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Science News

Shoulder fossil may put Lucy's kind up a tree

Contested analysis portrays ancient hominid as frequent climber
The right shoulder blade from a 3.3-million-year-old fossil child provides evidence that members of an ancient hominid species regularly scaled trees as well as walked across the landscape.By Bruce Bower

The ancient hominid known as Lucy is getting shouldered into the trees by a recently uncovered fossil child. But scientific onlookers disagree about whether Lucy’s long-extinct species mixed tree climbing with walking.

Apelike shoulder blades from the ancient skeleton of a roughly 3-year-old girl that belonged to Australopithecus afarensis — the same species as Lucy, a famous 3.2-million-year-old partial female skeleton found in 1974 — suggest that these early members of the human evolutionary family split time between scrambling up trees and walking on the ground, say paleobiologist David Green of Midwestern University in Downers Grove, Ill., and anthropologist Zeresenay Alemseged of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

Scientists have argued for more than 30 years about whether A. afarensis was built mainly for walking or possessed physical attributes suitable for ascending trees as well. Shoulder blades of a fossil child discovered in 2000 in Dikika, Ethiopia, indicate that Lucy’s crew could indeed scale trees beginning early in life, Green and Alemseged report in the Oct. 26 Science.

Human blood types have deep evolutionary roots

ABO system may date back 20 million years or more
By Rachel Ehrenberg

Chimps, gibbons and other primates are not just humans’ evolutionary cousins; a new analysis suggests they are also our blood brothers. The A, B and O blood types in people evolved at least 20 million years ago in a common ancestor of humans and other primates, new research suggests.

The analysis deepens a mystery surrounding the evolutionary history of the ABO blood system, and should prompt further research into why the different blood groups have persisted over time, Laure Ségurel of the University of Chicago and colleagues report online October 22 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Their evidence is rather convincing that this is a shared, very old capability that has remained throughout the divergence of the species,” says doctor and transfusion specialist Martin Olsson of Lund University in Sweden.

Different forms of a single blood type gene determine what types of molecules sit on your red blood cells: type A molecules, type B molecules, A and B together, or no intact surface molecules in the case of type O (O was originally called type C, then was changed to O for the German “ohne,” meaning “without”).

A clearer picture of how assassin bugs evolved

W. S. Hwang, Weinrauch Lab, UC Riverside.Paleontology & Archaeology

Assassin bugs, so named because these insects lie in ambush for prey that they attack with speed and precision, are found all over the world. Nearly 140 species of these bugs are blood-sucking; because they can bite humans around the mouth, they are also called kissing bugs. All kissing bugs can spread Chagas disease, a neglected tropical disease that imposes an economic burden on society. Surprising, then, that scientists' understanding of the evolutionary history of assassin bugs is riddled with difficulty. The data are incomplete. Fossils, which exist for only a few groups of assassin bugs, are young, providing only patchy information on how these bugs evolved.

Now entomologists at the University of California, Riverside have produced a clearer snapshot of the entire evolutionary history of assassin bugs by integrating molecular, paleontological, behavioral and ecological data into their analyses. The result of their painstaking work is a new phylogeny -- the representation of the evolutionary relationships between species -- for assassin bugs. It includes the most number of assassin bugs to date and represents the most number of subfamilies.

Easter Island Statues Could Have 'Walked'

Easter Island statuesRossella Lorenzi

The giant stone statues in Polynesia's Easter Island may have just been "walked" out of quarry, according to a controversial new theory on how the monolithic human figures were transported to every corner of the island.

In a piece of experimental archaeology, a team of local and U.S. researchers showed that the massive statues, known as moai, can be moved from side to side by a small number of people, just as one might move a fridge.

"We constructed a precise three-dimensional 4.35 metric ton replica of an actual statue and demonstrated how positioning the center of mass allowed it to fall forward and rock from side to side causing it to 'walk,'" Carl Lipo, an archaeologist at California State University, Long Beach, and colleagues wrote in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Nearly 1,000 huge statues stand on the remote Rapa Nui, the indigenous name of Easter Island. With sizes ranging from about 6 to 33 feet in height, the rock effiges feature human-like figures ending at the top of the thighs with large heads, long ears and pursed lips.

