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Science News

DNA unveils enigmatic Denisovans

Extinct Neandertal relatives serve up a complete genetic playbook
A replica of a partial Denisovan finger bone, placed on its corresponding position on a person's hand, emphasizes the small size of this ancient find. Scientists have retrieved a comprehensive set of genetic instructions from the actual Denisovan finger fossil.By Bruce Bower

Genetic data of unprecedented completeness have been pulled from the fossil remains of a young Stone Age woman. The DNA helps illuminate the relationships among her group — ancient Siberians known as Denisovans — Neandertals, and humans.

The Denisovan’s genetic library suggest that she came from a small population that expanded rapidly as it moved south through Asia, says a team led by Matthias Meyer and Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Denisovans passed genes to Papua New Guineans but not to Asians, Europeans or South Americans, the researchers report online August 30 in Science. That’s in line with previous evidence that Denisovans contributed to the ancestry of present-day Australian aborigines and Melanesians.

The new investigation also finds that Asians and South Americans possess more Neandertal genes than Europeans do. Although Neandertals inhabited Europe and West Asia, they may have interbred most frequently with Homo sapiens in East Asia, or, possibly, had their genetic contributions to Europeans diluted as increasing numbers of Stone Age humans reached that continent.

Uncoiling the cucumber's enigma

In the creeping plant's tendrils, researchers discover a biological mechanism for coiling and stumble upon an unusual type of spring
IMAGE: An intact cucumber tendril (top) and a fiber ribbon (bottom) that has been extracted from a tendril both coil in the same, predictable way. Studying the cellular structure of these...

Cambridge, Mass. - August 30, 2012 – Captivated by a strange coiling behavior in the grasping tendrils of the cucumber plant, researchers at Harvard University have characterized a new type of spring that is soft when pulled gently and stiff when pulled strongly.

Instead of unwinding to a flat ribbon under stress, as an untwisted coil normally would, the cucumber's tendrils actually coil further. Understanding this counterintuitive behavior required a combination of head scratching, physical modeling, mathematical modeling, and cell biology—not to mention a large quantity of silicone.

The result, published in the August 31 issue of Science, describes the mechanism by which coiling occurs in the cucumber plant and suggests a new type of bio-inspired twistless spring.

Led by principal investigator L. Mahadevan, Lola England de Valpine Professor of Applied Mathematics at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and Professor of Physics at Harvard, and a Core Faculty Member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, the researchers were motivated by simple curiosity about the natural world.

People Merge Supernatural and Scientific Beliefs When Reasoning With the Unknown, Study Shows

SupernaturalJessica Sinn

AUSTIN, Texas — Reliance on supernatural explanations for major life events, such as death and illness, often increases rather than declines with age, according to a new psychology study from The University of Texas at Austin.

The study, published in the June issue of Child Development, offers new insight into developmental learning.

“As children assimilate cultural concepts into their intuitive belief systems — from God to atoms to evolution — they engage in coexistence thinking,” said Cristine Legare, assistant professor of psychology and lead author of the study. “When they merge supernatural and scientific explanations, they integrate them in a variety of predictable and universal ways.”

Legare and her colleagues reviewed more than 30 studies on how people (ages 5-75) from various countries reason with three major existential questions: the origin of life, illness and death. They also conducted a study with 366 respondents in South Africa, where biomedical and traditional healing practices are both widely available.

As part of the study, Legare presented the respondents with a variety of stories about people who had AIDS. They were then asked to endorse or reject several biological and supernatural explanations for why the characters in the stories contracted the virus.

'Mysterious' Baltic Sea Object Is a Glacial Deposit

Closeup of sonar image of the 'UFO'By Natalie Wolchover

A feature on the floor of the Baltic Sea that was discovered last summer by Swedish treasure hunters is making headlines once again. The latest media coverage draws upon an hour-long radio interview with Peter Lindberg, head of the Ocean X Team (which made the "discovery"), in which Lindberg delivers a string of cryptic and titillating statements about the "strange" and "mysterious" seafloor object his team has been exploring for a year.


In other words, an expert appears to back up their claims that this seafloor object is unexplained, and perhaps is an Atlantis-like ancient building complex. To double check, Life's Little Mysteries consulted that expert. Turns out, neither he, nor any of the other experts contacted about the Baltic Sea object, think there is anything mysterious about it.

