Sunday, November 23, 2008

Space station's new urine recycler has glitches

By Irene Klotz

HOUSTON (Reuters) - NASA is having problems with a $250 million (167.5 million pound) system it just delivered to the International Space Station to recycle urine and other wastewater into drinking water for astronauts.

But the glitches were not unexpected and will hopefully be ironed out in time for the visiting shuttle Endeavour crew to bring home its first samples, the U.S. space agency said on Friday.

The system shut down twice during initial attempts on Thursday and Friday to begin the distillation process on precollected samples of urine.

The system delivered this week is designed to recycle astronauts' urine and other wastewater into purified water for drinking. It will help clear the way for a doubling of the space station's crew to six members in May.

"I fully expected things not to work perfectly," station commander Mike Fincke said during an in-flight news conference.

"No matter how well we plan on the ground or test on the ground, you really need to test-fly it and that's what we're doing here.

"We're very hopeful that we can get the first round of samples through during this mission while Endeavour is still here," he added.

The U.S. space agency needs the system to be running perfectly for 90 days before expanding the station's crew.

The shuttle arrived on Sunday and is scheduled to leave the outpost on Thursday. NASA wants the shuttle to bring home samples from the station's water purifier for analysis and may keep the ship and its crew at the station an extra day if needed.

"The No. 1 priority is to return the water sample," said Endeavour commander Chris Ferguson. "If we have to stay the extra day to do that we certainly will."


Residents of the station will need to recycle their urine and other wastewater because the space shuttles, which produce water as a by-product of their electrical systems, will no longer fly to the outpost after 2010 and it is too expensive to haul as much water as the crew will need on unmanned cargo ships.

"This technology of how to reuse our things and be careful with them is really applicable to planet Earth," Fincke said.

In addition to the water recycling gear, the shuttle astronauts delivered two new sleeping compartments, a second toilet, a galley and more exercise equipment.

Also on Friday, astronauts prepared for the third of four spacewalks to fix a problem with a joint in the station's truss. The 10-foot-wide (3-metre-wide) rotary joint is needed to position solar panels so they can collect light from the sun as the station orbits about 212 miles (341 km) above Earth.

Last year, NASA discovered one of the two joints had been damaged by metal filings and designed a complicated series of spacewalks to clean the joint, repair the damage and prevent it from happening to the other joint.

Space station managers estimate up to 10 spacewalks may be needed to resolve the problems.

he first four spacewalks were scheduled for Endeavour and its astronauts have completed two already, despite the loss of a $100,000 tool kit on Tuesday and a build-up of carbon dioxide in one astronaut's spacesuit near the end of the second spacewalk on Thursday.

The third outing is scheduled for Saturday.

NASA plans eight more missions to the station and a final servicing call to the Hubble Space Telescope before the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010.

Endeavour, which blasted off last Friday for a 15-day mission, is due back at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on November 29.

(Editing by Tom Brown and Mohammad Zargham)

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Star Trek Now: Lasers Close Incisions

By Bill Christensen

Laser welding of body tissues may provide a means of closing surgical incisions that is better than traditional methods. The technique, pioneered by Professor Abrahim Katzir of Tel Aviv University, can also be used with great efficacy on cuts made inside our bodies during surgery.
Prof. Katzir set out to find the right temperature for optimal wound healing, and to perfect a device that could maintain this temperature. He is the first to apply the carbon dioxide laser, coupled to optical fibers, for wound closure under a tight temperature control.

Successful clinical trials have already been made on people undergoing gall bladder removal surgery. Following surgery, four cuts were left on the skin of the abdomen, two of which were sutured and two laser-bonded. The results of the trials suggest that the laser-bonded tissues heal faster, with less scarring.

“We think plastic surgeons will especially love this invention. Bonding tissues that heal well without scarring is a true art that few people possess,” says Prof. Katzir. This method, he says, will be much easier to master than suturing and will generate a watertight bond, preventing infections and accelerating healing.

“It could also become a device for the battlefield, allowing soldiers to heal each other on contact with a laser wand,” says Prof. Katzir

If this sounds like space age medicine, you're right. Fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation will no doubt find this idea familiar. Starting in the 2250's, the laser scalpel was the surgical instrument of choice and was available in different wavelengths for varied cutting strength and depth of cut.

However, as far as Dr. Katzir's work on closing surgical incisions is concerned, I'm more interested in the dermal regenerator.The dermal regenerator was used on a number of occasions in the television show to heal cuts and burns. (Tip to Dr. Katzir - it is also useful in removing scars.)

Those of us who grew up watching the original Star Trek series are seeing Dr. McCoy's medical tools everywhere, from LifeBed Systems Like Star Trek's Sick Bay to Handheld Personal Biosensors.

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Regenerating a Mammoth for $10 Million

S. C. Schuster

An intact skeleton of a woolly mammoth that is on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.


Scientists are talking for the first time about the old idea of resurrecting extinct species as if this staple of science fiction is a realistic possibility, saying that a living mammoth could perhaps be regenerated for as little as $10 million.

The same technology could be applied to any other extinct species from which one can obtain hair, horn, hooves, fur or feathers, and which went extinct within the last 60,000 years, the effective age limit for DNA.

Though the stuffed animals in natural history museums are not likely to burst into life again, these old collections are full of items that may contain ancient DNA that can be decoded by the new generation of DNA sequencing machines.

If the genome of an extinct species can be reconstructed, biologists can work out the exact DNA differences with the genome of its nearest living relative. There are talks on how to modify the DNA in an elephant’s egg so that after each round of changes it would progressively resemble the DNA in a mammoth egg. The final-stage egg could then be brought to term in an elephant mother, and mammoths might once again roam the Siberian steppes.

The same would be technically possible with Neanderthals, whose full genome is expected to be recovered shortly, but there would be several ethical issues in modifying modern human DNA to that of another human species.

A scientific team headed by Stephan C. Schuster and Webb Miller at Pennsylvania State University reports in Thursday’s issue of Nature that it has recovered a large fraction of the mammoth genome from clumps of mammoth hair. Mammoths, ice-age relatives of the elephant, were hunted by the modern humans who first learned to inhabit Siberia some 22,000 years ago. The mammoths fell extinct in both their Siberian and North American homelands toward the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago.

Dr. Schuster and Dr. Miller said there was no technical obstacle to decoding the full mammoth genome, which they believe could be achieved for a further $2 million. They have already been able to calculate that the mammoth’s genes differ at some 400,000 sites on its genome from that of the African elephant.

There is no present way to synthesize a genome-size chunk of mammoth DNA, let alone to develop it into a whole animal. But Dr. Schuster said a shortcut would be to modify the genome of an elephant’s cell at the 400,000 or more sites necessary to make it resemble a mammoth’s genome. The cell could be converted into an embryo and brought to term by an elephant, a project he estimated would cost some $10 million. “This is something that could work, though it will be tedious and expensive,” he said.

There have been several Russian attempts to cultivate eggs from frozen mammoths that look so perfectly preserved in ice. But the perfection is deceiving since the DNA is always degraded and no viable cells remain. Even a genome-based approach would have been judged entirely impossible a few years ago and is far from reality even now.

Still, several technical barriers have fallen in surprising ways. One barrier was that ancient DNA is always shredded into tiny pieces, seemingly impossible to analyze. But a new generation of DNA decoding machines use tiny pieces as their starting point. Dr. Schuster’s laboratory has two, known as 454 machines, each of which costs $500,000.

