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Friday, July 25, 2008

7 Ways William Shatner Changed the World

7 Ways William Shatner Changed the World
Could a TV show propel us into a real-life final frontier? Could a fictional captain change the way we interact with our world?

While you could argue that William Shatner changed the world, he's downright sure of it. And he's taken the liberty of making a two-hour documentary (and this web feature) to prove it.

From "communicator/tricorder"-style phones and GPS, to medical imaging, to space-craft propulsion, take alook at how the fiction of the U.S.S. Enterprise and crew inspired a world of science in reality.

1. Space ships
In September 2004, Virgin Galactic owner Richard Branson announced that the first commercial spaceliner - based on the technology of SpaceShip One, the first successful private space vessel - would also be named Enterprise.

Do real-life, present-day space programs share anything more than a name with the voyages of a fictional starship in the future? (more...)

2. Computers that help us in daily tasks
Unlike warp drive or transporter technology, the reality of computers is already on-par with Star Trek in many ways: We have rudimentary voice-recognition, auto-pilot, and a vast, highly-organized information network available almost anywhere.

When Captain Kirk talks to the computer on the Enterprise of 1960s TV, you can't help but giggle at the flashing lights and ticker-tape. (more...)

3. Global communication in the palm of your hand
In addition to the advent of real-life "tricorders" from the final frontier (GPS units), mobile phone technology has become second only to the Internet in terms of futuristic communication today.

While the slick multi-purpose mobiles of today are a relatively new technology, people have understood the mechanics behind this form of communication for decades - even before Shatner was wielding his communicator in the 1960s. (more...)

4. The search for aliens
What would science fiction be without UFOs and aliens? But are there any real little green men (or blue men, as in Trek lore) out among the stars?

Books, films and TV have challenged our imagination, building upon the age-old question of just what - or who - is out there. Most take a stab at what this undknown could be like. Some radio astronomers, though, are trying to go to the source. (more...)

5. Cheating death
Some medical procedures feel like they're right out of the sci-fi world.

From trepanation - likely the earliest form of surgery - practiced in many cultures, to the equally-dicey nanotechnology, Shatner's adventures on the screen have inspired doctors and engineers across the medical spectrum (Likely, not the ones practicing trepanation.) (more...)

6. Teleportation
Forget fuel-cell cars and hover planes... the future would be really cool if you could finish work and be home now. Like right now.

Just like the real-life prospects for faster-than-light travel, transporter technology has a long way to come (if it's possible at all.)

Essentially, we would need something to the effect of all the nuclear energy on Earth to move one person a few kilometres (more...)

7. The quest for faster-than-light travel
You think it after an unexpected power-up in a video game. You imagine saying it before taking air on the slopes. Or when your rental sedan gets switched for a brand new sports car. You pull out onto the street, smile in anticipation, and floor it: "Warp speed..."

Sadly, faster-than-light travel is still a dream that eludes us in reality. But thanks to a fictional starship and its captains, we continue to chase that dream. (more...)
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The Infertility Paradox: Why Making Babies Is So Hard

By Meredith F. Small, LiveScience's Human Nature Columnist

New Technology Can Turn Heat Waste Into Electricity

Unknown insects found in 110-million-year-old amber in Spain

This undated photo shows an insect enclosed in an amber discovered by scientists of the Universities of Jena and Rostock in 2005. The remains of several unknown insect species which became extinct long before dinosaurs stopped roaming the earth have been discovered in pieces of 110-million-year-old amber found in Spain, researchers said Thursday.(AFP/HO/File/Hans Pohl)
AFP/HO/File Photo: This undated photo shows an insect enclosed in an amber discovered by scientists of the...

MADRID (AFP) - The remains of several unknown insect species which became extinct long before dinosaurs stopped roaming the earth have been discovered in pieces of 110-million-year-old amber found in Spain, researchers said Thursday.

Palaeontologist Enrique Penalver said the amber discovered in the El Soplao cave in the northern province of Cantabria was in "exceptional" condition.

"The conservation is incredible. You can study the details," he told a news conference in Santander according to the Europea Press agency.

Several types of arachnids, as well spider webs and plant remains, were found fossilised in the amber discovered at the site, added Penalver, a researcher with the science ministry's Geology and Mine Institute.

It is the most important amber find to date in Spain and possibly in all of Europe, he added. There are few other amber finds from that era in the world, he said.

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Where Is Human Evolution Heading?