"It's good to hear critical voices about this 'Baltic Sea mystery,'" Brüchert wrote in an email. "What has been generously ignored by the Ocean-X team is that most of the samples they have brought up from the sea bottom are granites and gneisses and sandstones."

These, he explains, are exactly what one would expect to see in a glacial basin, which is what the Baltic Sea is — a region carved out by glacial ice long ago.

Technology News

Christie’s To Auction Off Another Apple I Computer

Image Credit: Yu Lan / ShutterstockMichael Harper for

Apple’s early computers are a piece of computing history. The very first Apple I computers were each hardwired by Steve Wozniak in Steve Jobs’ parent’s garage, and the pair only built 200 of these boards. These units were also famous for their minimalist nature, as any customer only received a computer board for their $666.66 purchase. It was up to the user to build a case and supply a TV screen to act as the monitor for these early machines.

With so much history and so much ancient-looking tech soldered onto this little green board, it’s no wonder some would be willing to pay more than the original $666.66 asking price. Some, however, would be willing to pay as much as 190 times the original asking price, somewhere to the tune of $126,000.

Like we’ve seen before many times in the past, yet another Apple I computer is landing on the auction block at Christie’s auction house in London, England on October 9th.  This particular unit once belonged to a former Apple employee, one Joe Copson, according to the Daily Mail.

As is always the case when these iconic units go up for sale, collectors and museums from all over the world will try their best to place the winning bid and add an extremely rare piece of computing to their collections.

Scaled-Down: New Nano Device Can Weigh Single Molecules

A tiny resonating beam, just 10 millionths of a meter in length, can measure the mass of a molecule or nanoparticle in real time
WEIGHTY MATTERS: The diagonal beam in this image can detect the presence of single molecules and determine their mass.By John Matson

Dieters and exercise buffs might feel better about their progress if they tracked their weight loss in daltons. Even a short jog can help you shed a few septillion daltons, a unit of mass often used in biochemistry that is equivalent to the atomic mass unit. (Of course, no weight-conscious individual would want to know their full weight in this unit—the average American male weighs approximately 5 X 1028 daltons.)

Even the megadalton, or one million daltons, is a tiny unit of measure—a gold particle five nanometers across weighs in at just a few megadaltons. (One nanometer is a billionth of a meter.) But researchers at the California Institute of Technology and CEA–Leti, a government-funded research organization in Grenoble, France, have built a scale that weighs single objects even lighter than a megadalton, including nanoparticles and human antibody molecules. The device is the first of its kind to determine the masses of individual molecules and nanoparticles in real time, the researchers reported in a study published online August 26 in Nature Nanotechnology. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.)

'Nanoresonators' might improve cell phone performance

This image from a scanning electron microscope shows a tiny mechanical device, an electrostatically actuated nanoresonator, that might ease congestion over the airwaves to improve the performance of cell phones and other portable devices. (Purdue University image)Emil Venere

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Researchers have learned how to mass produce tiny mechanical devices that could help cell phone users avoid the nuisance of dropped calls and slow downloads. The devices are designed to ease congestion over the airwaves to improve the performance of cell phones and other portable devices.

"There is not enough radio spectrum to account for everybody's handheld portable device," said Jeffrey Rhoads, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University.

The overcrowding results in dropped calls, busy signals, degraded call quality and slower downloads. To counter the problem, industry is trying to build systems that operate with more sharply defined channels so that more of them can fit within the available bandwidth.

"To do that you need more precise filters for cell phones and other radio devices, systems that reject noise and allow signals only near a given frequency to pass," said Saeed Mohammadi, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering who is working with Rhoads, doctoral student Hossein Pajouhi and other researchers.

Apple Rejects App That Tracks U.S. Drone Strikes

Drones+By Christina Bonnington and Spencer Ackerman

It seemed like a simple enough idea for an iPhone app: Send users a pop-up notice whenever a flying robots kills someone in one of America’s many undeclared wars. But Apple keeps blocking the Drones+ program from its App Store — and therefore, from iPhones everywhere. The Cupertino company says the content is “objectionable and crude,” according to Apple’s latest rejection letter.

It’s the third time in a month that Apple has turned Drones+ away, says Josh Begley, the program’s New York-based developer. The company’s reasons for keeping the program out of the App Store keep shifting. First, Apple called the bare-bones application that aggregates news of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia “not useful.” Then there was an issue with hiding a corporate logo. And now, there’s this crude content problem.

Begley is confused. Drones+ doesn’t present grisly images of corpses left in the aftermath of the strikes. It just tells users when a strike has occurred, going off a publicly available database of strikes compiled by the U.K.’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which compiles media accounts of the strikes.

