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Once again the time has come to gather around and take a well deserved hiatus from the politics of the day. Science talk is here. New discoveries, new takes on old knowledge, and other bits of news are all available for the perusing in today's information world. Over the fold are selections from the past week from a few of the many excellent science news sites around the world. Today's tidbits include new thinking about early emerging life, maybe evolution is more than survival of the fittest, artificial tissue promotes skin growth in wounds, oil palm plantations are no substitute for tropical rainforests, a new strategy aims to reduce agricultural ammonia, scientists cultivate human astrocytes (very common brain cells) in a lab dish, and energy harvesters transform waste heat into electricity.  Gather yourselves around. Pull up that comfy chair and bask in the sunshine. There is plenty of room for everyone. Get ready for one more session of Dr. Possum's science education and entertainment.

Featured Stories
Researchers studying ancient Canadian rocks have found evidence that challenges current theories of early emerging life.

Carbon found within ancient rocks has played a crucial role developing a time line for the emergence of biological life on the planet billions of years ago. But applying cutting-edge technology to samples of ancient rocks from northern Canada has revealed the carbon-based minerals may be much younger than the rock they inhabit...


The samples come from the Nuvvuagittuq Supracrustal Belt, a sedimentary banded iron formation located in the Archean Superior craton, one of the earth's ancient continental shields. Samples were subjected to a range of high-tech tests in an effort to more clearly characterize the carbon in the rock.

Traditional techniques used by scientists have involved collecting samples and crushing them into powder and then determining the bulk characteristics of carbon minerals. The new approach relies upon a variety of microscopy and spectroscopy methods to characterize intact micro-fabricated cross-sections of crystalline graphite removed from the rock samples. The results found that the carbon was very young compared to the age of these oldest rock samples ever unearthed.

Evolution has long been thought to be the result of survival of the fittest but new research suggests errors in protein structure sparked evolutionary diversity.

Over four billion years of evolution, plants and animals grew far more complex than their single-celled ancestors. But a new comparison of proteins shared across species finds that complex organisms, including humans, have accumulated structural weaknesses that may have actually launched the long journey from microbe to man.


On their own, these unstable proteins might be expected to perform their cellular duties more poorly, possibly causing harm to the organism. But unstable proteins are also "stickier," more likely to form associations with other proteins that could introduce more flexibility and complexity into the cell. If these complexes create a survival advantage for the organism, forces of natural selection should take over and spread the new protein complex through the population.

The treatment and repair of skin wounds in humans is a serious medical challenge which may be made easier by artificial tissue.

Victims of third-degree burns and other traumatic injuries endure pain, disfigurement, invasive surgeries and a long time waiting for skin to grow back. Improved tissue grafts designed by Cornell scientists that promote vascular growth could hasten healing, encourage healthy skin to invade the wounded area and reduce the need for surgeries.


The biomaterials are composed of experimental tissue scaffolds that are about the size of a dime and have the consistency of tofu. They are made of a material called type 1 collagen, which is a well-regulated biomaterial used often in surgeries and other biomedical applications. The templates were fabricated with tools at the Cornell NanoScale Science and Technology Facility to contain networks of microchannels that promote and direct growth of healthy tissue into wound sites.


A key finding of the study is that the healing process responds strongly to the geometry of the microchannels within the collagen. Healthy tissue and vessels can be guided to grow toward the wound in an organized and rapid manner.

Wildlife are endangered by the continued growth of oil palm plantations.

Palm oil, used in food, cosmetics, biofuels and other products, is now the world’s leading vegetable oil. It is derived from the fruit of the oil palm, grown on more than 50,000-square miles of moist, tropical lowland areas, mostly in Malaysia and Indonesia. These areas, once covered in tropical rainforest, the globe’s richest wildlife habitat on land, are also home to some of the most threatened species on earth.