Technology News

Engineer Solves Glass Slipper Dilemma

Glass slipperSylvie Barak, West Coast Online Reporter, EETimes

Once upon a time, there lived a mechanical engineer who pondered a question that has bothered intelligent, curious children for years.

Namely, what qualities would the glass in Cinderella's slippers need to have in order for her to walk and dance comfortably, and hold her weight?

Yes, that was a question answered by one Antariksh Bothale, a BTech and MTech in Mechanical Engineering, on question and answer site Quora this week. "It is delightful to have my masters degree in Mechanical Engineering put to use in resolving age-old engineering problems," wrote Bothale, before giving a thorough mathematical breakdown of the problem.

The question made me smile because it's one I used to ask my parents all the time. After all... the risks seemed huge! What if the glass broke and sliced through her foot? It seemed like such a ridiculous choice of footwear. "They were magic glass slippers," my mother used to say, exasperated by my relentless story hole poking. But that just didn't cut it for me. Bothale's answer, however, does.

"Whenever we design something that needs to bear force, we test for various possible modes of failure and try to ensure that our object is strong against all of them," he writes, before undertaking an analysis of the compressive stress on the slippers arising from Cinderella's weight, which he estimates at around 50kgs.

Watch this DARPA robot climb, leap, and walk past obstacles

A video from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency shows a highly agile robot capable of navigating some serious obstructions.
Jump jive an' wail Christopher MacManus

Prepare to witness a tantalizing glimpse at our future robot overlords.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency yesterday released a stunning video showing how an autonomous robot can navigate and jump over obstacles with great ease.

In the clip, the Pet-Proto robot -- a predecessor to DARPA's Atlas robot -- traverses a simulated hallway containing a very tall step and a thin walkway. Pet-Proto easily uses its strong arms to balance itself as it climbs a step, then perfectly leaps down with a thud. The highly agile walker stretches its legs to continue its journey along the thin edges of a gutted hallway floor.

The video demonstrates some of the challenges that DARPA Robotics Challenge entrants may face in the two-year event that kicked off yesterday. The goal of the competition is for teams to develop the best robot hardware and software that can traverse dangerous environments and aid humans in disaster response scenarios.

Those interested in joining a portion of the challenge may participate by signing up at the related Web site, which also offers an open-source robotics simulator provides "models of robots, perception sensors and field environments, and functions as a cloud-based, real-time, operator-interactive virtual test bed that uses physics-based models of inertia, actuation, contact and environment dynamics."

The Decades That Invented the Future, Part 2: 1911-1920

Today's leading-edge technology is headed straight for tomorrow's junk pile, but that doesn't make it any less awesome. Everyone loves the latest and greatest.

Sometimes, though, something truly revolutionary cuts through the clutter and fundamentally changes the game. And with that in mind, Wired is looking back over 12 decades to highlight the 12 most innovative people, places and things of their day. From the first transatlantic radio transmissions to cellphones, from vacuum tubes to microprocessors, we'll run down the most important advancements in technology, science, sports and more.

This week's installment takes us back to 1911-1920, when machine guns on planes were synchronized with their propellers, the Model-T came off the first assembly line and the Panama Canal was completed.

We don't expect you to agree with all of our picks, or even some of them. That's fine. Tell us what you think we've missed and we'll publish your list later.

1918: The Flip-Flop Circuit (Enterprise)

Between 1911 and 1920, Alan Turing was born, one of the founding fathers of the computer age. G. N. Lewis also started work on the lithium battery, and a British Admiral became the first person in recorded history to use an essential part of the modern internet lexicon: “OMG!” But as far as the history of computing goes, the most important development of the second decade of the Twentieth Century is the flip-flop.

iFixit Tears Down the 13-Inch MacBook Pro With Retina Display

Inside the 13-inch Retina Display MacBook Pro. Image: iFixitBy Christina BonningtonEmail

Apple released the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display on Tuesday, and in true iFixit fashion, the slim notebook has now been dissected to reveal what makes it tick and what it would take to repair one.