Another problem has been that ancient DNA in bone, the usual source, is heavily contaminated with bacterial DNA. Dr. Schuster has found that hair is a much purer source of the host’s DNA, with the keratin serving to seal it in and largely exclude bacteria.

A third issue is that the DNA of living cells can be modified only very laboriously and usually at one site at a time. Dr. Schuster said he had been in discussion with George Church, a well-known genome technologist at Harvard Medical School, about a new method Dr. Church has invented for modifying some 50,000 genomic sites at a time.

The method has not yet been published, and until other scientists can assess it they are likely to view genome engineering on such a scale as being implausible. Rudolph Jaenisch, a biologist at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, said the proposal to resurrect a mammoth was “a wishful-thinking experiment with no realistic chance for success.”

Dr. Church, however, said that there had recently been enormous technical improvements in decoding genomes and that he expected similar improvements in genome engineering. In his new method, some 50,000 corrective DNA sequences are injected into a cell at one time. In the laboratory, the cell would then be grown and tested and its descendants subjected to further rounds of DNA modification until judged close enough to that of the ancient species. In the case of resurrecting the mammoth, Dr. Church said, the process would begin by taking a skin cell from an elephant and converting it to the embryonic state with a method developed last year by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka for reprogramming cells.

Asked if the mammoth project might indeed happen, Dr. Church said that “there is some enthusiasm for it,” although making zoos better did not outrank fixing the energy crisis on his priority list.

Dr. Schuster believes that museums could prove gold mines of ancient DNA because any animal remains containing keratin, from hooves to feathers, could hold enough DNA for the full genome to be recovered by the new sequencing machines.

The full genome of the Neanderthal, an ancient human species probably driven to extinction by the first modern humans that entered Europe some 45,000 years ago, is expected to be recovered shortly. If the mammoth can be resurrected, the same would be technically possible for Neanderthals.

But the process of genetically engineering a human genome into the Neanderthal version would probably raise many objections, as would several other aspects of such a project. “Catholic teaching opposes all human cloning, and all production of human beings in the laboratory, so I do not see how any of this could be ethically acceptable in humans,” said Richard Doerflinger, an official with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Dr. Church said there might be an alternative approach that would “alarm a minimal number of people.” The workaround would be to modify not a human genome but that of the chimpanzee, which is some 98 percent similar to that of people. The chimp’s genome would be progressively modified until close enough to that of Neanderthals, and the embryo brought to term in a chimpanzee.

“The big issue would be whether enough people felt that a chimp-Neanderthal hybrid would be acceptable, and that would be broadly discussed before anyone started to work on it,” Dr. Church said.

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Key to Hallucinations Found

By Jen Palmares Meadows

Almost fifty years ago, the beat poet Brion Gysin (1916 - 1986), described a visual hallucination that he experienced while riding a bus:

...Had a transcendental storm of colour visions today in the bus going to Marseille. We ran through a long avenue of trees and I closed my eyes against the setting sun. An overwhelming flood of intensely bright patterns in supernatural colours exploded behind my eyelids: a multidimensional kaleidoscope whirling out through space. I was swept out of time. I was in a world of infinite number. The vision stopped abruptly as we left the trees. Was that a vision? What happened to me? (Brion Gysin, 21 December 1958)

Gysin, a writer and performance artist, though known for his discovery of the cut-up technique, which inspired writers like William S. Burroughs, was also the co-inventor (along with scientist Ian Sommerville) of the Dreamachine, a stroboscopic flicker device designed to be viewed with the eyes closed and produces visual stimuli.

At the end of his documentation, Gysin asks, "Was that a vision? What happened to me?"


According to Dominic ffytche of the Institute of Psychiatry in London, and author of 'The Hodology of Hallucinations,' a study recently published in an issue of Cortex, "Fifty years on we are able to answer Gysin's question." Gysin's hallucinations were quite similar to what Jan Purkinje (1787-1869), the father of contemporary neuroscience, experienced as a child.

"I stand in the bright sunlight with closed eyes and face the sun. Then I move my outstretched, somewhat separated, fingers up and down in front of the eyes, so that they are alternately illuminated and shaded. In addition to the uniform yellow-red that one expects with closed eyes, there appear beautiful regular figures that are initially difficult to define but slowly become clearer. When we continue to move the fingers, the figure becomes more complex and fills the whole visual field. (Purkinje, 1819)

When Purkinje moved his fingers, he simulated an effect similar to that of Gysin's Dreamachine.

Because of the brevity and unpredictability of hallucinations, up until now, surprisingly little is known about brain changes that occur during hallucinations—one cannot anticipate when a hallucination will occur. The chances of capturing a hallucination during a brain scanning are small.

However, it has long been recognized that flashes of light at particular frequencies, like those experience by Gysin and Purkinje, produce hallucinations of intricate patterns and vivid colors. Indeed, these stimulated visual patterns are described as Purkinje patterns. For anyone who's confused out there, the Purkinje patterns ffytche describes in his paper are much more complicated than the stuff everyone sees after a camera flash or when we stare at the sun too long without protective eyewear. They're actually much more than that.

"They are more complex...entirely unexpected the first time you encounter them. At slow rates of flashing through closed lids you experience exactly what you might expect, a dull red light pulsing with each flash. At the critical frequency the whole thing changes and colours, patterns and forms appear. The Beat poet Brion Gysin's description puts it better than I can."

Most people have a rough idea of what a hallucination experience might be like, but when it comes to defining a hallucination, that's more difficult. If a hallucination is defined as 'seeing or hearing something that is not actually there,' then dreams and imagery would be considered hallucinations.

According to ffytche, visual hallucinations, (people do hallucinate with other senses), "are located in the world around us, not in the mind's eye. They are not under our control, in the sense that we cannot bring them on or change them as they occur. They also look real and vivid, although the things one sees may be bizarre and impossible. Purkinje phenomena meet all these criteria and can thus be considered true hallucinations.

However, Purkinje phenomena are induced by experiment rather than occurring spontaneously as in the Charles Bonnet Syndrome, an eye disease that causes patients to have complex hallucinations. ffytche points out:

"We are only beginning to understand just how common this Syndrome is, partly because patients have been unwilling to admit their hallucinations for fear of being labeled as having serious mental illness. Charles Bonnet Syndrome patients almost all hallucinate patterns and geometrical forms identical to Purkinje phenomena. Many also see figures, objects and faces, the types of experience we generally associate with hallucinations. The hope is that what we learn from the Purkinje phenomena will also apply to these other hallucination experiences."

ffytche also adds that "most people will experience Purkinje hallucinations under appropriate conditions of visual stimulation, although their clarity and ease of induction varies from subject to subject. I have only encountered a few subjects who do not seem to have the experiences for reasons I do not fully understand. I assume the visual systems of such 'immune' subjects are wired up in a slightly different way."


In ffytche's study, he uses a combination of brain imaging methods, harnessing the technique to examine localized changes in brain activity and changes in brain connections during hallucinations. ffytche reviews what we do know about hallucinations and moves the field forward, by introducing a new experimental approach to studying hallucinations as they occur.

In the study, six male subjects with no history of epilepsy took part in Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Electroencephalography experiments (EEG), which measured the electrical activity produced by the brain as recorded from electrodes placed on the scalp, and were exposed to High intensity repetitive light. The subjects were trained to push a button whether they experienced a hallucination or not and then drew the hallucinations immediately after completion of the fMRI.