Within countries, oil palm is usually grown in a few productive areas, but it looks set to spread further. Demand is increasing rapidly and ‘its potential as a future agent of deforestation is enormous’, the study says.

Most of the suitable land left is within the last remaining large areas of tropical rainforest in Central Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia. Where oil palm has replaced tropical forest the impact on wildlife depends on what species survive in the new oil palm habitat.

The study confirmed that oil palm is a poor substitute habitat for the majority of tropical forest species, particularly forest specialists and those of conservation concern.

Ammonia is an abundant agricultural gas which contributes to air pollution.

Besides its pungent smell, ammonia that volatilizes from cattle manure is highly reactive in the atmosphere, forming particulates that travel long distances and contribute to environmental problems such as acid rain, nutrient pollution, and smog.

Feeding tannins (ed: a group of natural plant compounds) to cattle could not only help dairy farmers reduce these impacts and meet regulatory standards, Powell says, but tannins could also boost nitrogen use efficiency in cows, thereby decreasing the need for expensive protein supplements. Only 20 to 35% of feed nitrogen ends up in milk on commercial dairy farms, with the remainder excreted about equally in manure and urine as the compound, urea.

Urea is produced when nitrogen-rich proteins break down mainly in the cow rumen, forming ammonia gas that’s eventually converted to urea before being excreted. Tannins are thought to cut urea production by somehow allowing more protein to escape digestion in the rumen and enter the cow intestine, where it’s used more efficiently to produce milk protein.

Astrocytes have long been considered a structural item similar to putty holding the brain cells together.

Although astrocytes have gotten short shrift from science compared to neurons, the large filamentous cells that process and transmit information, scientists are turning their attention to the more common cells as their roles in the brain become better understood. There are a variety of astrocyte cell types and they perform such basic housekeeping tasks as helping to regulate blood flow, soaking up excess chemicals produced by interacting neurons and controlling the blood-brain barrier, a protective filter that keeps dangerous molecules from entering the brain.

Astrocytes, some studies suggest, may even play a role in human intelligence given that their volume is much greater in the human brain than any other species of animal.

The ability to grow large numbers of these cells in the laboratory offers may opportunities to study their function.
They could be used as screens to identify new drugs for treating diseases of the brain, they can be used to model disease in the lab dish and, in the more distant future, it may be possible to transplant the cells to treat a variety of neurological conditions, including brain trauma, Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injury. It is possible that astrocytes prepared for clinical use could be among the first cells transplanted to intervene in a neurological condition as the motor neurons affected by the fatal amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, are swathed in astrocytes.

In the US more than 50 percent of energy produced by all sources is lost as waste heat.

(Researcher) Hunter's technology uses cantilever structures that are about 1 millimeter square in size. About 1,000 of these energy converters can be attached to a 1-inch square surface such as a computer chip, concentrated photovoltaic cell or other devices that generate heat. Although the amount of electricity each device can generate is small – 1 to 10 milliwatts per device – many arrays of these devices can be used to generate sizable amounts of electricity that can power remote sensor systems or assist in the active cooling of the heat generating device, reducing cooling demands.

Other Worthy Stories of the Week
Google search patterns could track MRSA spread
Milky Way galaxy has mirror-like symmetry
Satellites spot illegal logging of uncontacted tribes' home
Scientists fight University of California to study rare ancient skeletons
Landsat offers stunning comparison of flooding
Researchers gain new insights into comet Hartley 2
Free floating planets may be more common than stars
Octopuses make some pretty good moves
World record of 18.7 percent set in flexible solar efficiency
Can Mississippi River sediment be used to repair the coast?
A direct path for understanding and treating brittle bones
Japan considers a plan to make solar panels compulsory for new buildings
LED bulbs hit 100 watts as federal ban looms
Spiders suffer from human impact
Archeologists uncover oldest mine in the Americas
Researchers create nanopatch for the heart

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NASA picture of the day. For more see the NASA image gallery or the Astronomy Picture of the Day Archive.

