150 km) and the inner core to about 4,000 miles (6,400 km).

New data reveal the mantle consists of more varying material than was thought. So convection — how heated material bubbles up — is now thought to work differently.

"Imagine a pot of water boiling," explains researcher Allen McNamara of Arizona State University. "That would be all one kind of composition. Now dump a jar of honey into that pot of water. The honey would be convecting on its own inside the water and that's a much more complicated system."

One clue to the new thinking is that seismic waves traveling through the planet have long been measured to travel at inexplicably different speeds. Sharp speed changes suggest differing materials. On each side of the planet there are two big, chemically distinct, dense piles or blobs of material that are hundreds of kilometers thick – one beneath the Pacific and the other below the Atlantic and Africa, the researchers say.

"You can picture these piles like peanut butter," McNamara said. "It is solid rock, but rock under very high pressures and temperatures becomes soft like peanut butter, so any stresses will cause it to flow."

How stuff moves within the piles should help scientists better understand how surface plates move around, causing earthquakes and building mountains.

"The piles dictate how the convective cycles happen, how the currents circulate," McNamara said. "If you don't have piles then convection will be completely different."

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Go Speed Racer! Revving up the world's fastest nanomotors

In a “major step” toward a practical energy source for powering tomorrow’s nanomachines, researchers in Arizona report development of a new generation of sub-microscopic nanomotors that are up to 10 times more powerful than existing motors. Their study is scheduled for the May 27 issue of ACS Nano, a monthly journal.

In the new study, Joseph Wang and colleagues point out that existing nanomotors, including so-called “catalytic nanomotors,” are made with gold and platinum nanowires and use hydrogen peroxide fuel for self-propulsion. But these motors are too slow and inefficient for practical use, with top speeds of about 10 micrometers per second, the researchers say. One micrometer is about 1/25,000 of an inch or almost 100 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

Wang and colleagues supercharged their nanomotors by inserting carbon nanotubes into the platinum, thus boosting average speed to 60 micrometers per second. Spiking the hydrogen peroxide fuel with hydrazine (a type of rocket fuel) kicked up the speed still further, to 94- 200 micrometers per second. This innovation “offers great promise for self-powered nanoscale transport and delivery systems,” the scientists state.


The American Chemical Society — the world’s largest scientific society — is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

— Mark T. Sampson

*The research in this press release is from a copyrighted publication, and stories must credit the journal by name or the American Chemical Society.

Click here for video of the nanomotors in action.

News media may obtain a full text of this report (“Carbon-Nanotube-Induced Acceleration of Catalytic Nanomotors”) in ACS Nano by contacting Michael Bernstein.

Researcher contact information is for news media use only and not for publication.

Joseph Wang, Ph.D.
Arizona State University
Tempe, Arizona 85287
Phone: 480-727-0399
Fax: 480-727-0412

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How David Blaine Held His Breath

David Blaine sits a top a sphere where he set a new world record for breath-holding, Wednesday, April 30, 2008, at 17 minutes and 4.4 seconds, during a live telecast of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," in Chicago.

For most non-medical people, the term "apnea" is most familiar when coupled with the word "sleep," and refers to a dangerous condition in which people inadvertently stop breathing while asleep. But the word literally means a temporary cessation of breathing and it is practiced (on purpose) around the world by an international community of extreme athletes — a brotherhood that now includes magician and stuntman David Blaine. On the set of The Oprah Winfrey Show on April 30, Blaine broke the world record by holding his breath for 17 minutes and 4 seconds — proving that just how temporary apnea can be is a question of training, endurance and will.

An average person in good health can hold their breath for about two minutes, but with even small amounts of practice it is possible to increase that time dramatically. "The body can be trained," explains Dr. Ralph Potkin, a pulmonary specialist who worked with Blaine in the weeks leading up to his recent feat.

When you deprive your body of oxygen, it is only a matter of time before your carbon dioxide levels build, triggering a reflex that will cause your breathing muscles — including the diaphragm and the muscles between the ribs — to spasm. The pain of these spasms is what causes most people to gulp for breath after just a couple of minutes. When holding your breath underwater, however, you have a bit of mammalian evolution on your side. When humans are submerged in cold water, our bodies instinctively prepare to conserve oxygen, much in the way that dolphins' and whales' bodies do when they dive. "Heart rate drops, blood pressure goes up and circulation gets redistributed," Potkin says. The body's focus becomes getting the oxygenated blood primarily to the vital organs — the brain and the heart — and not the extremities or abdomen.