By Nancy Shute
If you judge the progress of humanity by Homer Simpson, Paris Hilton, and Girls Gone Wild videos, you might conclude that our evolution has stalled—or even shifted into reverse. Not so, scientists say. Humans are evolving faster than ever before, picking up new genetic traits and talents that may help us survive a turbulent future.

Much remodeling has gone on since the dawn of agriculture about 10 millenniums ago. "People who lived 10,000 years ago were much more like Neanderthals than we are like those people," says John Hawks, a professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin. "We've changed."

Hawks is among a growing number of scientists who are using whole-genome sequencing and other modern technologies to zero in on just how we've changed. Their research is helping illuminate not only how humans became what we are but also where we might be headed. For instance, some scientists speculate that changes in human mating patterns may be contributing to the increase in autism. Others track how humans have morphed in response to changing circumstances, including enhanced abilities to metabolize sugar and fight disease. Some people are genetically more resistant to the HIV virus, for instance, and that trait should become more common in the future, as those people are more likely to survive and have children who are resistant. Yet for some people, the makeover isn't big enough or fast enough. Some parents have started using DNA testing to choose the genetic makeup of their children, rejecting embryos with inherited flaws or embracing those with desired traits—such as being the right sex.

New mutations. Until recently, anthropologists thought that human evolution had slowed down. But last December, Hawks reported that it has actually accelerated 100-fold in the past 5,000 to 10,000 years. He figured that out by comparing chunks of DNA among 269 people from around the world. Over time, DNA accumulates random mutations, just as the front of a white T-shirt tends to accumulate spots. The bigger the chunks of DNA without random spots, the more recently it had been minted. Using this system, Hawks concluded that recent genetic changes account for about 7 percent of the human genome. Much of the increase, he says, has been fueled by the growth of the world's population, which has expanded by a factor of 1,000 over the past 10,000 years. Having more people increases the odds of mutations.

At the same time, the human genome has been scrambling to adapt to a rapidly changing world—11,000 years ago, nobody farmed, nobody milked domesticated animals, and nobody lived in a city. People with a mutation that aided survival were more likely to thrive, reproduce, and pass that mutation along to offspring. For example, the capacity to digest lactose, the sugar in milk, has become common only over the past 3,000 years. Now, about 95 percent of the people in northern Germany have the mutation, which also popped up independently among the Masai in Africa and the Lapps in Finland. Hawks says: "This is really rapid evolution."

Humans will continue to change to cope with new diseases, if history is any guide. Genes that defend against infectious disease have been among the most rapidly evolving parts of the human genome. People whose ancestors lived in European cities are more likely to have some resistance to smallpox, while people in sub-Saharan Africa are more likely to be genetically resistant to malaria. Just weeks ago, researchers reported that one genetic variant that protects against malaria also makes people more susceptible to AIDS, a discovery that could lead to tailored treatment for AIDS in Africa.

Right now, our genes are playing catch-up against modern scourges—like diabetes. Native Americans and Polynesians, whose cultures only recently adopted a European-style diet of refined grains, have the world's highest rates of diabetes. The theory is that the "thrifty genes" that helped those groups survive famines haven't had time to adapt to the glucose spikes caused by eating starchy food. "How we move sugars around and how we burn them has really changed a lot," says Gregory Wray, an evolutionary biologist at Duke University.

It's even possible that very recent changes in society and the workplace could underpin the recent rise in cases of autism. Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, was struck by how many of the parents of children with autism who he tested were really good "systematizers"—people who understand the world according to rules or laws. They also were more likely to have a father who worked in engineering. He wonders if the increase in autism diagnoses could be partly due to "assortative mating"—that is, people picking mates like themselves. People with autism spectrum disorder are often detail oriented and analytical, and today they might have an easier time finding a spouse with similar abilities than they would have in past eras. Baron-Cohen notes that in the late 1950s, only 2 percent of the undergraduates at Massachusetts Institute of Technology were women; now, 50 percent are. So, he's setting up a study to test whether assortative mating among people with a genetic predisposition for autism could be fueling the birth of more children with autism.

The human brain, which has evolved into a cognitive machine unique in the world, is likely to change even more in the future. Our niche in nature, says Stephen Pinker, an experimental psychologist at Harvard University who studies the evolution of language and the mind, is the "cognitive niche." In research published last year, Wray identified genes that control glucose metabolism in the brain as among those most recently evolved. Those changes may have been essential to fueling the human brain's growth to a size twice that of our nearest cousin, the chimpanzee. "If you make a big brain, it's an energy hog," Wray says. "It's like putting a V-8 engine in a tiny little car." It could also help explain why chimpanzees don't get diabetes, while humans do.