Sunset over South America, NASA, Public Domain

Originally posted to possum on Mon May 23, 2011 at 12:31 PM PDT.

Also republished by Pink Clubhouse, DK GreenRoots, lundi channel, and SciTech.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Once again greetings and glad tidings. (31+ / 0-)

    Many thanks for stopping by.  Hope you found interesting new tales today.

    Education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army.--Edward Everett

    by possum on Mon May 23, 2011 at 12:31:35 PM PDT

  •  The waste heat problem (14+ / 0-)

    I used to work with a pack of meteorologists who were highly dismissive of global climate change, and we got in to it more than once when I suggested that they were institutionally trained to be short-sighted by their profession.

    What inroads I did make in getting them to look at the research data instead of the ideological argument had to do of several meteorological effects that they were familiar with, and none had more impact than the Urban Heat Island.

    An Urban Heat Island is a largely built up urban area that is a few degrees hotter on average than the surrounding areas, and alters local weather patterns due to that heat.

    For example, thunder storms are more common near UHIs because the formation of those storms relies on warm moist air rising in to the upper atmosphere. When you have a column of air that is rather large and a few degrees hotter than the surrounding air, you've got a great little pump that gets storms going like nobodies business.

    What does that have to do with climate change though?

    Mostly, its the heat. I got them to see that we have thousands of large urban heat islands spread all over the world. In addition, we're all very involved in the process of moving heat from where we are to where we aren't. When you air-condition a fifty story building, all of those BTUs have to go somewhere, and the atmosphere is a pretty convenient dumping ground.

    Really, I think heat is one of our worst enemies when it comes to global climate. We keep making it, and while an amount of is gets radiated out in to space, we're just supplying more and more heat energy to the engine of our own demise.

    •  Thanks for the comment squidflakes. (7+ / 0-)

      What if we could put that heat to use?  Maybe instead of putting it into the atmosphere how about converting to electricity?  Would that not help on both ends of the issue?

      Education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army.--Edward Everett

      by possum on Mon May 23, 2011 at 01:00:30 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  The Law (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        possum, palantir

        That would be fantastic, but we're still going to be stuck with the heat. Remember that energy can neither be created or destroyed so even if we're able to recapture that heat and get more work out of it, we've still got it skunking around.

        Even transmitting electricity creates waste heat due to impedance.

        If we had the technology to completely convert heat energy in to another form of energy, we'd have quite a few problems licked, but we're talking high temperature superconductors and other sci-fi fare for the foreseeable future.

        Our only option in the near term is to reduce the amount of heat we're generating or receiving from the sun. Both would be problematic for a variety of reasons.  

        Oh, off-topic but I wanted to say thanks Dr. Possum! Your science tidbits are probably my favorite recurring post here at the kos.

        •  Many thanks for the kind words, squidflakes. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          I love this series.  The nicest people around the place visit and discuss science facts.  The learning goes on and on.  It is comments like yours that make the small effort of posting so very worthwhile.

          There is an interesting conversation about thermodynamics farther down the thread with docmidwest.  There are real limits to the conversion of heat to energy but every little bit does count in the greater scheme of things.  In the meantime reducing the amount of heat we generate is a good goal.  That we cannot make a large difference is less important than the effort in many ways.

          Education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army.--Edward Everett

          by possum on Tue May 24, 2011 at 01:01:38 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  I had seen the ammonia story (8+ / 0-)

    When I read it, I had two reactions. Good, we need to address the problem. Ok, but this only touches on one of the many problems with CAFO operations. They also need to clean up nitrogen runoff from manure ponds, preferably by forcing the operators to drain and treat the sewage.

    The carbon dating issue gave the yips because critics will claim carbon dating cannot be trusted even though the potential mixing of young and old deposits will bias age downward.

    As always, nice summary.