This reflex can help us conserve the oxygen we do have, but it doesn't do much for the painful muscle spasms. Overcoming those is a matter of concentration and meditation. "This is one of those Zen sports," Potkin explains.

Suppressing the powerful pain impulse too successfully can prove deadly: subjects can continue holding their breath up to the point that their brains shut down from lack of oxygen. If you're 100 feet under water — or even three feet underwater in a pool — it's not a good time to pass out. In order to break the world record, Blaine had to hold his breath without fainting. (Had he continued until he'd depleted his brain's oxygen, however, Potkin is convinced he could have gone for another full minute.)

That of course, is down to months of rigorous training, including practicing a technique called glossopharyngeal insufflation, or lung packing. In order to maximize the amount of air taken into the lungs before apnea, Blaine, among other divers, inhaled until his lungs were filled to their physiological capacity, and then forced additional air into the lungs by swallowing, hard. Using this technique, Blaine was able to cram another quart's worth of air into his already full lungs, Potkin estimates. (He also fasted before before the actual record breaking act, in order to have more room for his lungs to expand without bumping up against a full stomach.) In a study of five elite free divers, who descend to scuba-diving depths without the aid of equipment, Potkin found that the lung packing was "associated with deeper dives and longer holding times."

Of course, another factor associated with longer holding times is the consumption of pure oxygen beforehand. The world record for holding your breath after inhaling pure oxygen is now Blaine's — 17 minutes and 4 seconds. The record without the pure oxygen, which Blaine failed to break during an attempt last year in Manhattan's Lincoln Center, is 8 minutes and 58 seconds.

With or without pure oxygen, holding your breath is a difficult and dangerous pasttime even for elite athletes. When not done carefully, it can lead to drowning, or to potential tissue damage in the heart, brains or lungs. Preliminary results from Potkin's research into apnea's long-term effects show some abnormal brain scans among young, extreme free divers. There's still much to learn about the phenomenon; as a medical student, Potkin recalls, he was told that no one could hold his breath for more than five minutes without suffering brain damage. Now, he wants to see if the technique can be used for medical purposes — and he's hoping Blaine's latest stunt provides the impetus for a greater scientific understanding of how to hold one's breath.

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Eight New Human Genome Projects Offer Large-scale Picture Of Genetic Difference

A nationwide consortium led by the University of Washington in Seattle has completed the first sequence-based map of structural variations in the human genome, giving scientists an overall picture of the large-scale differences in DNA between individuals. The project gives researchers a guide for further research into these structural differences, which are believed to play an important role in human health and disease. The results appear in the May 1 issue of the journal Nature.

The project involved sequencing the genomes of eight people from a diverse set of ethnic backgrounds: four individuals of African descent, two of Asian descent, and two of European background. The researchers created what's called a clone map, taking multiple copies of each of the eight genomes and breaking them into numerous segments of about 40,000 base pairs, which they then fit back together based on the human reference genome. They searched for structural differences that ranged in size from a few thousand to a few million base pairs. Base pairs are one of the basic units of information on the human genome.

Most previous studies of the genome have focused on small genetic variations called SNPs (pronounced "snips"), or single-nucleotide polymorphisms -- changes on the scale of a single base pair. More recent research on the human genome has shown, however, that larger-scale differences may account for a great deal of genetic variation among individuals. Structural variation in the human genome has already been linked to individual differences in susceptibility to conditions like coronary heart disease, HIV, schizophrenia, autism, and mental retardation.

In addition to millions of smaller differences, the researchers identified 1695 regions of structural variation in the genome. They also provided a detailed look at the sequence for 261 regions of the genome, revealing an unprecedented view of the complexity of the genetic differences among different humans. The large-scale differences that the researchers were looking for can come in many forms, such as the deletion of a large swath of DNA, or the insertion of an out-of-place string of genetic code. Others simply appear as a different number of copies of a gene or DNA sequence.

Until now, there has not been a comprehensive study to sequence these variations systematically in multiple individuals. As part of their study, the authors also discovered 525 segments of DNA that were previously unknown to the human genetics community.

"There is a perception that the human genome is essentially completely understood," explained the project's leader, Dr. Evan Eichler, UW associate professor of genome sciences and an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "The sequences we have identified range in size from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of base pairs, and are not part of the published human genome reference sequence. We found that many of these are highly variable in copy and content between individuals. This represents uncharted territory that can now be examined in more detail to determine the function of these new segments of the human genome with respect to disease and gene activity."

