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Science News

Early arthropod had a fancy brain

Fossil of segmented animal preserves three-part central nervous system
The ancient arthropod Fuxianhuia protensa (nearly intact specimen shown) lived in the Cambrian period about 520 million years ago. The preserved brain tissue in one F. protensa fossil (inset) suggests arthropods evolved complex nervous systems early in their history.By Erin Wayman

Rusty red stains on the head of a fossilized segmented creature found in southwestern China are a paleontological record-breaker: They are the remains of the oldest arthropod brain ever found. The imprint of the 520-million-year-old critter’s three-part brain indicates that complex nervous systems evolved fairly early in animal evolution, among the ancestors of insects, centipedes and crustaceans.

The roughly 7-centimeter-long specimen includes the entire body of Fuxianhuia protensa. The species lived during the Cambrian period, before modern arthropod lineages evolved. The fossil shows F. protensa had a brain composed of three sections that sat in front of the animal’s gut. That’s the same setup seen today in insects, crabs, lobsters and many other arthropods, researchers report in the Oct. 11 Nature.

“It was very fascinating and very exciting,” says study coauthor Nicholas Strausfeld, a neuroscientist at the University of Arizona. “It suggests that the organization we see in the modern [arthropod] brains is very ancient.”

Depths hold clues to dearth of xenon in air

Gas doesn’t dissolve well in deep-Earth minerals
XenonBy Alexandra Witze

As detective stories go, the Mystery of the Missing Xenon may not have the catchiest title. But scientists in Germany say they might have cracked this long-standing enigma.

The reason there’s less xenon in Earth’s atmosphere than expected, the researchers say, is because there was never much xenon dissolved in the planet’s depths to begin with. Had there been, it would have made its way over billions of years toward the surface, there to spew into the atmosphere.

“This model is enough to explain the whole xenon deficiency,” says Svyatoslav Shcheka, a geochemist at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. He and Hans Keppler, also of Bayreuth, report the finding online October 10 in Nature.

Compared with meteorites that formed out of primordial solar system stuff, Earth and Mars have far less xenon in their atmospheres. Scientists have proposed many possible explanations, such as minerals that locked up xenon in the upper parts of Earth’s middle layer, the mantle.

Technology News

Could this take the $10 million Tricorder X Prize?

Tricorder X PrizePatrick Mannion

Graham Ewing’s demonstration of Virtual Scanning, his entry for the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize competition, had all the hallmarks of a “Mission Impossible” scene: a new, as yet untapped but all-seeing chromotherapy analysis technique; top-secret mathematical formulas, developed by an obscure Russian scientist named Igor; visa-avoiding meetings in Istanbul. Where was the candid camera?

I would have checked for that camera, perhaps hidden somewhere high on the DESIGN East conference ceiling or behind a curtain, but I was engrossed by Ewing’s demo. It took me a while to figure out how adjusting colors on a computer could help diagnose everything from diabetes to mental characteristics. Ewing didn’t want me to look at his mental state on the screen, so he asked me to focus on the biological portion.

That was OK; there was still a lot to digest. It’s odd to go to an electronics show and end up getting an advanced course in medical diagnostics, chromotherapy, organ-brain information transfer and processing, and the effects of various medical conditions on proteins. From there, I got a primer on how the light absorption and reflection of the characteristics of those affected proteins could be measured and then put through the aforementioned secret mathematical formulas to come up with a full physical and mental analysis. Heady stuff indeed, and intoxicatingly perplexing; I wanted to know more. So I persisted.

Netflix and deaf-rights group settle suit over video captions

A two-year class action lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act ended with the streaming service agreeing to put captions on 100 percent of its video library by 2014.
Netflixby Dara Kerr

Netflix and the National Association for the Deaf (NAD) have come to an agreement about captions for the company's streaming videos: 100 percent must be captioned by 2014.

The agreement comes by way of a class action lawsuit filed by NAD in 2010 that alleged the streaming service was "failing to provide adequate closed captioning on 'Watch Instantly' streaming video programming," and therefore was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

After back-and-forth between the lawyers -- and Netflix working to get the case thrown out -- the two sides finally settled this week.