The good news is that the new 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display is slightly more repairable than the 15-inch version. Apple’s latest MacBook Pro gets a 2 out of 10 repairability rating, versus the 1 that the 15-inch model scored.

Its battery, for example, while still glued to the top of the case, is easier to remove, taking only 15 minutes and not requiring a heat gun. The trackpad is also replaceable, a process that involves just five screws. Interestingly, the trackpad in both the 13-inch and 15-inch models include flash memory. iFixit doesn’t know the reason, but perhaps future OSX updates could reveal its purpose.

Of course, because of the MacBook Pro’s slim frame, other areas aren’t as easy to fix should something need to be replaced down the line. The compact display assembly is “almost impossible to take apart,” iFixit says, since the display is fused directly to the glass.

Environmental News

Gulf Stream might be releasing seafloor methane

Greenhouse gas may be flowing into ocean waters off U.S. east coast
Methane hydrates in ocean sediment, like this one found off the coast of Oregon at a depth of about 1200 meters, could release a greenhouse gas as ocean waters heat up.By Tanya Lewis

While it’s no ice-nine, a frozen form of methane trapped in ocean sediments could be cause for concern. Warm Gulf Stream waters off the east coast of North America are converting large amounts of the substance into methane gas, which could lead to underwater landslides and influence global climate.

A good portion of the biological carbon on Earth is stored in the seafloor as methane hydrate, a frozen mixture of methane and water formed at high pressure and low temperature. Changes in the temperature or direction of the Gulf Stream, which carries warm water north from the Gulf of Mexico, have heated sediments in a strip along the North Atlantic seafloor by 8 degrees Celsius, unlocking 2.5 billion metric tons of methane from deep-sea caches, scientists report in the Oct. 25 Nature.

This is the first study to suggest that methane hydrate melting is related to ocean currents themselves, says study coauthor Benjamin Phrampus, an Earth scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Previous studies suggested that the global ocean temperature would have to increase to cause hydrate breakdown, which would take a very huge input of energy, he says. “We don’t need this large amount of energy to explain this. It’s simply a change in the ocean currents.”

Spanish quake linked to groundwater pumping

Draining aquifers probably triggered deadly 2011 tremor
groundwater pumpingBy Alexandra Witze

Farmers and other residents pumping groundwater from Earth’s crust probably triggered an earthquake that killed nine people last year in southeastern Spain, scientists have found.

Sucking up water for decades would have unloaded stresses within the ground and hastened a quake that was likely to happen anyway, says Pablo González, a geologist at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada.

“Even without the groundwater extraction, the earthquake was overdue,” he says. But human activities provided “a kind of triggering or controlling.”

González and his colleagues report the discovery online October 21 in Nature Geoscience.

Scientists know that people can change the rate of earthquakes by piling up water within the crust, such as behind a dam. Some researchers argue — though it is not entirely accepted — that filling a nearby reservoir may have set off the magnitude 7.9 quake that killed some 80,000 people in Sichuan, China, in 2008. Injecting water into the crust, such as during hydraulic fracturing or other drilling, can also trigger quakes; geothermal drilling operations in Basel, Switzerland, set off a small earthquake there in 2006.

"Lethally Hot" Earth Was Devoid of Life—Could It Happen Again?

Fossil clues show "just how bad the world could get."
The Permian extinction killed off some 90 percent of species, including these goniatite mollusks.Christine Dell'Amore

Extinctions during the early Triassic period left Earth a virtual wasteland, largely because life literally couldn't take the heat, a new study suggests.

Between 247 to 252 million years ago, Earth was reeling from a mass extinction called the end-Permian event. The die-off had wiped out most life on Earth, including most land plants. The planet was baking, and life at the Equator struggled to survive.