Tinkering. Take that souped-up brain and put it in the texting, Twittering, 24-7 world we've recently created for ourselves, and it's easy to imagine that we will become superspeedy multitaskers—or more complacent cubicle dwellers. However, this progress comes too slowly for some. "The world is changing so rapidly that biological evolution is not where the action is," says Nick Bostrom, a professor at the University of Oxford and cofounder of the World Transhumanist Association, which seeks to use science to improve humankind. He, for one, doesn't care to wait through a few hundred generations for improvements. Genetic engineering will help short term, he says, and then nanotechnology will step in, altering the biochemistry of the human body at the flip of a switch. "If we're thinking several hundred years out, then much more radical intervention may be feasible."

Unfortunately for those like Bostrom, who see humans as one big fixer-upper project, the human genome has so far proved to be remarkably resistant to tinkering. Since 1990, when gene therapy was first tested in humans, doctors have been trying to repair defective genes by injecting healthy ones. The method has shown only limited success and has failed to deliver as a treatment for common conditions such as heart disease. And gene therapy fixes only somatic genes, which aren't inherited. Germline therapy, which would create heritable mutations, is a far more complex—and contentious—challenge.

Notwithstanding the obstacles, Bostrom's wish list for improved human traits includes a longer "health span," with fewer years of human life spent struggling against cancer, heart disease, and dementia. Enhanced cognitive abilities would be nice, too. "Perhaps physical attractiveness would be a popular trait," he says.

There's as yet no way to select for attractiveness, but parents can choose a few of an offspring's genes if they're willing to try preimplantation genetic diagnosis. In PGD, doctors carefully vacuum a single cell from a 3-day-old embryo and test certain genes before deciding whether to place the embryo into a woman's uterus. The technique, which must be used in combination with in vitro fertilization, was invented almost 20 years ago as a way to reduce the odds of a child inheriting a deadly genetic disorder, such as Tay-Sachs.

It didn't take long for prospective parents to realize that the same method could be use to sort embryos for other reasons. Since 2000, parents have been able to use PGD to choose an embryo's tissue type, so that the ensuing child could serve as a stem cell or bone marrow donor to a sick sibling. More recently, a few have used PGD to reject embryos that have genes that merely increase the risk of disease in adulthood, such as the BRCA breast cancer genes. A few parents with disabilities such as deafness have used PGD to choose a deaf child. And PGD is increasingly used to reject embryos that have no problems at all—unless you consider being the wrong sex a problem. A number of fertility clinics in the United States advertise PGD to parents who want to be guaranteed the child will have the sex they choose. One California clinic boasts of "over 3,800 cases: 100 percent sex selection success." With PGD largely unregulated in the United States, it doesn't take a Nobel Prize in genetics to imagine that babies could soon be ordered up in custom sizes and colors, like a Mini Cooper.

The next step: children with genes from three parents. In the late 1990s, IVF clinics started injecting cytoplasm from younger women's eggs into those of older women, in an effort to increase the odds of pregnancy. About 30 babies have been born worldwide as a result, and those children carry genes from both women. But that rejiggering of the human germline was almost inadvertent. Scientists are now intentionally making that mix. Earlier this year, researchers at Newcastle University in England deliberately created human embryos that had DNA from one father and two mothers, in order to avoid the risk of a mitochondrial disease from the original mother.

But it's too early to lie awake worrying that genetically manipulated superkids are going to ace your grandkids out of varsity soccer, says Thomas Murray, a bioethicist and president of the Hastings Center. "Our capacity to do these kinds of intentional designs is vastly overrated." But, he says, it's not too early to start thinking about what's really important about being a parent. The traits that people most value, Murray says—being smart, being kind, being a successful competitor—are the ones least likely to be determined by a few tweakable genes. For that kind of control over the next generation, it still takes good old-fashioned nurturing, teaching, and love.

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Missing link found between circadian clock and metabolism

Two new research studies have discovered a long sought molecular link between our metabolism and components of the internal clock that drives circadian rhythms, keeping us to a roughly 24-hour schedule. The findings appear in the July 25th issue of the journal Cell, a publication of Cell Press.