"We have worked consistently to make the broadest possible selection of titles available to Netflix members who are deaf or hard of hearing and are far and away the industry leader in doing so," Netflix chief product officer Neil Hunt said in a statement. "We are pleased to have reached this agreement and hope it serves as a benchmark for other providers of streaming video entertainment."

Environmental News

Ecosystems Can Reduce Risks Caused By Natural Disasters

FloodingMico Tatalovic, Science and Development Network

More research is needed to understand how ecosystems can help reduce disaster risks around the world, according to a report launched in Brussels, Belgium, today.

The World Risk Report 2012 says that human development activities have "massively raised the hazard potential".

It cites the destruction of coral reefs and mangrove forests in South-East Asia — which has reduced protection against flooding and tidal waves — and increased deforestation, which has led to worsening soil erosion and the exacerbation of floods and landslides in Pakistan.

If future development is "poorly done", it will put even more vulnerable people at risk from disasters, the report warns.

But it also outlines an alternative scenario in which the conservation of ecosystems works hand in hand with sustainable development to link disaster risk reduction, environmental and socioeconomic goals.

Coal-Fired Australia, Buffeted by Climate Change, Enacts Carbon Tax

Coal moves by conveyer belt at Coppabella mine, about 470 miles (760 kilometers) northwest of Brisbane, Australia. With a new climate and energy law in place, Australia is seeking to lower its carbon emissions.Josie Garthwaite

Australia's enormous coal deposits long seemed like an unmitigated gift in an expansive land of sweltering summers. On the planet's driest inhabited continent, fossil fuel delivered cheap, reliable electricity through both extreme heat and torrential storms.

But drought, rampant wildfire in the outback, and the degradation of the treasured Great Barrier Reef have forever altered how Australia views its energy endowment. Facing a future as one of the places on Earth most vulnerable to climate change, and one of the nations with the world's highest per capita carbon emissions, Australia has taken steps to change its fate. (See interactive: "Four Ways to Look at Global Carbon Footprints")

This week the government issued its first ever carbon emissions permits, a milestone in implementation of a new climate and energy law that is expected to give Australia the world's most comprehensive carbon cap-and-trade system by 2015. (Related: "IEA Outlook: Time Running Out on Climate Change")

Medical News

Tomato compound might prevent some strokes

Men with higher levels of lycopene seem less vulnerable
TomatoBy Nathan Seppa

Men with high blood levels of lycopene — the compound that makes tomatoes red — are about half as likely to have a stroke as those low on lycopene, researchers in Finland report October 9 in Neurology.

Some evidence suggests that lycopene quells inflammation, limits cholesterol production and inhibits blood clotting. But first and foremost, lycopene is a carotenoid, an antioxidant that sops up unstable molecules in the body called free radicals —agents that can induce DNA damage, kill cells, attack proteins and contribute to blood vessel disease.

Lycopene’s direct effect on stroke risk is less clear. Studies have found that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, meaning plenty of carotenoids, seems to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. But few studies have analyzed lycopene’s effect specifically on stroke risk over time, the researchers note.

Jouni Karppi and colleagues at the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio used blood tests to determine the lycopene levels of 1,031 men ages 46 to 65. Afterward, the men were monitored for a median of 12 years. The researchers tallied 67 strokes in the men over that span. Men with the lowest lycopene levels at the outset were more than twice as likely to have a stroke later as were those with the highest.

Cancer cells executed by magnet

Metal nanoparticles trigger cell's own death machinery
Electron microscopic image of a single human lymphocyteBy Rachel Ehrenberg

Evil geniuses, commence drooling. Scientists have figured out how to remotely control a cell’s self-destruction. Magnets that guide the behavior of tiny metal beads can be used to flip on a cell’s death switch, kick-starting the cell’s demolition. The approach might one day be used to kill cancer cells or orchestrate other cellular events without drugs or incisions.