"We also needed to stimulate the visual system without causing hallucinations to be able to determine which aspects of brain activity specifically related to hallucinations and which were just due to stimulation," ffytche says. "This was done in two ways, one controlling for the amount of light in the stimulus and one controlling for the frequency of stimulation. The EEG and fMRI results were examined both from a topological perspective, to identify the cortical regions activated, and a hodological perspective, to identify changes in connections between regions."

"We observed increases in activity in visual brain regions", says ffytche, "increases in visual connection strength and an alteration in relationship between visual relay and receiving stations, together suggesting that hallucinations were caused by a transient form of 'blindness'".

The work highlights the need to consider the hallucinating brain from a wider perspective than previously thought. Changes in both localized brain activity and in connections between brain areas occur during hallucinations, raising further questions as to how these changes interact with pre-existing abnormalities in patients susceptible to hallucinations.


Topological Method

The brain is a series of specialized regions each performing different functions and is connected by specific nerve cell pathways to form functional networks. In topological methodology, the regions or 'places' of the brain involved in a specific function are revealed by techniques such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), a type of specialized MRI scan which measures the haemodynamic response related to neural activity in the brain or spinal cord. fMRI has come to dominate the brain mapping field due to its low invasiveness, lack of radiation exposure, and relatively wide availability.

Hodological/Hodotopical Method

ffytche's research implements the Hodology, (also referred to as hodotopic) framework studies, which revisits Alfred Walter Campbell's forgotten 1905 project: to infer function from hodology, the physiology and pathology of cortex and white matter. It includes not only the study of 'places' of the brain, but also, the connections or 'pathways' of the brain. These 'pathways' are revealed by techniques such as diffusion tensor tractography, a procedure to demonstrate the neural tracts. It utilizes special techniques of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and computer-based image analysis. The results are presented in two- and three-dimensional images.

The combined study of both the 'pathways' and the 'places' is what ffytche refers to as the hodotopic approach, 'topos' meaning place and 'hodos' meaning path. In simpler terms, the 'places' of the brain are 'gray matter' and the 'pathways' are 'white matter.' The hodotopic approach studies both gray and white matter, rather than gray alone.

ffytche explains the benefits of taking a hodological approach to hallucinations and neuroscience:

"The dual perspective of brain places and pathways helps us remember that the brain is an integrated system and focuses research attention on specific anatomically constrained networks. For hallucinations, we have known something of the cortical 'places' involved for some time and have some idea of how the connections between these 'places' differ in patients with a predisposition to hallucinations. However, we have very little understanding of if, or how, connections change during a hallucination. It is possible that these connection changes are the key to understanding what precipitates a given hallucination episode."

His study outlines the need for answers and suggests ways in which the questions might be addressed. Although current hodological techniques for studying connections in life are virtual, and do not necessarily reveal real nerve fibers, ffytche points out, "So far the virtual findings are entirely consistent with real anatomy, but we do not yet know how far we can push the technique."

Better understanding of the connections within the relevant brain networks during hallucinations, whether they get stronger or weaker, may help design new treatments for hallucinations.

When asked what of his results most surprised him, ffytche replied:

We expected the brain regions specialised for colour, motion and patterns to be activated during Purkinje phenomena from our previous work. We also suspected there would be changes in connections in visual circuits. What we did not expect was how complex these connection changes seemed to be. Some of the connections changed over time tracking the evolution of Purkinje phenomena. Others were more fixed, changing as soon as visual stimulation started and preceding the onset of Purkinje phenomena. Most surprising of all was the finding that the flashing light stimulus seemed to cut off inputs to the brain, transiently 'blinding' subjects and giving them the experience of what it is like to have Charles Bonnet Syndrome.

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Japan scientists eye made-to-order bones

If successful, the Japanese method could open the way for doctors to create new bones within hours of an accident so long as the patient has electronic data on file.
Doctors usually mend defective bones by transplanting real bones or ceramic substitutes. The Japanese implants use a powder of calcium phosphate, the substance that makes up real bones.

The new implants are called CT Bone as they are crafted using the patient's computer tomography (CT) data, a form of medical imaging.

It can match the complicated structures of the jaw, cheek and other parts of the skull down to one millimetre (0.039 of an inch), a level significant enough to make a difference in human faces, researchers told AFP.

"It can also be replaced by your own bone, which wasn't possible before" with conventional sintered ceramic bones, said Tsuyoshi Takato, an orthopedic surgeon and professor at the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Medicine.

The implants are currently limited to use in the skull because, unlike limbs, they do not have to carry the body weight.

The custom-made bones are created from the calcium phosphate powder and a solidifying liquid which is more than 80 percent distilled water, using computer-assisted design.

In the same way that an ink-jet printer propels droplets onto a piece of paper, a device squirts the liquid on a 0.1-millimetre-thick layer of the powder to form a desired shape.

The device, which was developed with Tokyo-based firm Next 21, repeats the process and builds up layers that have different shapes. For example, 100 layers create a one-centimetre thick implant.

Theoretically, a laboratory in Tokyo could one day use CT data to create a custom-made bone within hours for someone hurt in a car accident halfway across the world.

The clinical tests will last for some two years, covering a total of 70 adults at 10 hospitals. Prior to the current project, the University of Tokyo Hospital implanted CT Bone in 10 adults, who showed promising results.

The researchers expect to put it into practical use in three to four years.

The same technology has been used to make prototypes of industrial products.

"But it is the first time in the world to use materials that can and were implanted into the human body," said Chung Ung-il, a University of Tokyo bioengineering professor who is also part of the project.
Chung said previous studies showed the implants are replaced with regenerated real bone after one or two years, depending on the extent of the defects.

Takato said the host bone serves as "an incubator" that helps replace artificial bone as cells invade the implant in what could be called "in-body tissue engineering".

As ceramic implants are brittle, surgeons often have to scrape the patient's host bone instead to help conventional implants fit better, Takato said.

Doctors also often take bone from elsewhere in the body, particularly the hip, for conventional transplants.

"Nearly half of it is often wasted in the process of making an implant that fits. It is very good to be able to reconstruct bone without taking a piece from elsewhere," Takato said.

Takato hopes to use CT Bone for children if the clinical tests go well.

"Even if I want to treat their skeletal damage or development abnormality, I can't take bone from children for grafts. This technology should benefit children," Takato said.

Children usually have excellent bone growth. "Implants would be quickly replaced with their own bone, which would grow as the child grows," he said.

The technology also has narrow holes running through the artificial bones, inviting blood vessels and cells to come and help regenerate bone.

The research team is also working on a second-generation CT Bone, which contains materials that facilitate bridging between the artificial and real bone.

Experiments with implanting it in the skulls of Beagle dogs are underway with good results, he said.

The ultimate goal is to be able to construct bone from the living cells of patients, allowing them to take in larger pieces.

© 2008 AFP

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Could Marijuana Substance Help Prevent Or Delay Memory Impairment In The Aging Brain?

Recent research on rats indicates that at least three receptors in the brain are activated by the synthetic drug, which is similar to marijuana. These receptors are proteins within the brain's endocannabinoid system. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Ohio State University scientists are finding that specific elements of marijuana can be good for the aging brain by reducing inflammation there and possibly even stimulating the formation of new brain cells.

Their research suggests that the development of a legal drug that contains certain properties similar to those in marijuana might help prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Though the exact cause of Alzheimer’s remains unknown, chronic inflammation in the brain is believed to contribute to memory impairment.

Any new drug’s properties would resemble those of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the main psychoactive substance in the cannabis plant, but would not share its high-producing effects. THC joins nicotine, alcohol and caffeine as agents that, in moderation, have shown some protection against inflammation in the brain that might translate to better memory late in life.