The missing link is a well–studied mammalian protein called SIRT1, which was previously known to be switched on and off in accordance with cells' metabolic state and is perhaps best known for its potential life-extending properties.

"We all have noticed in an intuitive manner that the body requires more energy at certain times of day," said Paolo Sassone-Corsi of University of California, Irvine. "That's why we have lunch or dinner—there is a cyclicity in feeding behavior and energy requirement. That suggests there must be a link between the clock and metabolism. Now, in SIRT1, we have found a molecular connection between the circadian machinery and metabolism."

" While it remains a matter of speculation, the findings suggest that drugs that inhibit or activate SIRT1 might have an effect on the clock," added Gad Asher of University of Geneva in Switzerland, noting that such treatments might be a help to people suffering from circadian sleep disturbances. That idea could be easily tested by giving mice resveratrol, a SIRT1-boosting ingredient found in red wine, and examining its effects on clock function, he added.

Although still a matter of some debate, SIRT1 and its equivalent proteins in other organisms (known collectively as Sirtuins) have been shown to prolong life span. Studies have also implicated the protein in the life-extending effects of a calorie restricted diet in some, though not all, organisms.

The physiology and behavior of mammals are subject to daily oscillations driven by an endogenous circadian clock, explained Asher's team led by Ueli Schibler. In mammals, the circadian timing system is composed of a central pacemaker in the brain and subsidiary oscillators in most peripheral tissues. While light-dark cycles are the predominant cue for the brain's pacemaker, cyclic feeding behavior has a strong effect on clocks operating in many other tissues.

Sassone-Corsi's team earlier showed that the clock component aptly known as CLOCK affects the way that DNA is packaged into chromatin through chemical modification of the histone spools that wind DNA up into chromatin. Such "epigenetic" modifications allow for reversible changes in gene activity and are increasingly being recognized as a critical factor in many developmental, physiological, and metabolic processes.

CLOCK specifically acts as a so-called histone acetyltransferase (HAT), meaning that it transfers an acetyl group to histones and other proteins as well. If CLOCK is a HAT, that meant there must be a histone deacetylase (HDAC) that would act in the opposite manner, Sassone-Corsi said, removing the acetyl groups that CLOCK adds to drive daily fluctuations in gene activity.

Sirtuins came to mind, he said, because of their dependence on NAD+, a factor that is often considered a readout of metabolic state. SIRT1 also preferentially deacetylates the same histone that they showed CLOCK acetylates. Like CLOCK, Sirtuins are known to modify proteins other than histones as well, he added.

Now, Sassone-Corsi's team shows that the HDAC activity of the SIRT1 enzyme is controlled in a circadian manner, correlating with rhythmic acetylation of histones and the clock component BMAL1 by CLOCK. SIRT1 also associates with CLOCK and is recruited to the CLOCK:BMAL1 chromatin complex at circadian promoters, where they turn on the transcription of other clock genes, they report. Treatments that block SIRT1 activity lead to disturbances in the circadian cycle and in the acetylation of histones and BMAL1. Finally, in mice lacking SIRT1 only in the liver, they found evidence that SIRT1 normally contributes to circadian control in a living animal.

Asher and Schibler's team made a similar discovery: They show that SIRT1 is required for high-magnitude circadian activity of several core clock genes. SIRT1 binds CLOCK-BMAL1 in a circadian manner, they report, and promotes the deacetylation and degradation of the clock component called PER2. " It's been dogma for years that the circadian clock is regulated by transcription feedback loops," Sassone-Corsi said. "Now we have another loop—an enzymatic loop."

The next step is to understand the connection between changes in metabolism and the circadian cycle in more detail, the researchers said.

The findings also open a door on the possibility that epigenetics might influence behavior, Sassone-Corsi added, with potential implications for understanding the obesity epidemic.

" Genetics can't be the answer because the incidence is on the rise," he said. "Something else must be going on and perhaps epigenetic regulation is the key. In broad terms, that's where we're going."

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How a tiny bug is ravaging Colorado's forests

Ed Andrieski / AP (left); Jen Chase / Colorado State Forest Service-AP
Tiny Pest, Big Damage: About the size of a grain of rice, the mountain pine beetle (left) is destroying great swaths of pine trees in Colorado (reddish brown areas at right)

By Jim Moscou

Summer at Colorado's Beaver Creek Resort is usually a time of hot days, cool nights, verdant views and the peaceful sound of the Rocky Mountains. Not this year. The area's idyllic silence is being disturbed by the sound of chainsaws cutting down large swaths of dead or dying trees in this gated community. "We have no illusions, no choice," says Tony O'Rourke, executive director of Beaver Creek's Home Owners Association. "We can't stem the tide." O'Rourke's dire tone comes from the resort's lost battle with a bug--the mountain pine beetle--that is destroying much of Beaver Creek's lush green vistas and reducing them to barren brown patches.

