Category Archives: Science

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Catch The Live Stream For The Mars Rover Landing On 5th August Here!

The Olympics are all set to lose the gaze of the world as the Mars Rover lands on Mars on the 5th of August, 2012. As we have already said, the Mars Rover’s landing might not be directly viewable by NASA, but we do hope that the landing goes well.

To Mars,
From Earth,
With Love.
(Image courtesy: NASA/JPL)

Now, the question of where you can see the Mars Rover, Curiosity, in action comes in. Catch the historic landing right here!

Broadcasts

There will be two main broadcasts streamed online. They will be at these times:

  1. 11:30 PM on 5th August to 2:00 AM on 6th August EST
  2. 3:30 AM to 4:00 AM on 6th August, after Curiosity has landed. This will feature the first images.

Live Streaming Channels

This will have commentary and interviews alongwith the feed.

This channel will have the mission feed, clean and uninterrupted. It will also have the mission audio. Basically you’ll be experiencing what the Curiosity engineers monitoring Curiosity just after landing are experiencing. If that is not cool, I don’t know what is!

Other thank this, you can definitely visit these pages:

www.nasa.gov.in/mars 

www.nasa.gov.in/msl

Also, you can follow the event on Twitter. The Twitter handle is @marscuriosity

Know about the top 10 features of the Mars Rover Curiosity: http://techie-buzz.com/science/ten-coolest-things-curiosity.html

Curiosity lands in Gale Crater, one of the deepest craters on Mars. The search for water and possibly life begins here! It begins on Sunday.

Join us then!

A Study In Black: Indian And North American Power Outages Compared

An unprecedented day in Indian history has left a lot of questions in its lurch. Arguably the biggest ever power outage in Indian history has taken place today, and at its peak it had left more than half of India powerless. At a time, as many as 19 out of 26 states reported to be without power, but that situation improved quickly. Even then, it wasn’t quick enough to save face and the Indian government has a lot of political questions to answer. We attempt to answer the other question that the public are asking: Why this massive failure?

With train services severely hit, people were forced onto the streets. Then, with hardly any traffic lights operating and communications seriously affected, large traffic jams became the norm for the day. Showing central New Delhi.
(Photo courtey: Deccan Chronicle)

What happened in India: a summary

It is futile to simply hypothesize the root cause of the trip, but it is clear that over draw of power from the Northern Grid was responsible for the initial failure of the grid. In fact, the Northern Grid had already fallen once yesterday, but was shoddily restored.

Unfortunately, it was drawing too much power from the Eastern Grid while operating at less than full capacity and the Eastern Grid fell too. With two massive power grids out of commission, even large parts of the National Capital were left without electricity. The corridors of power fell dark and, pun intended, powerless!

The official reason for the outage isn’t known. The details might take months to unravel. The truth might be as tangled up as the wires that might have caused this disaster. Instead of foraging for the truth, let us take a look at a couple of other famous power outages, both in North America, and also take a look at what caused them.

Case Study 1: Quebec, 1989

In 1989, a huge solar storm hit North America and specifically knocked out Quebec’s power supply. With Hydro-Quebec out of operation, the load fell on James Bay. With five lines tripping one after the other on James Bay, the load on the station grew to 21,350 MW, way higher than what it could possibly handle. The station blew within seconds, putting a lot more load on whatever system was still feeding Quebec power.

Those systems tripped soon after. The whole James Bay area grid had fallen within a minute!

Info from: http://www.ips.gov.au/Educational/1/3/12

Why do grids trip in a cascading fashion?

And that is exactly the trend that large electricity grids follow! Electricity grids are important because electricity, once produced, cannot be stored. Electrical power is immediately consumed and it is critically essential that demand and supply are just equal. Now, consider a huge transmission network carrying power from one substation to a few nearby sub-substations for efficient distributions.

It is important that the sub-substations accept whatever power is being fed to them. Now, say that there is a surge in one of these sub-substation lines, due to either a solar storm or a short circuit. Now, this excess current flow will trip off necessary safety devices, called relays, which will immediately try to regulate the current in the line. That relay might trip if the current is too high and then the excess power being fed to the sub-substation will divert to other sub-substations. These lines will then overload, causing a similar effect of trip and transfer. In fact, the more the system trips, the more the transfer of power, which gives a nasty positive feedback. This runaway or a cascade process leads to the collapse of all connected substations, essentially blacking out a complete grid.