“It’s not that everything immoral is good for the brain. It’s just that there are some substances that millions of people for thousands of years have used in billions of doses, and we’re noticing there’s a little signal above all the noise,” said Gary Wenk, professor of psychology at Ohio State and principal investigator on the research.

Wenk’s work has already shown that a THC-like synthetic drug can improve memory in animals. Now his team is trying to find out exactly how it works in the brain.

The most recent research on rats indicates that at least three receptors in the brain are activated by the synthetic drug, which is similar to marijuana. These receptors are proteins within the brain’s endocannabinoid system, which is involved in memory as well as physiological processes associated with appetite, mood and pain response.

This research is also showing that receptors in this system can influence brain inflammation and the production of new neurons, or brain cells.

“When we’re young, we reproduce neurons and our memory works fine. When we age, the process slows down, so we have a decrease in new cell formation in normal aging. You need those cells to come back and help form new memories, and we found that this THC-like agent can influence creation of those cells,” said Yannick Marchalant, a study coauthor and research assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State.

Marchalant described the research in a poster presentation November 19 at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington, D.C.

Knowing exactly how any of these compounds work in the brain can make it easier for drug designers to target specific systems with agents that will offer the most effective anti-aging benefits, said Wenk, who is also a professor of neuroscience and molecular virology, immunology and medical genetics.

“Could people smoke marijuana to prevent Alzheimer’s disease if the disease is in their family? We’re not saying that, but it might actually work. What we are saying is it appears that a safe, legal substance that mimics those important properties of marijuana can work on receptors in the brain to prevent memory impairments in aging. So that’s really hopeful,” Wenk said.

One thing is clear from the studies: Once memory impairment is evident, the treatment is not effective. Reducing inflammation and preserving or generating neurons must occur before the memory loss is obvious, Wenk said.

Marchalant led a study on old rats using the synthetic drug, called WIN-55212-2 (WIN), which is not used in humans because of its high potency to induce psychoactive effects.

The researchers used a pump under the skin to give the rats a constant dose of WIN for three weeks – a dose low enough to induce no psychoactive effects on the animals. A control group of rats received no intervention. In follow-up memory tests, in which rats were placed in a small swimming pool to determine how well they use visual cues to find a platform hidden under the surface of the water, the treated rats did better than the control rats in learning and remembering how to find the hidden platform.

“Old rats are not very good at that task. They can learn, but it takes them more time to find the platform. When we gave them the drug, it made them a little better at that task,” Marchalant said.

In some rats, Marchalant combined the WIN with compounds that are known to block specific receptors, which then offers hints at which receptors WIN is activating. The results indicated the WIN lowered the rats’ brain inflammation in the hippocampus by acting on what is called the TRPV1 receptor. The hippocampus is responsible for short-term memory.

With the same intervention technique, the researchers also determined that WIN acts on receptors known as CB1 and CB2, leading to the generation of new brain cells – a process known as neurogenesis. Those results led the scientists to speculate that the combination of lowered inflammation and neurogenesis is the reason the rats’ memory improved after treatment with WIN.

The researchers are continuing to study the endocannabinoid system’s role in regulating inflammation and neuron development. They are trying to zero in on the receptors that must be activated to produce the most benefits from any newly developed drug.

What they already know is THC alone isn’t the answer.

“The end goal is not to recommend the use of THC in humans to reduce Alzheimer’s,” Marchalant said. “We need to find exactly which receptors are most crucial, and ideally lead to the development of drugs that specifically activate those receptors. We hope a compound can be found that can target both inflammation and neurogenesis, which would be the most efficient way to produce the best effects.”

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The Happiness Gene -Is it Inherited?

1105754016t94hve_2"I have now reigned about 50 years in victory or peace, beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity. In this situation, I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot. They amount to fourteen."

Abd Er-Rahman III of Spain (960 C.E.)

The old cliche that you can't buy happiness may be true, but new findings show it looks like you can at least inherit it, according a team of British and Australian researchers.

A study of nearly 1,000 pairs of identical and non-identical twins found genes control half the personality traits that make people happy while factors such as relationships, health and careers are responsible for the rest of our well-being.

"We found that around half the differences in happiness were genetic," said Tim Bates, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh who led the study reported in the journal Psychological Science. "It is really quite surprising."

The study confirms our common sense awareness that individuals who are sociable, active, stable, hardworking and conscientious tend to be happier.

The researchers asked the volunteers -- ranging in age from 25 to 75 -- a series of questions about their personality, how much they worried and how satisfied they were with their lives. Because identical twins share the same genes and fraternal twins do not, the researchers were able to identify common genes that result in certain personality traits and predispose people to happiness.

"What this study showed was that the identical twins in a family were very similar in personality and in well-being, and by contrast, the fraternal twins were only around half as similar," Bates said. "That strongly implicates genes."

The findings are an important piece of the puzzle for researchers trying to better understand depression and what makes different people happy or unhappy, Bates said. Personality traits of being outgoing, calm and reliable provide a resource, we called it 'affective reserve,' that drives future happiness" Bates said.

People with positive inherited personality traits may, in effect, also have a reserve of happiness to draw on in stressful times, he said.

Posted by Casey Kazan.

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Turtles first started swimming with dinosaurs, fossils prove

By Ben Leach

Green sea turtle - Turtles first started swimming with dinosaurs, fossils prove
Turtles first started swimming 164 million years ago, researchers believe Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Until now, scientists have not known at what stage turtles adapted to water.

But excavations on the Isle of Skye have yielded the remains of at least six primitive turtles which represent the 'missing link' in the evolution of turtles that palaeontologists have long sought.

The discovery of Eileanchelys waldmani, a previously unknown species, have given scientists proof of the first stage at which turtles started swimming.

Jérémy Anquetin, of the Natural History Museum and one of the researchers who analysed the fossilised turtles, said: "Although the majority of modern turtles are aquatic forms, it has been convincingly demonstrated that the most primitive turtles from the Triassic, about 210m years ago, were exclusively terrestrial.

"Until the discovery of Eileanchelys, we thought that adaptation to an aquatic habitat might have appeared among primitive turtles but we had no fossil evidence of that.

"Now we know for sure that there were aquatic turtles around 164m years ago. This discovery also demonstrates that turtles were more ecologically diverse early in their history than had been suspected before."

The turtle fossils were recovered from a slab of rock cut out in 2004. Each was encased in the slab and it took months to release them.

They were analysed by researchers from the Natural History Museum and University College London.

They concluded that the newly discovered species was aquatic because the fossils were found in rock that once formed the bottom of a lake or lagoon, and because unlike the remains of contemporary land animals, which were fragmented having been washed into a pool, the turtles were relatively complete and articulated.

The fossils are now in the collection of National Museums Scotland.

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Revealed: Star Wars-style 'light sabre' to destroy cancer cells

By Daniel Martin

Scientists have developed a Star Wars-style 'light sabre' which could fight cancer cells. Above, Ewan McGregor in the Phantom Menace

Scientists have developed a Star Wars-style 'light sabre' which could fight cancer cells. Above, Ewan McGregor in The Phantom Menace

A revolutionary laser which could fight cancer has been developed by British scientists.

The device, which has been compared to a Star Wars light sabre, could be routinely used on patients in NHS hospitals within the next five years, according to the researchers.

The machine - a couple of millimetres square - fires a laser beam so accurately that it can puncture a hole in an individual cell, allowing drugs to enter and do their work much more effectively.