Plants gobble up carbon dioxide, which warms the planet. So without them, Earth became "like a runaway greenhouse—it [started] to get out of control," said study co-author Paul Wignall, a paleontologist at England's Leeds University.

The few life-forms that had survived the Permian extinction—such as hardier snails and clams—died in the deadly heat, leaving Earth a virtual "dead zone" for five million years, said Wignall.

Northernmost Lake Resurrected Due to Warming

Algae in Greenland lake bouncing back after deep freeze, study finds.
Algae were once abundant in the lake Kaffeklubben So, seen in a recent picture.National Geographic News

The world's northernmost lake, situated near the coast of Greenland (map), is coming back to life.

Populations of microscopic algae, called diatoms, have been absent from the lake Kaffeklubben Sø for over 2,000 years. But a new study has found that the diatoms are returning, thanks to global warming.

"It's a pure climate change story," said study co-author Bianca Perren, a paleoecologist at the University of Franche-Comté in Besançon, France, who specializes in Arctic environmental change (see pictures).

Diatoms were once abundant in Kaffeklubben Sø, which was formed about 3,500 years ago after glacial retreats created numerous small lakes on the coastal plain.

As surrounding temperatures cooled, diatom populations decreased until they vanished some 2,400 years ago, Perren explained.

"Until about 1920, [the lake] was basically in a deep freeze," she said.

Medical News

Same neurons at work in sleep and under anesthesia

Drugs boost activity in nerve cells that usually induce a slumber
neuronBy Laura Sanders

Anesthesiologists aren’t totally lying when they say they’re going to put you to sleep. Some anesthetics directly tap into sleep-promoting neurons in the brain, a study in mice reveals.

The results may help clarify how drugs that have been used around the world for decades actually put someone under. “It’s kind of shocking that after 170 years, we still don’t understand why they work,” says study coauthor Max Kelz of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Most neurons in the brain appear to be calmed by anesthetics, says neuropharmacologist and anesthesiologist Hugh Hemmings Jr. of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. But the new results, published online October 25 in Current Biology, show that two common anesthetics actually stimulate sleep-inducing neurons. “It’s unusual for neurons to be excited by anesthetics,” Hemmings says.

In the study, Kelz, Jason Moore, also of the University of Pennsylvania, and colleagues studied the effects of the anesthetics isoflurane and halothane. Mice given the drugs soon became sleepy, as expected. Along with this drowsiness came a jump in nerve cell activity in a part of the brain’s hypothalamus called the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus, or VLPO.

Aspirin has selective benefit in colorectal cancer

Patients with gene mutation appear to gain advantage from drug
AspirinBy Nathan Seppa

The mystery of why aspirin helps some colorectal cancer patients but not others may be partially solved. A new study finds that the drug seems to extend survival in patients whose tumors harbor a specific genetic mutation, while patients lacking the mutation get no survival advantage from regularly taking the pills.

The study, in the Oct. 25 New England Journal of Medicine, may lead to standardized testing of colorectal cancer patients for the mutation, in a gene called PIK3CA, to see who would benefit from aspirin use.

“We may be witnessing a game changer,” says Boris Pasche, an oncologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who wasn’t part of the study team. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see labs beginning to test for this mutation quickly.”

The study will need to be validated in a randomized clinical trial before a PIK3CA test becomes part of treatment guidelines, Pasche says. Roughly 15 to 20 percent of patients with colorectal cancer have the mutation.

Researchers analyzed data from 964 colorectal cancer patients, taking note of patients’ mutation status and aspirin use after being diagnosed with the disease.  Among those with the PIK3CA mutation, taking the drug dramatically increased survival over those not taking it. Over more than a decade of follow-up time, only three of 66 patients, or 4.5 percent, harboring the mutation who took aspirin died of colorectal cancer causes, compared with 26 of 95, or 27 percent, with the mutation who weren’t taking aspirin.