Lesson: In case of a power surge, the grid drops like a series of dominos.

Wait there is more!

Case study 2: Northeast America and Ontario, 2003

In August, 2003, large parts of the Northeastern and Midwestern parts of America and Ontario, Canada faced a large power shortage.

NOAA satellite shows the power situation before and during the blackout. (Source: Wikimedia commons)

The reason was the failing of a generating plant in Eastlake, Ohio. As the plant went out of operation, the high electrical power demand immediately started sucking power out of the connected lines like leeches. This drainage of excess power caused the transmission lines to overheat (more the current flowing, the more is the heat produced). The overheating caused the wires to sag and it caught some really tall trees, which caused a short circuit. The excess power on this line again caused the familiar cascading failure and the whole grid went bust!

Power was restored to all parts within 20 hours. Most parts regained power within four!

Meanwhile back in India…

It is very safe to bet that something like this has happened in the Indian scenario. The northern states of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh were supposedly drawing too much power – much more than what they were entitled to. The reason that this collapse didn’t take place for so long is that the lines could handle much more than what their ratings say. This time something tripped and a spark fell on the tinderbox.

Extraordinary Human Sculpture Found in Turkey

Archaeologists from the University of Toronto have made an extraordinary find at the Tayinat Archaeological Project (TAP) on the Amuq Plain in southeastern Turkey.

Suppiluliuma
Suppiluliuma Sculpture, Likely King of Pitina (Courtesy Jennifer Jackson)

Described as a “beautiful and colossal” sculpture, it dates back to the Neo-Hittite Kingdom of Pitina, circa 1000-738 BC. The sculpture from the waist up is about 1.5meters tall and is ornately decorated with curly hair and a beard.

“These newly discovered Tayinat sculptures are the product of a vibrant local Neo-Hittite sculptural tradition,” said Professor Tim Harrison, the Tayinat Project director and professor of Near Eastern Archaeology in the University of Toronto’s Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations. “They provide a vivid glimpse into the innovative character and sophistication of the Iron Age cultures that emerged in the eastern Mediterranean following the collapse of the great imperial powers of the Bronze Age at the end of the second millennium BC.”

The archaeologists believe that this sculpture and an accompanying ornately decorated base were part of a gate complex marking the territory of the king. They were found buried together under rock pavement of a road leading to the upper citadel of the royal city. It is believe that the gate conquest was destroyed following the Assyrian conquest of the region in 738 BC.

Isaiah 10:9-10 actually makes reference to a “Kingdom of Idols” and asks, “Has not Calno fared like Carchemish?” Many scholars believe that Calno referred to in the Bible is the kingdom of Kunulua or Tayanat. The destruction of these monuments by the Assyrians may be what the biblical oracle is referring to.

For more information about the TAP site, visit http://www.utoronto.ca/tap/index.html.

Have Excellent Autobiographical Memory? Your Brain is Differently Wired.

Do you remember what happened on the 6th June, 1999? Or 19 September 2000? Well, if you can effortlessly reel off the answers, and in general recollect events in your life with remarkable accuracy, you don’t just have good memory—you’d be pleased to know that you have what is called “Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory”.

This is a newly described ability of individuals to recall events from their personal past, including the days and dates of occurrence, with high accuracy. People with strong memories don’t necessarily have HSAM. They use certain mnemonics and strategies to perfect the art of memory, and this often doesn’t extend to autobiographical memories. In a case of one of the most famous mnemonists, the patient described living his life “in a haze”. Conversely, intense rehearsal of memories does not seem to be the primary means by which people with HSAM store their rich repertoire of memories.

Having excellent autobiographical memory could be a result of your brain being structured differently. [Image Credit: flickr.com/digitalshotgun]
Having excellent autobiographical memory could be a result of your brain being structured differently. [Image Credit: flickr.com/digitalshotgun]

How Are they “Highly Superior”?

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine tried to see if this difference between high autobiographical memory and good memory was also reflected in the way these are stored in the brain. They recruited people who claimed to have extremely good autobiographical memories and performed routine memorization tests on them. They identified 11 people who had vastly superior abilities to remember events in their past. However, these people performed no better than normal individuals on these tests. Yet when it came to public or private events that occurred after age 10½, “they were remarkably better at recalling the details of their lives,” said McGaugh, senior author on the new work.