Eichler expects that the structural variation map will give scientists a much better picture of genetic variations, and help them better understand these areas of the genome that are prone to large-scale changes over time. Even more research is needed on structural variations, the scientists argue in the article, to help get a more accurate picture of the human genome than what we already have in the reference genome constructed by the Human Genome Project.

"The important point here is that we could not have found these differences without sequencing more human genomes from individuals of diverse ancestry to a high-quality standard," Eichler added.

The project will also serve as a sound resource for the science community, said Eichler, since the researchers have preserved the many segments of DNA used for the project. As new genomes are studied, someone might find a new sequence or new area of variation, and the researchers can revisit that particular segment of DNA to study it more closely.

In addition to Eichler, several UW researchers in the UW Departments of Genome Sciences and Medicine worked on the project, including Jeffrey Kidd, a graduate student in genome sciences, and Maynard Olson, professor of medicine and genome sciences and director of the UW Genome Center. The project also included researchers at Agencourt Bioscience Corp. in Beverly, Mass.; Agilent Technologies in Santa Clara, Calif.; Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis; the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Md.; the University of Wisconsin, in Madison; the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, in Cambridge, Mass.; and Illumina, Inc. in San Diego. The researchers were supported by the National Science Foundation, the Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund, Merck, and the National Human Genome Research Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health.

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The Androgynous Pharaoh?

BALTIMORE — Akhenaten wasn't the most manly pharaoh, even though he fathered at least a half-dozen children.

In fact, his form was quite feminine. And he was a bit of an egghead.

So concludes a Yale University physician who analyzed images of Akhenaten for an annual conference Friday at the University of Maryland School of Medicine on the deaths of historic figures.

The female form was due to a genetic mutation that caused the pharaoh's body to convert more male hormones to female hormones than needed, Dr. Irwin Braverman believes. And Akhenaten's head was misshapen because of a condition in which skull bones fuse at an early age.

The pharaoh had “an androgynous appearance. He had a female physique with wide hips and breasts, but he was male and he was fertile and he had six daughters,” Dr. Braverman said. “But nevertheless, he looked like he had a female physique.”

Dr. Braverman, who sizes up the health of individuals based on portraits, teaches a class at Yale's medical school that uses paintings from the university's Center for British Art to teach observation skills to first-year students. For his study of Akhenaten, he used statues and carvings.

Akhenaten (ah-keh-NAH-ten), best known for introducing a revolutionary form of monotheism to ancient Egypt, reigned in the mid-1300s B.C. He was married to Nefertiti, and Tutankhamun, also known as King Tut, may have been his son or half brother.

Egyptologist and archaeologist Donald B. Redford said he supports Dr. Braverman's belief that Akhenaten had Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder marked by lengthened features, including fingers and the face.

Visiting clinics that treat those with the condition has strengthened that conviction, “but this is very subjective, I must admit,” said Mr. Redford, a professor of classic and ancient Mediterranean studies at Penn State University.

Others have theorized Akhenaten and his lineage had Froehlich's Syndrome, which causes feminine fat distribution but also sterility. That doesn't fit Akhenaten, who had at least six daughters, Dr. Braverman said.

Klinefelter Syndrome, a genetic condition that can also cause gynecomastia, or male breast enlargement, has also been suggested, but Dr. Braverman said he suspects familial gynecomastia, a hereditary condition that leads to the overproduction of estrogen.

The Yale doctor said determining whether he is right can easily be done if Egyptologists can confirm which mummy is Akhenaten's and if Egyptian government officials agree to DNA analysis.

Dr. Braverman hopes his theory will lead them to do just that.

“I'm hoping that after we have this conference and I bring this up, maybe the Egyptologists who work on these things all the time, maybe they will be stimulated to look,” he said.

Previous conferences have examined the deaths of Edgar Allan Poe, Alexander the Great, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Florence Nightingale and others.

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Impossible smells exhibition opens

The world's first exhibition of 'extinct and impossible' smells is under way, from the metallic fallout of the first atomic bomb to the aroma of cloves and oranges from first aid kit of a medieval plague doctor.

The acrid reek of a blazing meteor impact, the sweaty bouquet of a space station, the hothouse aroma of a Victorian greenhouse are also there for the smelling at the Reg Vardy Gallery, University of Sunderland.