Drug companies are often confounded by the problem that it can be easy to get a medicine into the body by injection or pill - but much harder to get the drug molecules into the cells themselves.

It could mean, for example, that the cells surrounding the spot where a tumour has been removed by surgery would be holed by the device.

This would allow chemotherapy drugs to enter and kill any remaining cancer cells.

It would be particularly useful for hard-to-reach cancers such as that of the pancreas.

The team from the University of St Andrews has managed to mount the 'light sabre' on an optical fibre.

The next step is to develop it for use on endoscopes, the tubes used by surgeons to pass miniature cameras through the body.

The device was developed by Professor Kishan Dholakia from the university school of physics and Dr Frank Gunn-Moore from the school of biology.

Dr Gunn-Moore said: 'You could think of these as tiny light sabres like they had in Star Wars inside your body.

'We can use lasers to punch tiny holes exactly where we want them. We can produce a rod of light that can even go round objects.'

'We can produce a rod of light - sometimes described as a sword - that can even go round objects. It really does sound like science fiction.'

The new device relies on a method called 'photoporation', allowing insoluble compounds such as genes and drugs to be injected into individual cells with the assistance of light.

The developers hope it could be used to develop medication by making it easier to test how drugs work in cells.

Dr Gunn-Moore said it would be especially useful in his area of expertise - Alzheimer's disease.

Professor Dholakia said: 'This method has, to date, been hampered as it was necessary to focus the laser beam to a very precise and extremely small point at the cell surface - a place hard to locate!

'However our novel technique uses a laser beam shape that does not spread: it stays narrow and elongated.'

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Solar panels on graves give power to Spanish town

By DANIEL WOOLLS , Associated Press Writer, Technology / Energy
Solar panels sit on top of niches at the Santa Coloma de Gramenet cemetery outside Barcelona Spain Friday Nov. 21 2008. The city council has installed 462 solar panels on top of the grave niches. The energy they produce equivalent to the yearly consu ...
Solar panels sit on top of niches at the Santa Coloma de Gramenet cemetery, outside Barcelona, Spain, Friday, Nov. 21, 2008. The city council has installed 462 solar panels on top of the grave niches. The energy they produce, equivalent to the yearly consumption of 60 homes, flows into the local energy grid and is one community\'s odd and pioneering nod to the fight against global warming. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

(AP) -- A new kind of silent hero has joined the fight against climate change. Santa Coloma de Gramenet, a gritty, working-class town outside Barcelona, has placed a sea of solar panels atop mausoleums at its cemetery, transforming a place of perpetual rest into one buzzing with renewable energy.
Flat, open and sun-drenched land is so scarce in Santa Coloma that the graveyard was just about the only viable spot to move ahead with its solar energy program.
The power the 462 panels produces - equivalent to the yearly use by 60 homes - flows into the local energy grid for normal consumption and is one community's odd nod to the fight against global warming.

"The best tribute we can pay to our ancestors, whatever your religion may be, is to generate clean energy for new generations. That is our leitmotif," said Esteve Serret, director Conste-Live Energy, a Spanish company that runs the cemetery in Santa Coloma and also works in renewable energy.

In row after row of gleaming, blue-gray, the panels rest on mausoleums holding five layers of coffins, many of them marked with bouquets of fake flowers. The panels face almost due south, which is good for soaking up sunshine, and started working on Wednesday - the culmination of a project that began three years ago.

The concept emerged as a way to utilize an ideal stretch of land in a town that wants solar energy but is so densely built-up - Santa Coloma's population of 124,000 is crammed into four square kilometers (1.5 square miles) - it had virtually no place to generate it.

At first, parking solar panels on coffins was a tough sell, said Antoni Fogue, a city council member who was a driving force behind the plan.

"Let's say we heard things like, 'they're crazy. Who do they think they are? What a lack of respect!' "Fogue said in a telephone interview.

But town hall and cemetery officials waged a public-awareness campaign to explain the worthiness of the project, and the painstaking care with which it would be carried out. Eventually it worked, Fogue said.

The panels were erected at a low angle so as to be as unobtrusive as possible.

"There has not been any problem whatsoever because people who go to the cemetery see that nothing has changed," Fogue said. "This installation is compatible with respect for the deceased and for the families of the deceased."

The cemetery hold the remains of about 57,000 people and the solar panels cover less than 5 percent of the total surface area. They cost 720,000 euros ($900,000) to install and each year will keep about 62 tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, Serret said.

The community's leaders hope to erect more panels and triple the electricity output, Fogue said. Before this, the town had four other solar parks - atop buildings and such - but the cemetery is by far the biggest.

He said he has heard of cemeteries elsewhere in Spain with solar panels on the roofs of their office buildings, but not on above-ground graves.

© 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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US Dept of Energy and Brazil to Commercialize Biofuels

NASA and DOE Developing the First Space-Based Dark Energy Observatory

Carbon dioxide discovered on distant planet

Gassy signature of habitability spied in the atmosphere of a 'hot Jupiter'.

Carbon dioxide, one of the telltale signs that a planet may be able to support life, has been spotted in the atmosphere of a gas giant orbiting a star 63 light years from Earth.

Although there's no way that this particular planet could support life, being able to spot carbon dioxide in its atmosphere offers hope for probing the atmospheres of planets more like Earth — and so bolstering the search for life outside the Solar System.

Artist’s view of a “hot Jupiter” exoplanetCarbon dioxide has been discovered in the atmosphere of HD 189733b — a 'hot Jupiter' exoplanet like the one in this artist's impression.NASA, ESA and A. Schaller

HD 189733b is a hot Jupiter — a planet similar in mass to Jupiter in our Solar System, but one that orbits much closer to its star, and so is much hotter. Giovanna Tinetti from University College London, UK and her colleagues have managed to measure the spectrum of the light coming from the day side of the planet using a technique called 'secondary transit'.

This involves recording the light spectrum of the planet and its star, and then measuring the spectrum of the star alone while the planet is hidden behind it. The difference of the two spectra is the spectrum of the light coming directly from the planet. Tinetti used the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) onboard the Hubble Space Telescope.

What emerged was a spectrum that, after its absorption and emission part were disentangled and it was compared with theoretical models, revealed the presence of carbon dioxide in the planet's atmosphere.

"This is an exciting result," says Tinetti. "This is the first near-infrared spectrum of a planet. Even from a technical point of view it's a nice result."

Spectacular finding

"Carbon dioxide is one of the big four biomarkers for a habitable, if not inhabited planet," says Alan Boss from the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, who was not involved with the work. The other three are water, methane and oxygen – and now oxygen is the only one left to be observed in the atmosphere of a planet outside the Solar System. "They really have nailed it," Boss says of the result.

The NICMOS instrument looks at the near-infrared part of the spectrum whereas previous studies of this planet using the Spitzer Space Telescope have been looking at different areas of the spectrum where a carbon dioxide signature wouldn't show up, such as the mid-infrared region. These different instruments also probe different layers of the atmosphere so that ultimately a picture of the chemistry going on between them can be gleaned.

"It's a spectacular data set," says Sara Seager from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge. "It's astonishing that we can detect molecules in exoplanet atmospheres." The detection of carbon dioxide is particularly surprising, Seager says, because other forms of carbon, such as carbon monoxide or methane, would be expected to dominate in the hot, hydrogen-rich atmosphere. Tinetti and her colleagues put this down to an unusually high carbon-to-oxygen ratio in this planet's atmosphere.

Boss is impressed that even with the low resolution of this spectrum, the carbon dioxide signal is so clear. "It's amazing what you can do with a telescope like Hubble that was never designed to do planetary observations like this," he says.