    Be radical in your compassion.

    by DWG on Mon May 23, 2011 at 01:41:38 PM PDT

  •  always interesting stuff Possum - thanks (9+ / 0-)

    Regarding human tissue replacement:  have you seen this?
    skin gun

    Also, I just returned from a 2 week vacation out in the NW. We were talking with the operators of the a dam on the Columbia River and were surprised to hear they have more energy than they know what to do, they've taken the wind turbines off the grid and are just using hydroelectric for now. This spring they have an abundance of rain and snow melt and the rivers are all pretty high.  

    "Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe." A. Einstein

    by moose67 on Mon May 23, 2011 at 02:10:19 PM PDT

    •  That skin gun looks marvelous. (7+ / 0-)

      Thanks for sharing, moose.  Science continues to march right along in the healing of humans and animals.  Good stuff.

      One major issue with our energy system today is the grid.  We have no efficient way to transfer energy from one place to another.  Power should never be allowed to be wasted.  We need to find better means of distribution in order to allow excess production to be put to use more evenly.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army.--Edward Everett

      by possum on Mon May 23, 2011 at 03:42:34 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Great diary, as usual (7+ / 0-)

    I'll have to take the time to follow the links.  I found the bit about skin grafts to be very interesting.  

    A friend of mine was burned terribly in a fire.  She later passed on due to damage left by the antibiotics she had to have.  You can read about her here.  I'll be darned if I can find a link, but she provided the initial pilot training to one of the men that was lost in the Columbia shuttle disaster.

    You brought back some good memories.  Her accident, and the results were sad, but her life was very rich and full.  I was better for knowing her.   :)

  •  two separate points (6+ / 0-)

    The devices to recover energy from waste heat will be quite limited in efficiency, because the temperature of the sources aren't all that much higher than ambient temperature. The Carnot limit is severe. Most of the waste heat will still be wasted.

    The new data on proteins are not really out of synch with the conventional modern view of natural selection, which is what's usually meant by "survival of the fittest". It's long been known that evolution is greatly sped up by random non-adaptive variations. They're even used in genetic algorithms for solving optimization problems by computation. Still, it's cool to fill in the story even if the paradigm isn't changed.

    Michael Weissman UID 197542

    by docmidwest on Mon May 23, 2011 at 04:26:57 PM PDT

    •  Even if limited in efficiency is not some heat (6+ / 0-)

      recovery better than none at all?  And who is to say we cannot find more efficient ways to make the conversion?  Some years back people said we could not land on the moon.  In science today much of what was one day fiction is beginning to come true.

      The whole study of evolution and the underlying processes amazes me.  That mathematics may play a part is another fine piece of the pie.  And who can tell what analysis will lead to if people begin to share knowledge and cross subject lines in the future?  We have learned so much and there remains so much more yet to be learned.

      Thanks for visiting.

      Education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army.--Edward Everett

      by possum on Mon May 23, 2011 at 05:00:09 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  some energy recovered (5+ / 0-)

        Yes, it would be great if say 5% or 10% of the waste heat could be recovered in useful form. That would be an enormous contribution. Depending on the process, the Carnot limit can be higher, maybe 30% in cases where the source is unusually hot and there's room for good cooling. There's no chance of getting back most of the lost heat.

        However, no, there has been no hint that the laws of thermodynamics will be broken. The amazing thing is that laws first found ~1820 by Sadi Carnot in practical arguments about steam  engines appear to apply rigorously to everything, including quantum radiation from spacetime horizons. Breaking those laws is not like just doing something real hard.

        I agree that the increasing depth of mathematical modeling of evolution may turn up some interesting things. It should  help model and predict development of resistance to antibiotics, etc.

        Michael Weissman UID 197542

        by docmidwest on Mon May 23, 2011 at 05:35:03 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Interesting stuff. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          You prompted me to read more about Carnot and his theories.  Nice to learn something new and different today.  Thanks.