They found that HSAM participants also had obsessive tendencies, though it remains unclear if the two are linked, and if so, how. Furthermore, they found that the brains of these participants were anatomically different from the brains of normal participants in 9 structures. Using MRI, some of these regions are shown to be active while autobiographical memories are being recalled.

Cause or Effect?

It must be noted, however, that these structural differences could either be a cause of HSAM or an effect. Our brains are remarkably plastic and embody the saying ‘we are what we do’. The wiring of our brains is subject to change upon repeated patterns of activity. Thus, the difference in certain brain regions of people with HSAM could simply arise as a result of different thought patterns in these people. Either way, this research does give us more information about the intricate workings of the brain and how it resolves the details of the world we live in.

You can read about this work here. It was published in the journal Neuroscience.

 

Deadly Ebola Virus Outbreak Confirmed in Uganda; 14 Dead Till Now

It is mysterious, it kills quickly and it spreads fear and panic. Western Uganda is seeing an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus, reporting at least 14 dead till yesterday. The deadly virus is seemingly making a comeback to the African country and it has taken doctors quite a while to pin it down going by the symptoms induced in the patients. This is bad news, since this suggests that the recent attack is due to some new strain, unknown or non-existent till now. This means that no medical record or research exists on this particular strain.

Small strips of death – the Ebola virus (courtesy: BBC News)

The center of the outbreak

The Kibaale district, lying in the center of western Uganda, has been center of the outbreak with people suffering from a mysterious illness in recent weeks. The cause was unknown and many people have left home fearing a disease caused by bad luck or evil spirits. It turns out that reality is worse than that.

The Ebola was confirmed just last night. By today morning, 20 cases have been reported and 14 have died, including a four-month old baby. With no known cure or vaccines, the disease is expected to spread really fast.

Symptoms

Ebola virus causes haemorrhagic fever and kills quickly. The CDC says that the Ebola disease is characterised by “fever, headache, joint and muscle aches, sore throat, and weakness, followed by diarrhoea, vomiting, and stomach pain. A rash, red eyes, hiccups and internal and external bleeding may be seen in some patients”.

The scariest part is how the disease is transmitted. It may be transmitted via bodily secretions and blood. Even the dead is a potential risk. Ebola viruses survive for a long time in the body of the dead after the actual death and funerals can act as mass infecting grounds.

The Medical Organisations

Ugandan officials have been asking the public to keep calm. But that optimism isn’t necessarily shared by all medical organisations. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) are looking for a way to contain this newest attack, which brings back memories of the deadly attack in 2000, which officially left 225 people dead. More recently, a relatively minor outbreak in 2007 left about 40 dead, officially.

The authorities are fearing an epidemic. The spread of any deadly disease is facilitated by time. As more people get infected, the chances of infection rises and the number of people taking care of the infected – the doctors and nurses – also thins out, making it easier for the disease to grow even deadlier.

Diseases sever human relations. As nurses and doctors rightly fear for their lives, the number of patients increases. With diseases like this, the best hope is containment. As callous as it sounds, all we can really do is let the disease die out within a small territory.

Discovered: New Solar System that Looks Like Ours

Our solar system now has a cousin! Astrophysicists at the MIT have discovered another planetary system that resembles ours. This system is around 10000 light years away from earth.

How do you define ‘similar’? Does that mean the presence of an Earth with life? Well, not quite. Our solar system has the unique property that the orbits of its planets are nearly perfectly aligned in a plane, like lanes on a track field. This is quite in contrast with most exoplanetary systems, some of which have quite eccentric orbits. For the first time, another planetary system with perfectly aligned orbits has been discovered.

A cartoon depicting the coplanar orbits of our solar system. [Image Credit: universetoday, NASA/JPL-Caltech/T.Pyle]

Pointing Telescopes at a Star Called Kepler-30

Researchers at MIT trained their telescopes—one particular telescope, in fact, called the Kepler Telescope—on a star called Kepler-30. This star has three planets. Because the star is so far away, the only way to study it is to measure the small amount of light it radiates. They tried to determine the orbits of these planets by observing decreases in light intensity from this planet and its sunspots, which would occur when a planet transited across the observed face of the star. These sunspots themselves are moving with respect to the earth because of the star’s rotation about its axis. Thus, every time a planet transits across the star, it blocks a sunspot at a different position.

Using the timing of this data, the orbits of the 3 planets could be determined, and they were found to lie on a plane, exactly like the solar system. The orbits of the planets were also in a plane perpendicular to the star’s axis of rotation. These results were published in the journal Nature.