Softly softly

Tinetti and her team are being cautious about inferring too much from their results, but they hope that with more observations they will be able to work out the origin of this carbon dioxide, and whether it comes from a photochemical or thermochemical reaction. They have managed to roughly calculate the abundance of carbon dioxide in this atmosphere as being about 0.00001 times the amount of the most abundant gas, molecular hydrogen. The results were presented at a meeting about molecules in extrasolar planetary atmospheres held in Paris from 19-21 November, and will be published in the Astrophysical Journal.

"This planet we keep observing is nowhere near habitable," says Tinetti, "but all these measurements give us an opportunity to train ourselves." And with that training, astronomers will be able to go and find, and characterize, planets that are just like our own. "We're extremely close to the moment when we find a one-Earth-mass planet," Tinetti says.

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Mushrooms in Space

Sts126pettit_1108 When the first Star Wars film appeared in 1977, it was a revelation: things in space could be...grimy, or smelly, or worn-out. Remember the trash compactor scene?

This was no news to actual astronauts of the time, who gamely spent weeks in orbit without showers or toilets. They played it down.

Last night it got played up a bit. Gina Sunseri, who reports from Houston for us, passed on this tidbit from the Space Station, currently docked with the shuttle Endeavour:

"Cosmonaut Yury Lonchakov called down to the Russian control room from the International Space Station to report something unexpected in a corner of the space station: mushrooms.

"They aren't an experiment. Somehow mushrooms are growing where they shouldn't be growing in a dank dark corner of the space station."

"So in addition to the toilet, the kitchen, the bedrooms, the fridge, they have a produce garden as well."

We first posted this on the World Newser last night. Since then, Clarissa Ward, our Moscow correspondent, has added a note from there:

"According to Aleksandr Sprin with the Russian mission control:

"'If there’s not enough ventilation in the bathroom then, because it’s damp, the bacteria grows into a fungus. The cosmonauts were apparently hanging their wet towels in the bathroom and then they noticed that on the back wall there were fungi (or mushrooms) growing. The fungi are now being removed with some chemical cleaner.'

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Solar Wind Rips Up Martian Atmosphere

Nov. 21, 2008: Researchers have found new evidence that the atmosphere of Mars is being stripped away by solar wind. It's not a gently continuous erosion, but rather a ripping process in which chunks of Martian air detach themselves from the planet and tumble into deep space. This surprising mechanism could help solve a longstanding mystery about the Red Planet.

"It helps explain why Mars has so little air," says David Brain of UC Berkeley, who presented the findings at the 2008 Huntsville Plasma Workshop on October 27th.

see captionBillions of years ago, Mars had a lot more air than it does today. (Note: Martian "air" is primarily carbon dioxide, not the nitrogen-oxygen mix we breathe on Earth.) Ancient martian lake-beds and river channels tell the tale of a planet covered by abundant water and wrapped in an atmosphere thick enough to prevent that water from evaporating into space. Some researchers believe the atmosphere of Mars was once as thick as Earth's. Today, however, all those lakes and rivers are dry and the atmospheric pressure on Mars is only 1% that of Earth at sea-level. A cup of water placed almost anywhere on the Martian surface would quickly and violently boil away—a result of the super-low air pressure.

Above, right: An artist's concept of ancient Mars with abundant air and water. [Larger image]

So where did the air go? Researchers entertain several possibilities: An asteroid hitting Mars long ago might have blown away a portion of the planet's atmosphere in a single violent upheaval. Or the loss might have been slow and gradual, the result of billions of years of relentless "sand-blasting" by solar wind particles. Or both mechanisms could be at work.

Brain has uncovered a new possibility--a daily ripping process intermediate between the great cataclysm and slow erosion models. The evidence comes from NASA's now-retired Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft.

In 1998, MGS discovered that Mars has a very strange magnetic field. Instead of a global bubble, like Earth's, the Martian field is in the form of magnetic umbrellas that sprout out of the ground and reach beyond the top of Mars' atmosphere. These umbrellas number in the dozens and they cover about 40% of the planet’s surface, mainly in the southern hemisphere.

For years, researchers thought the umbrellas protected the Martian atmosphere, shielding pockets of air beneath them from erosion by the solar wind. Surprisingly, Brain finds that the opposite can be true as well: "The umbrellas are where coherent chunks of air are torn away."

Above: Solar wind blowing against Mars tears atmosphere-filled plasmoids from the tops of magnetic umbrellas. Credit: Graphic artist Steve Bartlett. [Larger image]

Addressing his colleagues at the Workshop, he described how he made the discovery just a few months ago:

Brain was scrolling through archival data from Global Surveyor's particles and fields sensors. "We have measurements from 25,000 orbits," he says. During one of those orbits, MGS passed through the top of a magnetic umbrella. Brain noticed that the umbrella's magnetic field had linked up with the magnetic field in the solar wind. Physicists call this "magnetic reconnection." What happened next is not 100% certain, but Global Surveyor's readings are consistent with the following scenario: "The joined fields wrapped themselves around a packet of gas at the top of the Martian atmosphere, forming a magnetic capsule a thousand kilometers wide with ionized air trapped inside," says Brain. "Solar wind pressure caused the capsule to 'pinch off' and it blew away, taking its cargo of air with it." Brain has since found a dozen more examples. The magnetic capsules or "plasmoids" tend to blow over the south pole of Mars, mainly because most of the umbrellas are located in Mars' southern hemisphere.

Above: Dave Brain of UC Berkeley presented this slide at the 2008 Huntsville Plasma Workshop to explain in cartoon fashion how plasmoids carry air away from Mars. [Larger image]

Brain isn't ready to declare the mystery solved. "We're still not sure how often the plasmoids form or how much gas each one contains." The problem is, Mars Global Surveyor wasn't designed to study the phenomenon. The spacecraft was only equipped to sense electrons, not the heavier ions which would make up the bulk of any trapped gas. "Ions and electrons don't always behave the same way," he cautions. Also, MGS sampled the umbrellas at fixed altitudes and at the same local time each day. "We need to sample many altitudes and times of day to truly understand these dynamic events."

In short, he told the audience, "we need more data."

Brain is pinning his hopes on a new NASA mission named MAVEN. Short for "Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution," MAVEN is an upper atmosphere orbiter currently approved for launch to Mars in 2013. The probe is specifically designed to study atmospheric erosion. MAVEN will be able to detect electrons, ions and neutral atoms; it will be able to measure both magnetic and electric fields; it will travel around Mars in an elliptical orbit, piercing magnetic umbrellas at different altitudes, angles, and times of day; and it will explore regions both near and far from the umbrellas, giving researchers the complete picture they need.

If magnetized chunks of air are truly being torn free, MAVEN will see it happening and measure the atmospheric loss rate. "Personally, I think this mechanism is important," says Brain, "but MAVEN may yet prove me wrong."

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Buran - the Soviet 'space shuttle'

By Anatoly Zak

Buran (AFP)
Despite its looks, Buran was not a facsimile of the US shuttle

Some 20 years ago, on 30 September 1988, many readers of the Pravda newspaper - the official mouthpiece of the Soviet communist party - could not believe their eyes.

Published somewhat inconspicuously on the second page, there was a photo depicting the familiar shape of the US space shuttle, but with Soviet insignia on its wings.

Finally, years of rumours about a Soviet "copy" of the shuttle had been confirmed.

However, the official Soviet press was quick to point out that despite its superficial resemblance to the US counterpart, the Russian shuttle, dubbed Buran or "snowstorm", was better and more capable.