After ravaging 22 million acres of pine trees in Canada over the last 12 years, the rice-sized insects have been feasting their way southward. Their favorite meal: the majestic lodgepole pine, which makes up 8 percent of Colorado's 22 million acres of forests. Before landing in Beaver Creek, the pine beetles tore through neighboring Vail, Winter Park, Breckenridge and several areas around Steamboat Springs. So far, say state foresters, the beetles have eaten through 1.5 million acres, about 70 percent of the all the state's lodgepole pines. The tree's entire population will be wiped out in the next few years, Colorado state foresters predict, leaving behind a deforested area about the size of Rhode Island.

The last significant Colorado outbreak was recorded in the late 1970s and was, by most accounts, far less devastating than the current infestation. "This the most extreme [beetle outbreak] in recorded U.S. history," notes Tom DeLuca, a senior forest ecologist for The Wilderness Society, which has tracked the epidemic.

Coming up with solutions isn't easy. "It's clear these beetles don't read the book," says Ingrid Aguayo, the top forest entomologist for the Colorado State Forest Service and a lecturer at Colorado State University. The beetles are breaking all the rules taught in forestry school. The last few relatively warm winters have allowed the beetle population to flourish and enabled them to attack trees at much higher altitudes, like the 10,000-foot forests around Beaver Creek. Also, the current beetles are also proving to be less picky eaters than their predecessors. Today's bugs are even attacking small trees, further endangering any chance for new growth. There is some evidence, too, that the beetles are hatching and taking to flight earlier in the year, giving them longer summer days to do damage.

Is there an unequivocal reason for beetles' advance? "They have food," Aguayo adds, noting that drought conditions in Colorado in the early 2000s weakened trees, and after decades of fires suppression, many lodgepole pine stands are more than 80 years old, moving toward the end of their lifecycle and thus vulnerable. "The stars are aligned," Aguayo says. "It's a perfect storm for [the bugs] to do well." Untended, the situation could prove deadly very soon. With summer in full swing, wildfire in the high country is on everyone's mind. Lodgepole pines can stand 80 feet tall. But once beetles leave them for dead, the trees transform into giant matchsticks. The fire danger they pose has even forced some Colorado campgrounds to close until further notice.

Another concern: That the bugs' eating habits may change. For decades, foresters have lived by a theory that when beetles kickoff their feeding frenzy, they chose a particular tree species as their target. For instance, in the 1970s Colorado outbreak, the favored flavor was ponderosa pine, a cousin of the lodgepole. This time around, foresters are worried the beetle will make a species jump. The result could not only be another decade of watching dying forests, but infestations at lower altitudes and in areas more populated, like the foothills just west of Denver, Colorado Springs and Boulder. "We'll know in the next year or two," says Aguayo. "It's a very tense time."

If there is an upside to the demise of the lodgepole pine, it's that scientists and foresters are seeing signs of thriving bird populations that have made newly felled trees their home. The state's entrepreneurs are also finding a way to capitalize. In Kremmling, just outside of Steamboat Springs, a new 18,000 square-foot wood-pellet plant opens in two weeks. Feeding on beetle-killed trees, the plant will provide wood pellets for heating stoves, a booming business not only because of the ample supply of wood, but increasing energy costs. There's even research being done on the feasibility of turning the millions of dead trees into ethanol.

In the meantime, the beetles march on, unabated. Once a tree shows signs of infestation, it's already dead. Chemical treatments on seemingly healthy trees do work, if applied in the spring. But at an average cost of $50 per tree and annual treatments for as long as the infestation lasts, it's uneconomical on mountain-wide scales. That's why behind the gates of the posh Beaver Creek Resort, managers have turned to the simplest solution: clear cutting, thus getting a jump on the next generation of trees. The company will spend about $100,000 this year cutting beetle-infested trees, and has budgeted to do so for at least the next five years. While the work is a bit jarring to a visitor, O'Rourke downplays all the chopping among the multi-million dollar homes. He points to the healthy stands of aspen trees and how little can be done in the beauty of nature's way. "We just equate it to a nip-a-tick," he says, speaking in the local parlance. "We'll look a lot better when it's done." As for the rest of the state, that remains to be seen.