Among the stranger smells at the exhibition is the "surface of the sun"
One of the smells at the exhibition is the 'surface of the sun'

The aromatic exhibition has drawn on the efforts of perfumers, chemists, botanists and a Nasa scientist. "What we have created here is a world first, a scientific flight of fancy made up of exotic and strange scents," says Robert Blackson of the University of Sunderland, mastermind behind the endeavour.

"One person will love a smell when their friend will hate it," says Blackson. "There are no good or bad smells."

One extraordinary fragrance is the aftermath of the first atomic bomb, dropped on Japan on August 6, 1945. "The Hiroshima smell is quick and pungent, very metallic," says Blackson.

There is also the smell of Cleopatra's hair, based on an incense that was popular among ancient Egyptians containing raisins, an evergreen called Cassia, and wine.

The Soviet Mir space station, which burnt up in the atmosphere in 2001, smells of formaldehyde, charred material (the space station caught fire) and a strong pong of astronaut BO.

Among the stranger smells is the "surface of the sun."

"It is hard to sum up. It is an atmospheric smell, like walking into a room when the sun has been pouring in," says Blackson. "It gives a freshness, a sun kissed feel with a bit of metal. If you can say something smells hot, this is it."

"There's also some extinct flowers," adds Blackson. "Some have been gone for hundreds of years, whilst others have only been extinct for the last 30, due to things like deforestation."

These scents were devised by James Wong, a botanist at Botanic Gardens Conservation International. "Resurrecting the scent of an extinct plant may seem like something straight out of 'Jurassic Park', but the dynamics of the operation are relatively simple, " he says.

"Our team of botanists trawled through an extensive list of extinct flowers and plants to identify entries that were closely related to existing scented species. Then combining historical reports of how these extinct plants smelt, with the fragrance of their living relatives, we can hazard an extremely good guess at what their aroma was like."

"For example, when you see a very close relative of Sandalwood on the list it is very likely that this would have had a strong sandalwood-like odour." And, indeed, the extinct Juan Fernandez Sandalwood from Chile was a popular incense about the turn of the 20th century said to smell like the common Indian Sandalwood, only a little sweeter.

An 'extinct bouquet' of plants includes the Chilean Sandalwood tree, which was driven to extinction in 1908 due to over exploitation of its fragrant wood, and the grassy, herbal smell of Ilex gardneriana holly that has been wiped out since 1997.

Smell is an extremely evocative sense. Perhaps the best known fictional example of its power is in Proust's autobiographical novel, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. The key scene in the French masterpiece describes how the taste and smell of a madeleine - a tea cake - dipped in the tea enabled the narrator to conjure up memories of his childhood in Combray, where he had first been given the treat by his aunt.

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The Science of Swine

Pigs not only inspire scientists via delicious, brain-sustaining pork products. See the latest pig-influenced developments in medicine and tech, from diabetes treatments to pig-urine-flavored cigarettes

Oink Oink: Not just a source of bacon! Photo by Jeremy van Bedijk (CC Licensed)

We've got pork on the brain here this week at PopSci. Earlier today we told you about how cells from a pig's bladder helped a man regenerate part of his severed finger, and if you're a PPX player, you know we just rolled out an IPO regarding PETA's recent offering of a million dollar prize for anyone who can grow meat sans-animal in a lab, hoping to negate the necessity for livestock. However, it will probably be a while before anything created in the lab will rival the one food that we can't ever manage to stop thinking about, even for dessert—bacon.

As it turns out, pigs have been the inspiration for several other recent medical and technological innovations in the last few months.

One such instance of pig science is a report from a group of Russian scientists who are implanting pancreatic cells from young pigs that produce insulin into diabetics. The sample size is still quite small (only 4 people have received the treatment), but the results are worth watching. It seems that some of the patients with the injected insulin-producing pig cells have been able to drastically reduce their insulin intake over long periods of time. This could be a significant step towards the cure for a syndrome that has become exceedingly common within the past few decades. One drawback, however, are the fears that this could lead to the cross-species transmission of pig-borne viruses.