Within days, the new ship got a chance to prove it.

On November 15, 1988, as snowy clouds and winds were swirling around Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the Buran orbiter, attached to its giant Energia rocket, thundered into the gloomy early morning sky.

They obliterated this crowning achievement of the Soviet space programme
Three hours and two orbits later, the 100-tonne bird glided back to a flawless landing just a few miles from its launch pad.

Despite the kind of strong winds that would rule out any launch or landing attempt by the US space shuttle, Buran touched down just 3m off the runway centreline.

And this planet-wide ballet was performed with its "pilots" safely on the ground.

Born of paranoia

Buran's pioneering mission was the culmination of an effort by more than 600 Soviet institutions which, since 1976, had secretly laboured on this largest of Soviet space projects.

Upon the spacecraft's triumphant landing, the Soviet newspapers promised a new era in space exploration. Few could predict at the time that it would be Buran's only mission.

Unlike Nasa, Soviet developers never had any grand illusions about replacing traditional rockets with a reusable space truck.

Instead, the Soviet shuttle was conceived primarily as a "symmetrical response" to the perceived military threat from America's winged orbiters.

Buran site
A fully assembled Energia rocket with the first flown Buran orbiter, in 2002

Years after a sceptical Pentagon had given up on the shuttle, even as a delivery truck for spy satellites, the Russian officials continued whispering to journalists that the US orbiter had a secret capability - to make an undetected "dive" into the Earth's atmosphere and suddenly glide over Moscow dropping nuclear bombs.

Never mind that such a scenario was not supported by physics or by common sense.

Energia-Buran's chief architect, Valentin Glushko, hardly tried to educate warmongers at the Politburo about the questionable merits of the re-usable orbiter as a weapon.

Glushko was one of the first generation of Soviet rocket pioneers, who were experimenting in the 1930s under the tutelage of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky - one of the "fathers" of spaceflight. Like many of his contemporaries, he had little interest in designing weapons.

He did dream, however, about building a permanent base on the surface of the Moon.

Unfortunately, after losing the Moon race to America in 1969, Soviet leaders had little appetite for another deep-space adventure.

Launch pad
The launch and test facility where the Energia rocket first took off in 1987

Still, Glushko probably hoped to exploit Cold War paranoia about the threat of the US shuttle as an opportunity to lay a detour road to the Moon, and possibly even to Mars.

Glushko carefully steered the Soviet shuttle project away from being a carbon copy of the American design, which could not be easily modified.

Instead, he proposed a winged orbiter along with a fully functional rocket which could carry any cargo - including lunar landers, orbital tugs and even pieces of a Martian expeditionary complex.

In the end, Kremlin bosses had committed to the monumental expense of money and human talent with only vague hopes that real tasks for the grandiose vehicle would emerge as it came online.

Instead, after long delays and cost overruns, the Buran appeared on the scene in the last act of the Cold War and amid a crumbling Soviet economy.

The Berlin Wall had come down just a year after its first flight, and the Soviet Defence Ministry was suddenly more preoccupied with resettling thousands of troops returning from Eastern Europe than with servicing orbital anti-missile platforms and deploying killer satellites in space.

Energia site
The first stage of the Energia rocket inside Building 112 in Baikonur

The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 sealed the fate of the Energia-Buran system.

There was a flicker of hope for Buran's giant booster - Energia - when Russia joined the effort to build the International Space Station (ISS).

Still unfinished today, after a decade of efforts and dozens of assembly flights, the ISS could have been hauled into orbit by only a few Energia boosters, had international partners adopted it into the program, say the rocket's proponents.

In the mid-1990s, a flight-ready Buran orbiter, which made the historic trip in 1988, had been mounted on the back of a fully assembled Energia rocket at Baikonur's Building 112.

This eye-popping display became a popular stop for journalists and foreign tourists, who periodically "invaded" Baikonur for high-profile launches.

To the untrained eye, the gargantuan rocket and its orbiter looked all but ready for a rollout to the launch pad.

Last resting place

In 2001, this spectacle, combined with the optimistic and mis-translated comments of a Russian guide, had such a profound effect on one Western reporter that he filed a story claiming that the Energia-Buran programme was about to be re-started.

The article proved that a decade after its demise, the Buran had already become a legend.

However, if one looked closely in Building 112 it was possible to see water dripping from the high ceiling on a rainy day and accumulating on the floor, under the dead torsos of Energia rockets.

The keeper of the facility, who showed reporters around the building, said that he could hardly find money to send repair men to patch up the giant roof.

Interior of N-1 hangar at Baikonur
Rescue workers search the devastated hangar at Baikonur

Eventually, a repair team, believed to include eight people, did make it to the roof, climbing on top of Building 112 on May 12, 2002.

According to eyewitnesses, at about 0920 local time, the entire structure shook violently, as if hit by an earthquake, and enormous pieces of debris plunged dozens of metres to the ground below.

They obliterated this crowning achievement of the Soviet space programme.

But the Energia-Buran programme did leave a lasting legacy.

The cavernous launch facilities at Baikonur and a state-of-the-art mission control centre in Korolev have continued serving the Russian space programme and its international partners.

The rocket technology developed for Energia-Buran has been put to use in other launchers.

A mighty RD-170 engine, originally developed for the first stage of Energia, today powers the Ukrainian Zenit rocket.

This engine's scaled-down descendants - the RD-180 and RD-190 - have been adopted for the US Atlas booster and Russia's next-generation Angara rockets.

While the US space shuttle will soon share the fate of the Buran orbiter - as a museum exhibit - emerging plans for lunar exploration have revived concepts of super-heavy rockets, on both sides of the Atlantic.

If they are ever built, their creators will have to re-trace the path once made by Valentin Glushko and his colleagues.

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Forgotten But Not Gone: How The Brain Re-learns

Store room for future learning: nerve cells retain many of their newly created connections and if necessary, inactivate only transmission of the information. This makes relearning easier. (Credit: Image: Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology / Hofer)

Thanks to our ability to learn and to remember, we can perform tasks that other living things can not even dream of. However, we are only just beginning to get the gist of what really goes on in the brain when it learns or forgets something. What we do know is that changes in the contacts between nerve cells play an important role. But can these structural changes account for that well-known phenomenon that it is much easier to re-learn something that was forgotten than to learn something completely new?

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology have been able to show that new cell contacts established during a learning process stay put, even when they are no longer required. The reactivation of this temporarily inactivated "stock of contacts" enables a faster learning of things forgotten.

While an insect still flings itself against the window-pane after dozens of unsuccessful attempts to gain its freedom, our brain is able to learn very complex associations and sequences of movement. This not only helps us to avoid accidents like walking into glass doors, but also enables us to acquire such diverse skills as riding a bicycle, skiing, speaking different languages or playing an instrument. Although a young brain learns more easily, we retain our ability to learn up to an advanced age. For a long time, scientists have been trying to ascertain exactly what happens in the brain while we learn or forget.

Flexible connections

To learn something, in other words, to successfully process new information, nerve cells make new connections with each other. When faced with an unprecedented piece of information, for which no processing pathway yet exists, filigree appendages begin to grow from the activated nerve cell towards its neighbours. Whenever a special point of contact, called synapse, forms at the end of the appendage, information can be transferred from one cell to the next - and new information is learned. Once the contact breaks down, we forget what we have learned.