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Unique Habitat Found Inside Earth

By Aaron L. Gronstal, Astrobiology Magazine

The star-shaped bacterium was isolated from mine-slime, 1.7 km below the surface. The ruler shown for scale is in centimetres. Credit: Wanger et al.

Researchers studying life in the deep subsurface of our planet have discovered a unique bacterium living 1 mile (1.7 km) below the Earth's surface. The tiny bacteria live in a community of subsurface microbes inhabiting a South African platinum mine.

The deep subsurface of Earth harbors many unique microbes that are only accessible through large scale drilling projects or mining. By trekking into the ultra-deep mines of South Africa, researchers are getting a rare glimpse into this unique habitat. In the depths of South Africa's Northam Platinum mine, scientists from the University of Western Ontario and Princeton University have gained access to many previously undiscovered microbial communities.

While mining and drilling allow scientists to sample the unique environment below the Earth's soil, these activities obviously disturb the subsurface of the planet. Digging into the ground disrupts the microbial communities that live there. When people enter mines and caves, they bring with them a massive number of non-native microbes. Because of this, it's difficult to get uncontaminated samples.

The team from the recent study decided to test samples from mines in order to determine just how contaminated they really are. They collected samples from slime, or biofilm, growing on the walls of the Northam mine in South Africa. An explosion of life occurs where subsurface water leaks out of the mine walls and meets with oxygen, leading to films of microscopic organisms.

Previously, researchers overlooked these biofilms because they thought the films would be too heavily contaminated. To test this theory, the team determined whether or not their biofilms were formed by contaminant organisms from the surface, or by unique subsurface organisms.

The study, by Greg Wanger, Tullis Onstott and Gordon Southam, was published in a recent edition of the journal Geobiology.

The authors showed that the biofilms contained a number of unique organisms associated with the deep subsurface, and therefore such films might be an excellent place to search for new and unusual species of microbes. In fact, in their study the team came across one particularly strange microbe shaped like a tiny, microscopic star.

Shaping up bacteria

Microbes come in a number of shapes and sizes, but most of these shapes are rather uncomplicated. The easiest shape for a microbe to make is a sphere. Like a soap bubble, the cell membranes of microbes tend to naturally form this simple structure due to forces such as surface tension.

According to the research team, "the diversity of all bacterial shapes is more difficult to explain." Other shapes often seen in microbes include rods and spirals, but these take a bit of extra work on the part of the microbe. To make more complicated shapes, microbes have to use extra energy to fight against the natural forces that favor the sphere. According to the research team, the biofilms from Northam mine "contained a morphologically diverse assortment of bacteria."

Some rare microbes go beyond the common and form radically unique shapes. The microbe discovered in the depths of the Northam mine is one such microbe. Using high-powered microscopes, the team captured images that show star-shaped cells with four to nine points. It's a unique structure for a microbe and one that has not been witnessed before.

So why would a microbe want to take the shape of a star?

As living organisms, every microbe needs food. When we need food, we can simply pick it up and put it in our mouths. That's not the case for most microbes. Many microbes simply float about in their environment in the hope that they'll be able to absorb the nutrients they need to survive

Many microbes "eat" by letting nutrients diffuse through their cell membrane. A sphere may be easy to form, but it doesn't provide the largest surface area for a cell. By forming a more complicated shape, with a cell wall that folds and bends, the surface area of the cell is increased in relation to its interior volume. This means there's more cell wall through with the microbe can absorb its food.

The new microbe discovered by the researchers in South Africa has likely developed its unique shape in response to its unique environment. The deep subsurface of the planet is thought to be quite "nutrient poor" — there's not a lot of food to go around. Microbes need to develop clever strategies to out-compete their neighbors. The surface-area-to-volume ratio for the star-shaped cells is thought to be as much as ten times better than common bacteria like e. coli. This advantage may help the stars survive amidst a neighborhood of microbes competing for the same food.

Inside planets

Scientists are just beginning to understand the unique types of life beneath the surface of our planet. Astrobiologists are particularly interested in the subsurface because it can help them understand how microbes might survive deep beneath the topsoil of other planets.

Upcoming and current missions to search for signs of past or present life on Mars are focusing on life beneath the martian soil. Right now, NASA's Phoenix Lander is using a scoop to dig on Mars. Recent images returned from Phoenix are already revealing clues about subsurface ice on the red planet.