It’s telling me that the solar system isn’t some fluke,” says Josh Winn, an associate professor of physics at MIT and a co-author. “The fact that the sun’s rotation is lined up with the planets’ orbits, that’s probably not some freak coincidence.”

How were Systems with Non-Coplanar Orbits Formed?

This finding also backs theories on system of other planets called ‘hot Jupiters’. These are large planets with misaligned orbits around their stars. It is hypothesized that ‘planetary scattering’ led to their misaligned orbits. This theory says that these stars came close to other giant stars in the early stages of planetary system formation, and threw some planets out of the system while bringing others closer to their stars. The existence of another non-hot Jupiter system with planets far away from each other gives further credence to this hypothesis.

“We’ve been hungry for one like this, where it’s not exactly like the solar system, but at least it’s more normal, where the planets and the star are aligned with each other,” Winn says. “It’s the first case where we can say that, besides the solar system.” You can read about this research here.

Introducing: The World’s Most Powerful Laser Which Is To Be Used For Accelerating Particles

In the world of high-powered lasers, a new kid is on the block. And it’s damn powerful! The Berkeley Lab Laser Accelerator (BELLA) has developed a laser which can deliver a huge 1 petawatt of power in a single pulse which lasts for 40 femtoseconds. It can do this once every second, making it a one-pulse-per-second laser.

Blinding

Strange units

Now, what do those terms with the funny units mean?

A petawatt is a million billion watts – a quadrillion watts, in everyday language. And a femtosecond is a quadrillionth of a second – one part of 1015 parts in a second! No other laser in the world has this high a peak power and still function at that high a pulse rate (1 pulse per second). This is now officially a world record – this is the world’s most powerful laser.

Building an accelerator

Enter the Laser and Optical Accelerator Systems Integrated Studies (LOASIS) program and there is where BELLA really scores. The really powerful laser is a prototype for the ultimate laser that will be built to accelerate particles for an accelerator. This accelerator will use the laser’s energy to speed up electrons and protons.

Conventional particle accelerators, the LHC included, uses electric fields to accelerate the charged particles, while magnetic fields bend them. The laser uses its intense heat to generate plasma. This plasma has a lot of free electrons swimming around and they can absorb energy and be accelerated to very high speeds. The trick is to make all of these electrons accelerate in phase.

Says Wim Leemans of Berkeley Labs Accelerator and Fusion Research Division (AFRD), the dept. responsible for the construction and maintenance of the LOASIS:

BELLA will be an exceptional tool for advancing the physics of laser and matter interactions. The laser’s peak power will give us access to new regimes, such as developing compact particle accelerators for high-energy physics, and tabletop free electron lasers for investigating materials and biological systems.

BELLA laser will be used to build the world’s first plasma accelerator, which will be able to accelerate electrons to 10 GeV. This is about a thousandths of what the LHC produced, but it’s still very high energy achieved on a device a millionth of the size of the LHC. This successful preliminary test of the BELLA laser was part of the LOASIS test which is due to start this autumn.

How does the Brain Distinguish Between Old and New? It is Biased.

Last weekend, I went to a cinema in the USA for the first time. I was conscious of two things—taking in the cine-going experience in a new country, and reminiscing about the last time I was at a theatre with my friends a year ago.

Is This Memory Already Stored Inside Me?

When we come across a situation, there are two conflicting processes that can take place- a new memory can be formed, or an old memory can be retrieved. Both these processes involve a common region of the brain called the hippocampus. However, despite the effortlessness with which we form memories and simultaneously recall old ones, the two processes themselves involve very different networks. Recalling a memory involves maximizing overlap with existing memories. On the contrary, forming a new memory involves minimizing the overlap with other memories. These are two conflicting requirements; how, then, does the brain decide what to do?

Recent experiments by researchers at Columbia University and New York University are showing that this decision is influenced by incidents prior to the decision. That is, prior incidents bias our brain either towards forming a new memory or towards recalling an existing one.

The brain is not very objective in its decision making. [Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons]
Participants were presented with pictures of novel and familiar objects and asked to classify them into one of three classes— identical, different, or similar but not identical to a previously encountered object. The ‘test’ objects were very similar to previous objects, but had subtle differences. It was found that participants who had been primed with a series of new objects tended to classify these as not identical, whereas participants who had been primed with familiar objects tended to classify them as identical. In another experiment, participants were found to form links between overlapping memories better if these overlapping memories had been formed after a retrieval of a memory, and their ability to form links between memories was less if the memories had been formed after a new memory had been formed. That is, a preceding experience definitely affects how a memory is stored in the brain with respect to other memories.