Pigs look healthy but test positive for flu at fairs; transmission seen between pigs and humans

PigsHealth & Medicine

More than 80 percent of pigs that tested positive for influenza A virus at Ohio county fairs between 2009 and 2011 showed no signs of illness, according to a new study. Ohio State University researchers tested 20 pigs each at 53 fair events over those three summers and found at least one flu-positive pig at 12 fairs -- almost a quarter of fairs tested.

The influenza strains identified in pigs in this study include H1N2 and H3N2 viruses -- strains that have been circulating in pigs since 1998. In 2011, all of the H3N2 and H1N2 isolates found in pigs at the fairs contained a gene from the 2009 pandemic strain of H1N1, which is similar to the H3N2v strain causing human illness this year.

Though this finding alone is no cause for panic, it does show how quickly influenza viruses can change, said Andrew Bowman, lead author of the study and a Ph.D. candidate in veterinary preventive medicine at Ohio State.

In a second study led by Bowman, researchers compared the genomic sequences of influenza A viruses recovered in July 2012 from pigs and people. The analysis, showing a greater than 99 percent genetic similarity among the viruses, confirms that pigs and humans were infected with the same virus, indicating interspecies transmission.

Nearly 80 million Americans won't need vitamin D supplements under new guidelines

vitamin DHealth & Medicine

Nearly 80 million Americans would no longer need to take vitamin D supplements under new Institute of Medicine guidelines, according to a study by Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine researchers. Results were published Oct. 24, 2012 in the journal PLOS ONE.

The new guidelines advise that almost all people get sufficient vitamin D when their blood levels are at or above 20 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml). Older guidelines said people needed vitamin D levels above 30 ng/ml.

Holly Kramer, MD, MPH and colleagues examined data from 15,099 non-institutionalized adults who participated in the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Study (NHANES III). The sample included 1,097 adults who had chronic kidney disease, which has been linked to low vitamin D levels.

In the survey population, 70.5 percent of adults with healthy kidneys had vitamin D blood levels that would be considered insufficient under the older guidelines. But under the newer Institute of Medicine guidelines, only 30.3 percent of these adults had insufficient vitamin D levels.

Space News

Violent birth proposed for Saturn’s moon mishmash

Simulation suggests collisions created Titan and smaller satellites
Saturn's varied moons-including Titan (background), Dione (center) and Pandora (right) may have resulted from violent collisions in the early Saturnian system.By Nadia Drake

Saturn’s skies sparkle with the faces of its many moons — some frosted and bright, others darker, honeycombed, or hiding beneath haze. How nature built these worlds from the same set of materials is a conundrum that has eluded scientists for years.

Now, a team suggests that violence early in the solar system’s history produced the many strange moons that rise over Saturn’s ringed horizons.

Giant collisions between an extinct population of much larger Saturnian moons could have ultimately produced Titan — the largest of Saturn’s satellites — and spat out a half-dozen midsize moons, says planetary scientist Erik Asphaug of the University of California, Santa Cruz. He presented the theory October 19 at the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences meeting in Reno, Nev.

“Explaining this diverse grab bag of satellites that presumably had a common origin around Saturn is very challenging,” Asphaug says. ”Collisions are a great way of explaining heterogeneity in the system.”

NASA spacecraft sees huge burp at Saturn after large storm

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science InstituteAstronomy & Space

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has tracked the aftermath of a rare massive storm on Saturn. Data reveal record-setting disturbances in the planet's upper atmosphere long after the visible signs of the storm abated, in addition to an indication the storm was more forceful than scientists previously thought. Data from Cassini's composite infrared spectrometer (CIRS) instrument revealed the storm's powerful discharge sent the temperature in Saturn's stratosphere soaring 150 degrees Fahrenheit (83 kelvins) above normal. At the same time, researchers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., detected a huge increase in the amount of ethylene gas, the origin of which is a mystery. Ethylene, an odorless, colorless gas, isn't typically observed on Saturn. On Earth, it is created by natural and human-made sources.