The European Space Agency's ExoMars rover may take the exploration of Mars' subsurface one step further. Current plans are to place a drill on ExoMars that could allow the rover to dig up to 12 feet.

NASA has also been developing prototype drills for use by human explorers on Mars. Drilling technologies have already been tested by NASA researchers in extreme environments on Earth, including the Canadian high arctic.

Microbes use many methods to survive in the nutrient-poor, oxygen-free, pitch-black world deep beneath our feet. Studying these microbes might provide clues about how organisms could live in harsh environments on other planets like Mars. Because of this, unique microbes like the "stars" of Northam mine may shed a bit of light on the future of planetary exploration.

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0.3% of Saharan Sun Enough To Power Europe

Image by Divwerf

The major obstacle to using renewable energy has always been the inability to produce a constant supply of electricity to consumers. However, scientists now believe that they have found a way to solve the supply and demand problem.

Arnulf Jaeger-Waldau of the European Commission’s Institute for Energy, speaking at the Euroscience Open Forum in Barcelona (ESOF), believes that the creation of solar farms in the Sahara desert could produce enough energy to meet all of Europe’s energy needs. Power could be generated either through photovoltaic cells or by using the sun’s heat to boil water and power turbines.

Scientists at the ESOF 2008 are also proposing a ’supergrid’ that could transmit electricity along high voltage direct current cables and potentially allow countries to export their wind energy during periods of surplus, as well as import energy from other sources. The grid proposal, with its ability to transmit power from different sources, eliminates the criticism of the instability of renewable energy. If there is no wind or sun in Europe, there certainly will be in the Sahara and the grid could potentially be able to transmit that energy to where it is needed.

The argument for solar farms in the Sahara is solid in that photovoltaic panels there could potentially generate three times more energy than panels in northern Europe. It is estimated that capturing 0.3% of the sunlight falling on the desert would meet all of Europe’s needs.

The major drawback to the proposal is the cost and the time. An investment of around €450bn would be needed and scientists estimate that it would take until 2050 before the project could produce 100 GW which is more electricity than all sources of power in the UK combined.

Image by PingNews

The visionary proposal comes as the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission released its strategic energy technology plan which highlighted photovoltaic cells as one of the eight technologies that need to be developed in the future. The plan also includes fuel cells, hydrogen, clean coal, second generation biofuels, nuclear fusion, wind and smart grids.

“If we don’t put together resources and findings across Europe and we let go the several sectors of energy, we will never reach these targets,” said Giovanni de Santi, director of the JRC. The targets include Europe’s commitment to reduce energy consumption by 20% by 2020, reduce CO2 emissions by 20% and increasing renewable energy by 20%.

The Euroscience Open Forum 2008 was held from July 18-22 and provided an open platform for scientists, researchers, policy makers, business people and journalists to debate and communicate on evolving research trends. It was the third forum with previous conferences held in Stockholm in 2004 and Munich in 2006.

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Robot Planes Getting Bird’s Eye View of Shrinking Greenland Ice Sheet

Bush Administration Proposes ‘Fire Sale’ of Rocky Mountains for Oil Shale Development

Volcanoes may not be fed by magma 'mushrooms'

A new simulation shows that magma rising under the surface of a volcano may not be mushroom-shaped

THE plumes of hot magma that fuel the volcanism of "hotspots" like Hawaii and Iceland have long been thought to be efficient conduits of Earth's fiery contents. Yet it seems they can be rather lacklustre on their way to the surface.

We traditionally picture the plumes of hot magma that rise through the mantle as mushroom-shaped with a thin stalk feeding a bulbous head, or hotspot, beneath the crust. However, seismic imaging in Iceland reveals a patchy structure without a stalk, leading some researchers to suggest there are no plumes at all.

Ichiro Kumagai and colleagues at the Paris Institute of Earth Physics in France reckon they can explain these patchy structures. They created plumes by heating the base of a tank containing sugar syrups of varying densities, to simulate the composition of the mantle. The densest material was heated just enough to rise and create the core of the plumes, but as it rose it also cooled, so its density increased once more to match or slightly exceed that of the surrounding material. This caused the core to either stall or sink, while the less dense material separated and continued rising (Geophysical Research Letters, in press).

John Brodholt of University College London says the model "seems to explain some of the observations used to argue that plumes do not exist".

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