Biased by Our Environment

“We’ve all had the experience of seeing an unexpected familiar face as we walk down the street and much work has been done to understand how it is that we can come to recognize these unexpected events,” said Lila Davachi, an associate professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and the study’s senior author. “However, what has never been appreciated is that simply seeing that face can have a substantial impact on your future state of mind and can allow you, for example, to notice the new café that just opened on the corner or the new flowers in the garden down the street.”
This is behavioral evidence that memory encoding and retrieval can evoke biases which influence subsequent memory processing. The production of this bias may be an adaptive mechanism. Making the decision about retrieval or creation of memory uses up resources, and it is very rarely that our experiences rapidly switch between the familiar and the novel. It could thus be advantageous for our nervous system to be more receptive to change in new environments and less sensitive to irregularities in familiar environments.
You can read more about this research here.

Ancient Snake Fossil Identifies Snake Ancestry

Biologically, snakes are just glorified lizards. Glorified, they are, for a reason. There are around 3000 species of snakes in a variety of habitats. Together, they form one of the most successful groups in the animal kingdom.

Did Snakes Evolve on the Land or in the Sea?

Where did snakes evolve from? Did they arise from marine environments, as their bodies became more slender in an adaptation for swimming, or did they arise from terrestrial environments, in which case their bodies would have become adapted for burrowing? Also, snakes have remarkably flexible jaws which allow them to devour prey much larger than themselves. Chances are that you haven’t come across any pictures of lizards ingesting huge animals. This is because lizards have inflexible jaws. How, then, did snakes get these jaws when their cousins don’t have them?

We don’t know the answers to these questions because of the incomplete fossil records in the serpent lineage. There haven’t been any fossils that connect snakes and lizards. Now, a snake fossil forming the missing link between these two classes of reptiles has been found.

Jaws of lizards (a), Coniophis (b) and modern snakes (c). Coniophis has hooked teeth like modern snakes, but its skull is still fixed. [Image Credit: Nicholas Longrich: taken from the publication in Nature]

New Snake Fossil Provides Perfect Snapshot of Evolution

Coniophis precedens from the plains of North America represents one of the most primitive snakes. Based on species comparison (also called ‘phylogenetic analysis’) with other snakes, it has been found to be amongst the most ancient. In what is a perfect snapshot in the evolutionary process, it has a snake-like body and a lizard-like head with snake-like teeth. Its small size and reduced spines both point to it being fossorial—adapted for digging. This points us towards snakes having evolved from burrowing lizards, and not from marine environments. Its hooked teeth, like those of its contemporary kin, are suitable for chewing on relatively large, soft-bodied prey, but like lizards, its jaw remains relatively fixed. Its slender body enabled it to slither, and according to Professor Nicolas Longrich, who headed this study, it could have slithered “beneath the feet of the dinosaur Tyrannosaurus rex”.

The picture that emerges is that Coniophis was a small carnivorous land snake that preyed upon small vertebrates. Snakes that followed it evolved flexible jaws in a series of adaptations that enabled them to feed on a greater variety to prey. Coniophis thus represents a stage in the stepwise accumulation of adaptations.

The bones of this ancient and important connecting link in the evolution of snakes are in museum collections in the United States of America.You can read more about this research here.

Google Science Fair 2012 Winners

Some young minds with new ideas have competed in a worldwide competition to win the Google Science Fair 2012. Last year, Google kicked off the first of its science fairs and it was a sweeping success. Thousands of youth, ages 13-18, competed. This year was no exception. Last night, Google announced the winners of its 2012 competition and the projects were pretty impressive.

Winner
Google Science Fair 2012 Winners (Courtesy Google Science Fair YouTube Channel)

The grand prize winner this year was Brittany Wenger, a 17 year old from Lakewood Ranch, Fla. Her project was titled “Global Neural Network Cloud Service for Breast Cancer“. She developed a cloud based system to aid in the diagnosis of breast cancer. In the project she pointed out the that Fine Needle Aspirates (FNAs) are the least invasive way to biopsy for breast cancer, however, they are often difficult for doctors to read making it hard to  come to any conclusive diagnosis. The system she developed uses an artificial neural network that can see patterns too difficult for the human eye. She used an FNA database from the University of Wisconsin to help in the determination of whether the tumor was malignant or benign. The network was tested with 6800 trials and achieved predictive success of 97.4% with 99.1% sensitivity to malignancy.