Goddard scientists describe the unprecedented belch of energy in a paper to be published in the Nov. 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

"This temperature spike is so extreme it's almost unbelievable, especially in this part of Saturn's atmosphere, which typically is very stable," said Brigette Hesman, the study's lead author and a University of Maryland scientist who works at Goddard. "To get a temperature change of the same scale on Earth, you'd be going from the depths of winter in Fairbanks, Alaska, to the height of summer in the Mojave Desert."

Why astronauts experience low blood pressure after returning to Earth from space

astronautsBiology & Nature

When astronauts return to Earth, their altitude isn't the only thing that drops -- their blood pressure does too. This condition, known as orthostatic hypotension, occurs in up to half of those astronauts on short-term missions (two weeks or less) and in nearly all astronauts after long-term missions (four to six months). A new research report published online in The FASEB Journal solves the biological mystery of how this happens by showing that low gravity compromises the ability of arteries and veins to constrict normally, inhibiting the proper flow of blood. Prevention and treatment strategies developed for astronauts may also hold promise for elderly populations on Earth who experience orthostatic hypotension more than any other age group.

"The idea of space exploration has been tantalizing the imagination of humans since our early existence. As a scientist, I have had the opportunity to learn that there are many medical challenges associated with travel in a weightless environment, such as orthostatic hypotension, bone loss and the recently recognized visual impairment that occurs in astronauts," said Michael D. Delp, Ph.D., a researcher involved in the work from the Department of Applied Physiology and Kinesiology, and the Center for Exercise Science at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. "Although I have come to realize that it is unlikely I will ever get to fulfill my childhood dream of flying in space, I take great satisfaction with helping in the discovery of how microgravity alters the human body and how we can minimize these effects, so humans can safely explore the bounds of our universe."

Soyuz with astronauts docks with space station

In this photo provided by NASA, members of the media photograph the Russian Soyuz rocket as it launches with Expedition 33/34 crew members, Soyuz Commander Oleg Novitskiy, Flight Engineer Kevin Ford of NASA, and Flight Engineer Evgeny Tarelkin of ROSCOSMOS to the International Space Station on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012, in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Ford, Novitskiy and Tarelkin will be on a five-month mission aboard the International Space Station. (AP Photo/NASA,Bill Ingalls)By PETER LEONARD

ALMATY, Kazakhstan (AP) — A Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying three astronauts and a consignment of fish successfully docked Thursday with the International Space Station after a two-day voyage.

The arrival of NASA astronaut Kevin Ford and Russians Oleg Novitsky and Yevgeny Tarelkin on Thursday brings the crew at the orbiting outpost to six.

Novitsky gently slotted the Soyuz craft into the Russian Poisk research module around 410 kilometers (255 miles) above southern Ukraine around six minutes ahead of the scheduled 1235 GMT (8:35 a.m. EDT) arrival.

The trio blasted off Tuesday from a Russian-leased facility in the southern Kazakhstan town of Baikonur.

Incoming cargo includes 32 guppy-like fish that will be used to test how conditions in space impact on living organisms.

Akihiko Hoshide, an astronaut with Japan’s JAXA space agency, spent early Thursday morning preparing an aquarium on the Japanese experiment module called ‘‘Kibo,’’ or Hope.

Odd News

Study shows whites twice as likely as blacks to get CPR from bystanders

Health & Medicine
CPRHealth & Medicine

In the first study of its kind, researchers have found that those who suffer cardiac arrests in upper income, white neighborhoods are nearly twice as likely to get cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) than people who collapse in low-income, black neighborhoods. "If you drop in a neighborhood that is 80 percent white with a median income over $40,000 a year, you have a 55 percent chance of getting CPR," said study author Comilla Sasson, MD, an emergency room physician at the University of Colorado Hospital. "If you drop in a poor, black neighborhood you have a 35 percent chance. Life or death can literally be determined by what side of the street you drop on."

The study was published October 24 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Sasson, an assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, analyzed data from 14,225 patients who suffered cardiac arrests in 29 cities from 2005-2009. She and her colleagues used census data to determine which neighborhood the event took place in, its racial make-up and median household income. Low-income was considered at or below $40,000 a year.

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