If pig-based diseases aren’t disturbing enough, how about we turn our attention to pig urine? High-density industrial pig farms serve as home to a large percentage of the world's nearly 1 billion pigs, and with high-concentrations of pigs comes high concentrations of their often toxic waste products, which can wreak havoc on the environment. However, one company has devised a novel way of disposing of the urine by rendering the urea into plastics for household items, such as pig urine cups, pig urine bowls and pig urine spoons. Once the process is perfected it could be cheaper and more environmentally advantageous than the regular fossil fuel-based plastics. Other manures can be used, as well, and the organic compounds that are extracted can be potentially used in a variety of ways, including as flavoring for cigarettes. A line of pig urine flavored cigarettes could be an alternative stop smoking product if the patches, pills or gum just aren't doing it for you.
Glow-in-the-dark Pigs: In natural light, the jellyfish gene is expressed in a fluorescent-yellow-hued snout. The treated pigs are luminescent inside and out. Photo by Taiwan University
Finally, out on the extreme end of pig-based research is the glow-in-the-dark pig. A while back Taiwanese scientists were able to genetically modify a litter of pigs with jellyfish DNA so that they would fluoresce green. Though the visual results are striking enough to justify the experiment, the true reasoning behind the experiment is to show that stem cells can be tagged with the same fluorescent molecules allowing their growth and development to be easily observed and studied.

I personally like to think that these scientists wanted to secondarily cure a condition that has plagued man since his inception: the late-night munchies. And what better way to solve it than with glow-in-the-dark bacon?

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'Sex pest' seal attacks penguin

Sexual coercion among animals is extremely common

An Antarctic fur seal has been observed trying to have sex with a king penguin.

The South African-based scientists who witnessed the incident say it is the most unusual case of mammal mating behaviour yet known.

The incident, which lasted for 45 minutes and was caught on camera, is reported in the Journal of Ethology.

The bizarre event took place on a beach on Marion Island, a sub-Antarctic island that is home to both fur seals and king penguins.

At first glimpse, we thought the seal was killing the penguin
Nico de Bruyn, University of Pretoria

Why the seal attempted to have sex with the penguin is unclear. But the scientists who photographed the event speculate that it was the behaviour of a frustrated, sexually inexperienced young male seal.

Equally, it might be been an aggressive, predatory act; or even a playful one that turned sexual.

"At first glimpse, we thought the seal was killing the penguin," says Nico de Bruyn, of the Mammal Research Institute at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

Pinniped behaviour

The brazenness of the seal's behaviour left those who saw it in no doubt as to what was happening.

De Bruyn and a colleague were on Trypot beach at Marion Island to study elephant seals when they noticed a young, adult male Antarctic fur seal, in good condition, attempting to copulate with an adult king penguin of unknown sex.

The 100kg seal first subdued the 15kg penguin by lying on it.

The penguin flapped its flippers and attempted to stand and escape - but to no avail.

Seal and penguin (Nico de Bruyn)
The seal may have been frustrated in its attempts to find a partner

The seal then alternated between resting on the penguin, and thrusting its pelvis, trying to insert itself, unsuccessfully.

After 45 minutes the seal gave up, swam into the water and then completely ignored the bird it had just assaulted, the scientists report.

Why a fur seal would indulge in such extreme sexual behaviour is unclear.

Sexual coercion among animals is extremely common: males of many species often harass, coerce or force females of their own kind to mate, while animals are also known occasionally to harass sexually a member of a closely related species.

Harassment is common among pinnipeds, the group of animals that includes seals, fur seals, and sea lions; and occasionally it happens between related species.

Male grey seals have been known to harass and mate with female harbour seals, for example, producing hybrids.

"Sexual harassment is often more commonplace in non-monogamous mating systems, and in species where males are physically much larger than the other sex and thus physically capable of coercion or harassment," says de Bruyn.

But this is thought to be the first recorded example of a mammal trying to have sex with a member of another class of vertebrate, such as a bird, fish, reptile, or amphibian.

'Too young'

Chinstrap penguins occasionally indulge in homosexual behaviour, and adelie penguins sometimes "prostitute" themselves to get stones for nest-building; while one in seven emperor penguins will change partners from one year to the next.

But generally, king penguins lead straightforward sex lives: males and females pair up for years on end.

Marion Island is the only place in the world where Antarctic fur seals are known to hunt king penguins on land, so the idea that the fur seal was trying to eat the object of its attention made sense.

"But then we realised that the seal's intentions were rather more amorous."

The researchers speculate that the male seal was too young to win access to female seals, and in a state of sexual excitement, looked elsewhere.

But the mating season was nearly over when the incident took place, leading the scientists to also wonder whether the seal's natural predatory aggression toward the bird became redirected into sexual arousal.

Equally, the incident may have arisen because the seal was "play-mating".

"It was most certainly a once-off and has never previously or since been recorded anywhere in the world to our knowledge," says de Bruyn.