The event was co-sponsored by Lego, National Geographic, CERN, and Scientific American. The grand prize winner got  a $50,000 scholarship from Google and the chance to go on a National Geographic expedition to the Galapagos. They were also awarded the opportunity to intern at one of the sponsors companies, as well as many other prizes. Below, you can see the award presentation ceremony that was streamed live from Google last night.

 

It gives me great encouragement to see young people involved in such groundbreaking and relevant work. It goes to show that age doesn’t have to be a boundary for achievement. Google is already gearing up for next year’s event. If you or someone you know would like to sign up for next year’s Google Science Fair, go to http://www.google.com/events/sciencefair/signup2013.html for more information.

Sally Ride, America’s First Female Astronaut in Space, Dies

Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut in space passed away today after a 17 month battle with pancreatic cancer. According to her website, Sally Ride Science:

Sally Ride died peacefully on July 23rd, 2012 after a courageous 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Sally lived her life to the fullest, with boundless energy, curiosity, intelligence, passion, joy, and love. Her integrity was absolute; her spirit was immeasurable; her approach to life was fearless. 

Sally Ride
Sally Ride (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Ride was a “trailblazer” in so many ways. In 1983 she joined the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger at the age of 32. At that time she was not only the first woman in space, but also the youngest person to do so. The influence she had on her colleagues is so evident in the many quotes posted on NASA’s website.

Sally Ride broke barriers with grace and professionalism – and literally changed the face of America’s space program,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “The nation has lost one of its finest leaders, teachers and explorers. Our thoughts and prayers are with Sally’s family and the many she inspired. She will be missed, but her star will always shine brightly.

Sally was a personal and professional role model to me and thousands of women around the world,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. “Her spirit and determination will continue to be an inspiration for women everywhere.

The selection of the 1978 Astronaut Class that included Sally and several other women, had a huge impact on my dream to become an astronaut. The success of those woman, with Sally paving the way, made my dream seem one step closer to becoming a reality,” said Peggy Whitson, Chief of the NASA Astronaut Office.

Ride’s influence on the world did not end with NASA. She went on to join the faculty at the University of California, San Diego, as a professor of physics and director of the University of California’s California Space Institute. She later founded her own company Sally Ride Science, which encouraged girls and young women to pursue careers in science and math. She lived a very private life, but what she gave of herself was for the good of people and our world. Her dedication to education and teaching is truly exemplary.

As most of us know, pancreatic cancer is a particularly difficult cancer and so much more work needs to be done to beat this horrible disease. Sally Ride Science has set up a fund in honor of Sally Ride, which can be found at https://www.sallyridescience.com/sallyride/memory.

Scientists Create Silicone Jellyfish From A Rat’s Heart Muscle

Yes, there might be protests as scientists are ‘playing God’ again, but the news is too exciting to stoop to such petty protests. Scientists have mimicked the movement of a mammalian heart and made an artificial jellyfish, which can swim using the exact movements that the heart undergoes when it pumps blood. The body of the jellyfish is made up of silicone with cardiac tissue from a rat mounted on this scaffolding.

The Medusoid

Heart and the Jellyfish

The researchers from Harvard University and California Institute of Technology (Caltech) noticed the similarities between the pumping motion of a heart and the pumping motion that helps a jellyfish swim. This is the latest in the emerging field of synthetic biology. Says Kevin Kit Parker, one of the people involved in the study:

I started looking at marine organisms that pump to survive. Then I saw a jellyfish at the New England Aquarium and I immediately noted both similarities and differences between how the jellyfish and the human heart pump.

And thus was born ‘Medusoid’. The main challenge was the lack of understanding of how the heart muscles actually co-ordinate themselves via electrical signals. Then they performed something called ‘reverse engineering’. To understand how a medusa jellyfish really swims and how the muscles are all co-ordinated, the team used techniques from biometrics and crystallography. They were also able to understand the exact biomechanics of the propelling muscle contractions.