Environmental News

Plants' Fungi Allies May Not Help Store Climate Change's Extra Carbon

Fungi found in plants may not be the answer to mitigating climate change by storing additional carbon in soils as some previously thought. (Credit: (c) Alexandr / Fotolia)Penn State

ScienceDaily (Aug. 30, 2012) — Fungi found in plants may not be the answer to mitigating climate change by storing additional carbon in soils as some previously thought, according to an international team of plant biologists.

The researchers found that increased carbon dioxide stimulates the growth of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) -- a type of fungus that is often found in the roots of most land plants -- which then leads to higher decomposition rates of organic materials, said Lei Cheng, post doctorate fellow in plant science, Penn State. This decomposition releases more carbon dioxide back into the air, which means that terrestrial ecosystems may have limited capacity to halt climate change by cleaning up excessive greenhouse gases, according to the researchers.

"Prior to our study, there have been few studies on whether elevated levels of carbon dioxide would stimulate organic carbon decomposition through AMF," said Cheng.

Heating by Black Carbon Aerosol: Soot Particles Absorb Significantly Less Sunlight Than Predicted by Models

Black carbon in the airBoston College

ScienceDaily (Aug. 30, 2012) — Viewed as a potential target in the global effort to reduce climate change, atmospheric black carbon particles absorb significantly less sunlight than scientists predicted, raising new questions about the impact of black carbon on atmospheric warming, an international team of researchers, including climate chemists from Boston College, report August 30 in the latest edition of the journal Science.

Mathematical models and laboratory experiments used to study airborne soot particles led to projections that the absorption-boosting chemicals that coat black carbon could yield an increase in absorption by as much as a factor of two. But field studies in smoggy California cities found black carbon absorption enhancements of just 6 percent, suggesting that climate models may be overestimating warming by black carbon, the researchers report.

Hope of Greater Global Food Output, Less Environmental Impact of Agriculture

Cereal crops worldwideScience Daily

Can we have enough to eat and a healthy environment, too? Yes -- if we're smart about it, suggests a study published in Nature this week by a team of researchers from the University of Minnesota and McGill University in Montreal.

Global demand for food is expected to double by 2050 due to population growth and increased standards of living. To meet this demand, it is often assumed we will need to expand the environmental burden of agriculture. The paper, based on analysis of agricultural data gathered from around the world, offers hope that with more strategic use of fertilizer and water, we could not only dramatically boost global crop yield, but also reduce the adverse environmental impact of agriculture.

"We have often seen these two goals as a trade-off: We could either have more food, or a cleaner environment, not both," says lead author Nathaniel Mueller, a researcher with the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment and a doctoral student in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. "This study shows that doesn't have to be the case."

Candidates clam up on climate

Reporters call out Obama and Romney’s silence
ObamaBy Curtis Brainard

Nary a word has been spoken about climate change on the presidential campaign trail, and it’s a silence that some journalists find deafening.

In the last few weeks, a variety of reporters have called out the candidates for utterly ignoring the issue. The Associated Press’s Steven R. Hurst, for instance, reminded readers that just four months ago, Barack Obama told Rolling Stone that he suspected climate change would become a major point of debate.

“I will be very clear in voicing my belief that we’re going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way,” Obama said. But that promise has come to naught, Hurst reported. Instead, Obama is fighting Republican challenger Mitt Romney “over the struggling American economy and stubbornly high unemployment.”

The New York Times’s Felicity Barringer observed that the candidates are willing to talk about energy policy (as they did last week), largely because it is intimately related to the jobs debate. But “climate change has been the issue that national politicians seem to avoid at all costs,” Barringer wrote. That’s a problem, National Journal’s Amy Harder argued, since “the next president will have to address [global warming], no matter who wins in November.”

Medical News

Low-cal longevity questioned

Limiting food intake in monkeys fails to extend survival
In a new study, rhesus monkeys on a calorie-restricted diet (such as the 27-year-old male at left) did not live longer than those consuming a more normal diet (like the male of the same age at right).By Nathan Seppa

Decades of research have linked low-calorie diets with extended survival, but a new report finds that rhesus monkeys on strict diets don’t live longer than their counterparts getting a standard diet.