The subtle difference between learning and relearning

Although learning and memory were recently shown to be linked to the changes in brain structure mentioned above, many questions still remain unanswered. What happens, for example, when the brain learns something, forgets it after a while and then has to learn it again later? By way of example, we know from experience that, once we have learned to ride a bicycle, we can easily pick it up again, even if we haven’t practiced for years. In other cases too, "relearning" tends to be easier than starting "from scratch". Does this subtle difference also have its origins in the structure of the nerve cells?

Cell appendages abide the saying "a bird in the hand …"

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology have now managed to show that there are indeed considerable differences in the number of new cell contacts made - depending on whether a piece of information is new or is being learned second time around. Nerve cells that process visual information, for instance, produced a considerably higher number of new cell contacts if the flow of information from their "own" eye was temporarily blocked. After approximately five days, the nerve cells had rearranged themselves so as to receive and process information from the other eye - the brain had resigned itself to having only one eye at its disposal. Once information flowed freely again from the eye that had been temporarily closed, the nerve cells resumed their original function and now more or less ignored signals from the alternative eye.

"What surprised us most, however, was that the majority of the appendages which developed in response to the information blockade, continued to exist, despite the fact that the blockade was abolished ", project leader Mark Hübener explains. Everything seems to point to the fact that synapses are only disabled, but not physically removed. "Since an experience that has been made may occur again at a later point in time, the brain apparently opts to save a few appendages for a rainy day", Hübener continues. And true enough, when the same eye was later inactivated again, the nerve cells reorganized themselves much more quickly - because they could make use of the appendages that had stayed in place.

Useful reactivation

Many of the appendages that develop between nerve cells are thus maintained and facilitate later relearning. This insight is crucial to our understanding of the fundamental processes of learning and memory. And so, even after many years of abstinence, it should be no great problem if we want to have a go at skiing again this winter.

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Complex Systems Science: How Do Math And Intuition Help Us Understand Whole Systems?

Peter Dodds is lost. Well, not exactly. He knows he's going to meet me at 2:30 in the Davis Center. But just where? He doesn't remember. And yet, without hesitation, he walks into the atrium, past crowds of people, up the sweeping staircase and directly into Henderson's coffee shop.

There I sit, gulping a latte. How did he figure out where to go?

"t's an interesting kind of search problem," he says. "It just seemed like the right place to go. I figured you wouldn't be hanging out with the students, and that coffee might have something to do with this. I was right."

That kind of intuitive problem solving, he thinks, is not simple to explain and even harder to replicate with a computer. It's way beyond the best artificial intelligence programs, and it would be charitable to say that neuroscience has a firm grasp of how the brain manages such a task. But it's not magical either.

"It's complex," he says.

And complexity lies at the heart of Dodd's research and teaching as an assistant professor of mathematics and statistics. He's part of a group of researchers who make up UVM's Complex Systems Center launched in 2006 by the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences.

"In its most simple form, a complex system is many distributed parts interacting in some distributed way," Dodds says, "giving rise to some interesting, often unexpected, macrophenomena." Take a neuron. Alone, it's a cell that conducts a chemical signal. But billions together, each woven with thousands of links that adapt and change over time, emerge as a brain capable of following a hunch and the smell of coffee.

Big Band, no conductor

While the human brain may be the ultimate complex system, other examples appear everywhere. Take army ants. Despite their name, they have no general, and their queen sends out no instructions. No ant is aiming to get across that gully, and there is no blueprint or traffic light. Yet millions of ants, following the same instinctive rules of individual behavior, can build bridges with their bodies and forage for food along vast efficient highways.

"That's emergence," says computer scientist Maggie Eppstein, director of the UVM Complex Systems Center. "You can't just look at the rules each little thing is following and then describe what is going to happen in the whole system. You've got to run the model or observe the whole to understand what happens at the next scale."

Ferociously chaotic air currents resolve into a tornado that moves across the landscape maintaining its form. "In complex systems, through local interactions and self-organization, stable or semi-stable patterns emerge at a next level or a higher scale," she says, "but they are difficult to predict because they are so sensitive to small changes in the system or initial conditions."

Applying insights like these, Eppstein and her colleagues across the university are helping to lead the rapidly developing field of complex systems science. They aim to bring new approaches to some of the world's most vexing problems like improving hurricane forecasts, understanding the effects of phosphorous pollution in a watershed, slowing the spread of invasive species, making robots that can start to discern the intentions behind an action, and untangling the genetic and environmental threads that lead to heart disease.

The lights are on

Recall what happened on the afternoon of Aug. 14, 2003. In a cascade, the lights went out in Cleveland, New York City, Baltimore, Albany and Detroit. Eventually, more than 50 million people were without power across the Northeast and Canada as 265 power plants shut down.

This famous blackout was a complex systems failure. No one pulled the plug; numerous local problems and mistakes created a series of dynamic feedback loops. The result: an unpredictable regional disaster.

"Nobody's in charge of the electric grid," says Paul Hines, a power engineer who is part of the UVM complex systems group, "there are hundreds of companies and entities who all have a role. What's amazing is that in the midst of this system, with millions of human and non-human actors — a lot that we can't predict — we still get order. Most of the time, when you flip the switch, you get light."

Or, as Dodds says, complex systems are "typically highly balanced, flexible, and robust, but are also susceptible to systemic collapse."

Decades of work to improve overall control of this patchwork of operators, powerplants, substations, and transmission wires — a product of history more than rational design — haven't gotten very far. "The reliability of the grid has basically been constant for the last 25 years," Hines says. He recently presented data that shows the frequency of blackouts has remained the same since 1984, and also that very large blackouts are more frequent than would be expected from traditional exponential statistics and risk assessments.

"Traditional methods have tried to estimate the reliability of the system by taking each component individually," Hines says. Any one substation is pretty straightforward and may not appear to be hard to manage. "But this misses what happens when combinations of components fail," he says.

In a complex system, one plus one might add up to a lot more than you'd guess. These kinds of nonlinear interactions don't show up in a static model that simply describes the electric grid. Which is why Hines is developing dynamic graph-based models instead that draw on new methods from network theory.

"Our goal is not to create a complex model, our goal is to create a useful model," he says, "a simple model that helps us understand a complex system." He's feeding data from actual power systems into his model, seeking sets of components that cluster together when he runs the model since these may be particularly important to maintaining the robustness of electricity delivery systems.

Parts is not parts

"Complex systems science is just the evolution of science," Dodds says. Since the revolution that Newton and Descartes helped launch, the main thrust of so-called normal science has been to look for smaller pieces and more fundamental laws. Molecules yield atoms yield quarks.

"There are many problems that we figured out by breaking things into little pieces," Dodds says. "Scientists figured out DNA with its double helix. And then they figured out the human genome by measuring like crazy. There was a sense conveyed that once we understood all the bits of the genome, we'd understand everything human," he says, "but that's totally insane."

"It's like saying once we understand atoms we understand matter," he says, "But we don't."

Of course, many of the underlying ideas behind complex systems are far older than the name. It was Aristotle who stated that the "whole is more than the sum of the parts." But complex systems science takes this realization further. As physicist PW Anderson wrote in a seminal 1972 paper in Science, in a complex system “the whole becomes not only more than, but very different from the sum of its parts."

"The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability start from those laws and reconstruct the universe," Anderson wrote.

Peter Dodds stands at the bottom of the Davis Center stairs and watches students playing pool. One after the other, they rub their cue sticks with chalk and lean over the table. "If you want to understand how humans behave collectively you have to understand what their psychology is: and you will never get that from studying quarks or DNA or cells," he says, as a stream of students pass around him like he's a rock in a river. "Never."

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