The penguin did not appear to have been injured by the seal, the scientists report.
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Alaskan Capital Cuts Power Consumption By 40%

Image from markcbrennan

There’s a program in the U.S. called Energy Star– it certifies homes and appliances for cutting their energy consumption anywhere from 15 to 40%. I don’t think they expected it, but we may have found the first entire city that qualifies: Juneau, Alaska, cut power consumption by 30-40% this month.

Alaska’s capital city lost its main power transmission lines in a series of avalanches earlier this month, cutting it off from a relatively cheap source of power at a hydroelectric dam, and leaving it to draw from backup generators that cost nearly five times as much. Faced with the tough decision that such a large increase in utility bills can present, the city did what many have speculated the western world is incapable of: they cut back.

With citizens cooking on charcoal grills, refusing to watch TV, and drying their laundry on clotheslines, Alaska Light and Power still projects that they’re three months away from repairing the lines and restoring power that’s not slaved to the price of oil.

To give you some context on how rare this sort of behavior is, the last time that a city was able to cut back anything like that was in 2002.

Image from haydnseek

Brazil, which saw the sort of droughts in 2001 and 2002 that the American south did in 2007, implemented a plan that gave clear rewards to those cutting back heavily, and penalized consumers that did not attempt to conserve. It was a smashing success. Not only did the rate of consumption lower by 20%, but it took four more years for the populace to rise back up to pre-200 levels of power usage. With the lack of economic fallout, and relative permanence of the positive effects, Brazil may have discovered the next major step in energy policies, and Juneau may be proving that Americans are prepared to accept it.

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U.S. closes most of West Coast to salmon fishing

By Teresa Carson

PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - The U.S. government on Thursday closed almost all of the ocean off the West Coast to salmon fishing, clearing the way for governors of states hard hit by years of declining catches to seek federal relief aid for losses estimated at $290 million.

West Coast salmon populations have declined sharply in the last few years, with experts citing a variety of reasons including climate change and hungry sea lions.

"Today NOAA's Fisheries Service will close most of the West Coast salmon fisheries based on the recommendations of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council," James Balsiger, acting assistant administrator of fisheries, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said, citing "low returns of fall Chinook salmon to the Sacramento River system."

Balsiger said NOAA has not pinpointed the cause of the "sudden" collapse of the Sacramento River run, but "NOAA scientists are suggesting changes in the ocean conditions."

NOAA estimates fewer than 60,000 salmon will make it back to the Sacramento River this year -- about one-third the number needed to sustain a healthy fish population.

Consumers should brace for higher salmon prices. Balsiger said wild salmon "will cost a lot" at the supermarket, even though salmon supplies from Alaska are expected to be "in pretty good shape."

Governors and congressional delegations of the affected states have been working to get relief for fishermen, charter businesses, suppliers, motel operators and others that will be hit by closure of commercial and recreational fishing.

"Given skyrocketing gas and food prices, getting aid to these fishing communities quickly is critical," Oregon Senator Gordon Smith said in a statement. "It's a matter of survival. This declaration allows us to begin pushing for funds immediately."

(Editing by Lisa Baertlein and David Gregorio)

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GM Announces New Cellulosic Ethanol Partnership with Mascoma Corp.

General Motors announced today it would be entering into a strategic relationship with Mascoma Corp., a second-generation biofuel company with the technology to produce cellulosic ethanol from non-food sources via a single-step biochemical conversion.

The undisclosed equity share aims to contribute to joint research and development along with technology exchange, plant siting, and rapid commercialization of cellulosic ethanol technology and infrastructure. This is GM’s second investment in a cellulosic ethanol company, after announcing partnership with Coskata back in January.

Mascoma is a 3 year old energy biotech company based in Boston. Their proprietary production process, called Consolidated Bioprocessing, limits the use of chemicals and enzymes required by other biochemical methods to make cellulosic ethanol. There are two basic processing methods: biochemical treatment and gasification (see post on Coskata).

How Does Mascoma’s Cellulosic Ethanol Process Work?

During a conference call today, I asked Chairman and CEO of Mascoma Bruce Jamerson how their process differs from standard biochemical production processes. He described it like this:

Cellulosic ethanol feedstocks are usually broken down by some kind of pre-treatment, like a mild acid bath. At that point, the cellulose (which is basically a chain of glucose sugar molecules) is clipped apart into C5 and C6 sugars by enzymes. Those sugars are then fermented into ethanol by other microbes. Each of these steps take time, and money. The first step after pre-treatment, called hydrolysis, typically requires purchasing expensive enzymes. The best way to reduce the cost and throughput time would be to eliminate some of these steps.