The findings, reported August 29 in Nature, run counter to a 2009 study from the University of Wisconsin–Madison that showed a clear survival advantage in a calorie-restricted group of similar rhesus monkeys. Scientists suspect that differences in the two studies’ designs might explain the discordant findings, leaving the question of longevity still dangling.

Both research groups will need to wait another decade or more before all the monkeys live out their lives. But the authors of the new study, conducted at a National Institute on Aging laboratory in Baltimore, say their data are unlikely to change, since calculations show that the chance of a survival difference arising in the remaining monkeys is exceedingly low.

Brain learns while you snooze

Sleeping mind can make associations between smells and sounds
Brain spawnBy Laura Sanders

Even while in a deep slumber, people can still learn brand new information. Sleepers soak in new associations between smells and sounds, knowledge that lingers into the next waking day, researchers report online August 26 in Nature Neuroscience.

The new study is the first to show that entirely new information can creep into the sleeping mind, says study coauthor Anat Arzi of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Sleep used to be considered a kind of reversible death, she says. “But the brain is not passive while you sleep. It’s quite active. You can do quite a lot of things while you are asleep.”

But before overtaxed students rejoice, the results don’t mean that Spanish vocabulary tapes now have a place on the nightstand. Researchers have tried and largely failed to find evidence that trickier information, such as new pairs of words, can make its way into the brain during sleep.

Instead of trying to teach people something complicated like a new language, Arzi and her colleagues relied on subjects’ sense of smell. As anyone who has walked by a dumpster in July knows, smells can elicit a nose-jerk reaction. Catching a whiff of hot trash automatically makes people inhale less, curbing the size of the inhale. But a scent of fresh bread spurs a long, deep inhale. Arzi and her team took advantage of this sniff reflex for their experiment.

Men Who Eat A Chocolate Bar Every Week May Be Significantly Lowering Their Risk Of Stroke Later In Life

Image Credit: Photos.comLawrence LeBlond for

Chocolate just keeps getting healthier. It has been recently revealed that eating chocolate may help lower blood pressure in some people. And in another study, revealed today, chocolate has the potential to boost brain function. Now, researchers from Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute have found a link between chocolate and stroke.

The Swedish researchers found that men who consume a standard chocolate bar every week lower their risk of having a stroke later in life by 17 percent. And the researchers believe that eating more chocolate could reduce the risk even further.

The Swedish study, led by Susanna Larsson, PhD, followed 37,000 men between the ages of 45 and 79 for about ten years. Over the study period, the team found that, compared to men who ate little or no chocolate, those who consumed about 2.2 ounces per week, dropped their stroke risk significantly.

To strengthen their findings, Larsson and colleagues pooled data with four previous studies, including a nearly identical 2011 study conducted in women. Re-analyzing the combined data showed similar results: Men and women who ate the most chocolate had a 19% lower risk of stroke, compared to those who ate the least.

Resistance to Backup Tuberculosis Drugs Increases

Control of the disease recently is hindered by strains of TB that can't be treated with second-line antibiotics
In countries such as South Africa, drugs commonly used to treat tuberculosis are becoming less effective as strains of the diseases develop resistance.By Kathryn Lougheed and Nature magazine

More than 40% of tuberculosis infections that are resistant to front-line treatments are also resistant to some common backup drugs, according to research published this week in The Lancet1.

Efforts to control tuberculosis are being hampered by the emergence of multidrug-resistant (MDR) strains of the disease, which resist treatment with two front-line antibiotics, rifampicin and isoniazid. In some parts of the world, as many as 50% of tuberculosis cases are resistant to these drugs2. Alternative treatment options are toxic and expensive, relying on second-line drugs that are not as effective and must be given in lengthy courses. Unfortunately, the majority of MDR tuberculosis cases occur in developing countries that can’t afford the several billion dollars that the global Stop TB Partnership estimates3 will be required to combat the disease.

Space News

Exoplanet pair orbits two stars

Outer orb sits in habitable zone of binary star system
Kepler-47, illustrated here, is the first transiting multiplanet system found around two stars. The outer planet is in the system’s life-friendly zone, though it is bigger than Uranus and likely incapable of hosting life.By Nadia Drake

BEIJING — And then there were two. The Kepler spacecraft has spied the first pair of planets passing in front of the binary star system they orbit. Adding spice is that the outer planet — a potential Neptune-like world — inhabits the life-friendly zone around the two stars.

“It receives about 88 percent the amount of energy the Earth receives from the sun,” said William Welsh of San Diego State University on August 29 at the International Astronomical Union meeting. “And it’s a multiple planet system. It’s hard enough to imagine how you get one planet in the binary; now we have two.”