          Like you say any saving of energy would be massive given the amount that is wasted today.  I believe a recent article said 50% of US energy goes to waste.  That is huge.  Even a small amount save would be large enough to be worthwhile in time.

          This entire field of energy production, transport, consumption, and conservation is a real wonder these days.  Who can tell what will be next?  Only time will tell.

          Is energy your field?

          Education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army.--Edward Everett

          by possum on Tue May 24, 2011 at 06:20:23 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Denier (7+ / 0-)

    so Saturday I had a conversation with a denier.
    the guy hit all the talking points.
    even mentioned the e-mails

    I'm not good at countering these people.
    even with all the stuff I rad I just don't have the right stuff.

    oh well it was a sad experience

    Thanks for Science Monday Possum

    •  eeff, my friend, your tale makes me sad. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      The deniers will not be changed.  The best we can hope to manage is to move the middle farther to the truth.  The deniers are buried in some sort of misguided faith or ignorance.   A sad state of affairs in our world today.

      Thanks for visiting.  Have a great day.

      Education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army.--Edward Everett

      by possum on Tue May 24, 2011 at 06:15:31 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Hello possum (6+ / 0-)

    A wonderful set today!

    Have you seen the Sunday Science Videos

    •  Very excellent stuff. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Sunday is often a day of rest from the net for me.  If you continue that posting I will try to add you to the list.  People should know about the finer parts of DKos life.

      Education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army.--Edward Everett

      by possum on Tue May 24, 2011 at 06:14:17 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Happy Nomday, my dear marsupial! (7+ / 0-)

    and thanks for all the excellent mind-noms to chew on.

    C'est la vie, c'est la guerre, c'est la pomme de terre.

    by RunawayRose on Mon May 23, 2011 at 05:23:22 PM PDT

  •  The article about the origin of life (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    strikes me as quite plausible, but alas that is because it kind of jives with my gut feelings, rather than any data I have.

    The earliest fossil evidence of life is 3.5 Byr old (subscription required).  But they have isotopic 'chemical evidence' of life dating back ~3.8-4.0 Byr (subscription required).  

    Basically, these two lines of evidence give us a gap of half a billion years between evidence of the activity of life, and life itself.  I always wondered why that gap is so very long.  I know the arguments that there are very few rocks from that era, and even fewer still that are likely to preserve fossils intact.  I will always remember my general chemistry professor in undergrad teaching me that if a chemical reaction is going to happen, it will happen relatively quickly (at least as far as us geologists are concerned), or it won't happen at all.  Most of the ideas behind the early origin of life are chemical ideas (hydrophobic lipids creating mono-layer cell walls, etc.), so the gap has always struck me as too long.  Then again, I have always been distressed that the gap between the first prokaryotic fossils (3.5 Byr ago) and the first multicellular fossils (~1.2 Byr ago) was so long.  I mean, come on life!  Get with the program!

    As usual, thanks for the updates possum.  Unfortunately, I don't have the ability to check DKos every day (more like a 1-2 times a week thing) meaning I miss out on most of the conversation in comment sections.  I wish people would follow up their own comments more.  Thanks for doing so!

    All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. - Schopenhauer

    by BlueberryTomatoSoup on Tue May 24, 2011 at 12:54:27 PM PDT

    •  Thanks for the kind words, BTS. (0+ / 0-)

      The comment threads are one of the best parts of the posting.  The conversations are often enlightening and educational.

      When one looks back millions of years into a time we cannot reconstruct there is lots of room for speculation and for new findings.  We have much to learn to fill in those lengthy gaps in our knowledge of life and its evolution.  Maybe one day we will have a final chapter to the story.  Meantime science continues to plod along bit by bit piecing together an explanation.

      At least in science we can rely on facts.  Sometimes the facts jive with our expectations and sometimes not.  Keeping an open mind and looking at the findings in the light of truth is always important.

      Thanks for the visit.

      Education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army.--Edward Everett

      by possum on Tue May 24, 2011 at 01:44:53 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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