Mascoma’s proprietary microorganims do all of the post pre-treatment steps at once, without the need for separate batches. The advantage of this is decreased throughput time, lower capital cost, and higher yields.

The other big difference about Mascoma is their pretreatment step, which essentially chops up plant material and uses a proprietary process involving heat, water, temperature, and mechanical action to prepare the plant material for digestion. Since it doesn’t use acids or bases to break down cellulose, it avoids chemical use and decreases waste materials.

Mascoma can make cellulosic ethanol out of any non-grain feedstock like switchgrass, corn stover, wood chips, waste wood material.

What are Mascoma’s Plans for Commericalization?

Mascoma is building a demonstration facility in New York, and hopes to have it operating by end of the year. The company is looking at 2010 or beyond before commercial scale facilities are operating.

Mascoma, like Coskata, is backed by Khosla Ventures, and has raised about $90 million in investments.

Is Mascoma Competing with Coskata for Biofuel Supremecy?

During a conference call today, Mary Beth Stanek of GM said that Coskata and Mascoma aren’t really competing with one another, since they offer complimentary approaches to producing ethanol. Bruce Jamerson commented that they’re glad GM is investing in both Coskata and Mascoma because there is such a demand for low greenhouse gas fuels.

How does Mascoma’s Ethanol Compare?

Mascoma said their fuel would incur approximately $1.00 to $1.50 per gallon production cost, completive with gasoline.

GM said they’ve thoroughly evaluated Mascoma’s environmental metrics, which include:

  • Greenhouse gas savings: 90-95% reduction when compared to gasoline.
  • Commercial stage water use: 2-3 gallons water per gallon ethanol produced (compared to Coskata’s 1 gallon).
  • Commercial stage net energy balance: around 1:8-10 (8 to 10 units of energy produced for each put in). Mascoma says they’re currently getting an energy return of 1:5.5 in the lab.

Why Does GM Care so much About Cellulosic Ethanol?

It’s no mystery why GM is interested. They’ve already got 4 million Flex Fuel vehicles (those that can run on 85% ethanol) on the road, and any effort to rapidly commercialize cellulosic ethanol will help them in the long term.

For more on this topic, see GM’s Grand Plan For Solving America’s Oil Dependence.

Posts Related to Cellulosic Ethanol, GM, and Coskata:

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The World's Largest & Deepest Lake, 25-million-Years Old, is in Trouble: A Galaxy Exclusive

Baikal_lake_2 As the oldest, largest and deepest lake on planet Earth, ancient Lake Baikal is known as the “grand dame” of all lakes. UNESCO declared it a World Heritage due to its stunning bio-diversity. Most of its 2500 some odd plant and animal species, including the freshwater seal, evolved in pristine isolation and are found nowhere else on the planet. The Siberian lake contains an enormous 20 percent of the entire world's freshwater, and is large enough to hold all the water in the Great Lakes combined and then some. The lake has yielded many exciting aquatic wonders and likely holds many more undiscovered marvels in its incredibly deep waters. The 25 million year old lake predates the emergence of humans, but its splendor may not outlive us.

Stephanie Hampton, the Deputy Director of the National Center for Ecological Analysis & Synthesis (NCEAS) who has been studying the lake shared with The Daily Galaxy what makes Baikal so exquisite.

“Lake Baikal probably the most beautiful place I've ever been - I'm thinking especially right now of the day I spent on Olkhon Island when the wildflowers were spectacular and the serenity was awe-inspiring. It is the world's most ancient lake with a proliferation of biodiversity that is breathtaking,” describes Hampton affectionately.

“Where I would usually see 2 species of a particular type of crustacean (amphipods, in this case), instead I see 344 species in all shapes and colors and sizes. Many of the unique fish in Baikal resemble deep-sea fishes rather than other freshwater fish that are more closely related to them - with big eyes and spindly bodies. Also, sponge forests are common. If you are surprised that I'm mentioning a sponge forest in a lake, it's for a good reason: they are not that common in lakes!” Hampton notes with enthusiasm, “So here you are in this incredibly cold lake at fairly high latitude, and underwater, this sponge forest looks more like the Caribbean than the subarctic! It is really like a freshwater Galapagos in the midst of Siberia.”