In the past, scientists have explored killing cancer using tiny iron-containing nanoparticles that latch onto malignant cells and heat up when exposed to a magnetic field. In the new work, a bit of protein guides each nanoparticle to death receptor 4, an aptly named handle on the outside of a cell that acts as a molecular doomsday switch. Exposing the cells to a magnetic field makes the nanoparticles clump together. This clumping pulls together the three molecular prongs that make up the switch, activating it and triggering a process that leads to the cell’s demise.

The scientists from Yonsei University in South Korea tried the approach with a dish of colon cancer cells. Within 24 hours, more than half of the cells exposed to the magnetic field were dead, the team reports online October 7 in Nature Materials.

Space News

Scientists probe fresh Martian meteorite

Rock holds clues to Red Planet’s atmosphere and surface conditions
This 1.1-kilogram chunk of the Tissint Martian meteorite shows distinct charring from Earth’s atmosphere and pockets of black glass that contain trapped gas from Mars.By Tanya Lewis

A meteorite that streaked to Earth in a blazing fireball over the Moroccan desert is one of the freshest samples of the Red Planet’s surface and atmosphere that scientists have ever seen.

Desert nomads recovered fragments of the Tissint meteorite, one of just five from Mars that have been seen during their descent, after it landed early in the morning of July 18, 2011. The space rock resembles a meteorite found in Antarctica in 1980 that was the first to show strong evidence of its Martian origin. But unlike other Martian meteorites that have sat on Earth’s surface for tens or hundreds of years before being discovered, Tissint hasn’t had much time to be altered by terrestrial influences.

“It’s really a great sample if you’re interested in studying something that has more or less been delivered straight from Mars, uncontaminated, to the Earth,” says planetary scientist Carl Agee of the University of New Mexico.

Other scientists agree but don’t rule out contamination entirely. “It sat around the desert for months,” says planetary scientist Harry McSween Jr. of the University of Tennessee, and the meteorite probably wasn’t collected under sterile conditions. “Nevertheless, it’s an interesting sample, in that it is probably less altered than others we have that weren’t collected immediately.”

Solar blobs collide with a bounce

Sun ejections boosted by interaction
CMEBy Tanya Lewis

A pair of giant gassy plumes recently ejected by the sun ricocheted off each other like bouncy balls, changing solar physicists’ ideas about how these eruptions of charged particles and magnetic fields can behave.

Captured on camera by NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory probes in November 2008, the two balls of charged gas smashed together and rebounded with more energy of motion than they had initially, scientists report online October 7 in Nature Physics. The phenomenon is known as a superelastic collision.

“Such a phenomenon is not frequently observed in nature,” says study coauthor Yuming Wang, a physicist at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei. Scientists have observed it on the scale of small particles, but not with massive balls of charged gas. The finding was “very surprising,” Wang says.

These massive solar eruptions, known as coronal mass ejections, possess an amount of energy on the order of a billion atomic bombs, Wang says. Understanding how the eruptions interact is critical for predicting space weather, conditions that affect communications satellites and spacecraft.

Odd News

Between Facebook and Sex, Facebook Wins

Photo: Trois Tetes (TT)/FlickrSarah Mitroff

You do it in the morning in bed, at night on the couch, and occasionally at work. Turns out, it’s one of the hardest activities to resist. It’s not smoking a cigarette or having sex; it’s getting online to check your Facebook or e-mail. A new study shows that resisting the urges to update your status or send a tweet can be harder to resist than the desire to get it on.

Wilhelm Hofmann, assistant professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago, conducted a study of 205 participants in Germany 18 years and older on how easy it is to resist common desires. Each person was given a BlackBerry phone and told to alert the researchers every 30 minutes if they had specific desires to sleep, eat, have sex, smoke, drink, or surf the web.

The No. 1 desire reported was eating, followed by sleeping, and drinking non-alcoholic drinks. In fourth place was using some form of media, which made up 8.1 percent of all desires reported. The most commonly reported media activities were watching TV and surfing the internet. More specifically, in the “surfing the internet” category, 71 percent of participants had the urge to check their e-mail and 65 percent had the desire to use Facebook, Twitter or other social media. Having was sex a distant ninth.

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