The system, called Kepler-47, could have even more planets: A tantalizing but unconfirmed hint of an additional world lurks in the blinking starlight produced when the planetary companions pass between the two stars and Earth. The additional blink has been seen clearly just once, so more observing time would be needed to confirm a third planet.

The Radiation Belt Storm Probes

Each of the two Storm Probes is bristling with sensors to count energetic particles, measure plasma waves, and detect electromagnetic radiation.Dr. Tony Phillips

August 30, 2012: Since the dawn of the Space Age, mission planners have tried to follow one simple but important rule: Stay out of the van Allen Belts. The two doughnut-shaped regions around Earth are filled with “killer electrons,” plasma waves, and electrical currents dangerous to human space travelers and their spacecraft. Lingering is not a good idea.

So much for the old rules.  NASA has launched two spacecraft directly into the radiation belts--and this time they plan to stay a while.

 NASA's Radiation Belt Storm Probes blasted off from Cape Canaveral on August 30th, 2012. Bristling with sensors, the heavily-shielded spacecraft are on a 2-year mission to discover what makes the radiation belts so dangerous and so devilishly unpredictable.

"We've known about the Van Allen Belts for decades yet they continue to surprise us with unexpected storms of 'killer electrons' and other phenomena," says mission scientist David Sibeck, "The Storm Probes will help us understand what's going on out there."

When the radiation belts were discovered in 1958, they upended orthodox ideas.  Most people assumed the space around Earth was empty. America's first satellite, Explorer 1, proved otherwise.  The tiny spacecraft was equipped with a Geiger tube for counting energetic protons and electrons.  Circling Earth, Explorer 1 found so many charged particles that the counter registered off-scale most of the time.

Funding Coming To SETI’s Allen Telescope Array

Image Caption: A single antenna of the Allen Telescope Array at night. Credit: SETIredOrbit

Uwingu announced it would be funding the SETI Institute‘s Allen Telescope Array through donations it has received so far.

Uwingu is an organization previously reported about here on redOrbit that aims to help fund space exploration, research, and education efforts around the world.

The organization has determined that its first priority is to donate half of its “bonus” funds above its $75,000 business launch target to the Allen Telescope Array (ATA).

“We don’t have to wait to begin helping space research until we launch our first product, we’re starting now!” Uwingu CEO, Dr. Alan Stern, said in a prepared statement distributed through PRLog. “We hope this will be a double-win—generating more funds available to launch our own commercial products, and more funds available to the ATA’s research teams.”

The ATA is an array of 42 radio telescopes in Northern California that studies exoplanetary systems discovered through the Kepler mission.

Spacewalking astronauts stymied by sticky bolts

ISSBy MARCIA DUNN, Associated Press

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Sticky bolts proved too much for spacewalking astronauts Thursday, forcing them to leave a new power-switching box dangling from the International Space Station instead of firmly bolted down.

NASA scrambled to reduce the power demands of the orbiting lab and balance the electrical load, while mapping out a plan that could have the astronauts going back out as early as next week to tackle the problem.

It was a major disappointment for NASA's Sunita Williams and Japan's Akihiko Hoshide, who spent hours struggling with the bolts. They used all sorts of tools and tactics as the spacewalk went into overtime, but nothing worked.

With time running out, Mission Control finally told them to tie down the box and head inside.

Odd News

Whale Vomit Found On Beach Could Make 8-Year-Old Rich

Image Credit: Photos.comJohn Neumann for

A young British boy has quite a bit of extra coin in his pocket after a rare find on the beach near his home in the southern English coastal town of Christchurch, New Zealand.

Eight-year old Charles Naysmith picked up an odd, lump of what he thought was an odd rock from the beach and brought it home, only to discover it was a piece of ambergris worth a pretty chuck of change, writes Jane Reader for the local paper Daily Echo.

Ambergris is formed in the intestinal tract of sperm whales and often vomited or secreted into the ocean as a waxy substance that can be used in perfume to prolong its scent. The sizable chunk that young Naysmith brought home weighs 600 grams and could be worth about $60,000.

Decades of floating and exposure to sun and salt have turned the substance into a smooth lump of compact rock with a waxy texture and a sweet smell. His father, Alex, said they have contacted authorities to help them with their find. “He is into nature and is really interested in it. We have discovered it is quite rare and are waiting for some more information from marine biology experts,” reported.

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