It doesn’t take much prodding to get information out of Hampton when it comes to the lake! Her abounding awe and reverence for one of Mother Nature’s most unique wonders is completely apparent. Unfortunately, according to Hampton and other experts, all this is about to change forever. Global warming has had a strong impact on the lake, and is threatening its incredibly unique life forms that evolved to live only in extreme cold. A multi-generational study involving careful and repeated sampling over six decades was recently reported in the journal Global Change Biology showing that the lake’s temperatures is rising dangerously fast. Hampton, who participated in the study, notes that the lake was expected to be among those most resistant to climate change, due to its tremendous volume and unique water circulation. But unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case.

“So many organisms in and around Lake Baikal have evolved only in Lake Baikal, and they are very well-adapted to an extremely cold environment that is covered by ice for much of the year. More than half of the animals in Baikal are not found anywhere else! Lake Baikal has been around for 25 million years, so there has been plenty of time for organisms to evolve to its special environment - the warming associated with climate change is very abrupt, and it's not clear whether or how these special organisms can adapt to a rapidly warming lake,” Hampton explains.

Already there has been a rise in more common water organisms in the lake—a sight that does not bode well for the lakes original inhabitants.

“We know that Siberia is one of the most rapidly warming regions of the world - the air temperature in Siberia has warmed at a rate that is about twice that of the average global rate of temperature increase. So when we approached this work with the Lake Baikal temperature data, we knew that the lake would have been exposed to a greater ambient temperature increase than lakes in other regions, but I certainly will admit to being surprised that the lake had warmed so rapidly since 1946. Why is it warming so much faster than the air? The answer probably involves ice,” Hampton explains.

“Ice is a very prominent feature of life on Lake Baikal. Ice normally starts taking over the lake in January and it doesn't leave until May or June - so, life goes on in Lake Baikal under ice for nearly half the year! The top predator in the lake, the Baikal seal, raises its pups on ice in the winter in snow caves, fishing for food in the lake water by using holes in the ice. Under the ice, algae (the microscopic plants at the base of the food web) that are found only in Lake Baikal, are well-adapted to achieve their greatest productivity while there is still thick, but clear, spring ice on the lake. So, both the top and the bottom of the food web in Baikal are very well adapted to long icy winters - this dependence on ice by the top and bottom of the food web is not common in lakes.”

She continues, “We know from previous work, published by other researchers, that the ice is staying on the lake for a shorter time period now than it used to. When ice lasted longer in the past, it kept the lake insulated from air temperature changes for a longer portion of the year. Now that there is less ice, the water is warming faster. This is what other researchers also found on Lake Superior just last year. So, we can expect the lake to get warmer and warmer, as the ice lasts for a shorter time each year.”

But what about the humans in the region? Even if the aquatic resident’s of Lake Baikal can’t thrive in the warmer weather, aren’t the nearby human settlements looking forward to a respite from the bitter cold that global warming may offer? Again, Hampton explains that the issue is a lot more complicated than most of us realize.

“Some of the harshest winters of the century occurred within living memory for many Siberians, and it is easy to understand why Russians might welcome a longer growing season in Siberia. However, one big concern, as the air temperature increases, will be the deterioration of infrastructure as permafrost melts and the ground shifts under buildings and around pipes or other structures laid in the ground,” she explains, “Also, there are villages around Lake Baikal that can only be reached by water during the summer and by travel over the ice in winter - when ice is too thin for travel, but too thick for a boat, those villages are cut off from each other and from the main roads, so there will be societal impacts for some of these isolated villages where winter is already a pretty tough time of year.”

In other words, climate change will likely have a negative impact on the human population as well. As far as the lake itself goes, Hampton points out that she’s not alone in her concern.

“Russia, and many people are concerned for its welfare. A conservation organization called the Baikal Environmental Wave received a prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize this year, and there has been good community involvement in environmental issues surrounding the lake in recent years.”

But awareness alone can’t save the grand dame’s biodiversity, nor other fragile habitats around the globe. It will take action too. But what can we ordinary people do to make any kind of real difference? Climate change expert Thomas Reichler, who was not involved in the study, told The Daily Galaxy that combating global warming starts with simple daily choices that everyone makes. You don’t have to change the world all by yourself, just change your own actions and let your example inspire other to do the same, he says. Things as simple as choosing to “drive smaller cars, drive less, and insulate your house well. Things like this can make a difference.”

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