Mimicking as much as possible (Taken from the paper)

Getting everything to work together

It turns out that the mammalian heart muscles move in much the same way when they pump blood. Thus, the plan was to make the jellyfish out of cultured cardiac tissue taken from a rat. Silicone would provide the scaffolding that the structure needed. Then they matched the Medusoid with a real medusa jellyfish, part by part. They made sure that the Medusoid was a copy as long as cellular architecture went.

Cellular architecture has to match – and they do!
(Taken from the paper)

Less tricky was the design of the silicone structure. They had to ensure that the structure pushed water efficiently, like the jellyfish has evolved to do. Too much gap between the ‘legs’ and water would just ‘leak’ through. Too little and you’d just be wasting precious power for thrusting. The cardiac muscles were stimulated by electrical signals.

The work has been reported in Nature Biotechnology in this paper. Lead author of the paper is Janna Nowroth, a research student. His PhD advisor John Dabiri, an expert of biopropulsion is also an author of the paper. Kevin Kit Parker, another coauthor, is an expert in the field of tissue engineering. He had created artificial ‘organisms’ that can grip and pump. The jellyfish was really ambitious!

So what’s the next step? Endowing the jellyfish with something that even it doesn’t have – a brain. The team wants to put a small control center for the nerves so that it can decide where it wants to go.

Additional infohttp://www.nature.com/news/artificial-jellyfish-built-from-rat-cells-1.11046

Researchers Build First Complete Computer Model of an Organism

Researchers at Stanford University have completed the world’s first complete computer model of an organism. Using research from 900 publications and accounting for over 1900 parameters, they were able to completely simulate the human pathogen, Mycoplasma genitalium. This pathogen is often found in the urinary or respiratory tracts of humans and is known to have the simplest genome of any free-living organism.

Phenotype Model
This image represents the many processes it takes to build a complex phenotype as was done in this study. (Courtesy Science Direct Journal Cell)

The study was partly funded by the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award. “This achievement demonstrates a transforming approach to answering questions about fundamental biological processes,” said James M. Anderson, director of the National Institutes of Health Division of Program Coordination, Planning and Strategic Initiatives. “Comprehensive computer models of entire cells have the potential to advance our understanding of cellular function and, ultimately, to inform new approaches for the diagnosis and treatment of disease.”

The study consisted of vast amounts of data and took a lot of computing power to pull off. But you may ask, “Why are we so interested in simulating an organism?” That is a good question. In the simplest of terms, what these scientists are building is called a phenotype, which basically means they are building a model based on observed behaviors or expressions in this organism. Using data from more than 900 scientific papers to account for every molecular interaction that takes place in the life cycle of Mycoplasma genitalium, the scientists were able to observe things in the computer model that would be hard to see in the real thing. They were also able to reexamine experimental data.

This study opens wide the possibilities of computer aided bio-engineering. If you’ve been around any construction or architectural firms, you know the impact that computer aided design (think AutoCAD) has contributed to the process of planning and engineering a building. In the same way, being able to simulate entire organisms and be able to predict what certain genes will do under certain conditions has so much potential for future applications such as pharmaceuticals and even personalized medicine. However, the study authors are cautious to note that it will be a while before this is possible.

This study was published in the journal Cell. For more information, see Stanford University’s website.

NASA Reveals Stunning Photos of Sun’s Corona

NASA captured stunning images of the sun’s corona, the million degree atmosphere surrounding the sun, from a 16 megapixel telescope called the HI-C. The telescope was launched on a sub-orbital rocket from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The mission only lasted 620 seconds, but the results were pretty impressive. NASA was able to capture the highest ever resolution images of the sun’s corona using the extreme ultraviolet wavelength. This wavelength of light is optimal for viewing the hot solar corona.

Corona
NASA captured the highest resolution images of the sun’s corona ever captured. (Courtesy NASA.GOV)

The mission’s purpose was to capture the images of the sun’s corona to determine how coronal activity affects the earth’s atmosphere. According to a NASA press release, Jonathan Cirtain, senior heliophysicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala said,”we have an exceptional instrument and launched at the right time…because of the intense solar activity we’re seeing right now, we were able to clearly focus on a sizeable, active sunspot and achieve our imaging goals.”

The High Resolution Coronal Imager (HI-C) was able to capture images that were 5 times more detailed than any previously taken. The mirrors used in the telescope’s optics array are being credited for the incredible footage. Initially developed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the final mirror configuration was a joint effort between Smithsonian’s Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) in Cambridge, Mass, Marshall Space Flight Center, and the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Below, you can see a very short video released by NASA showing the detailed images of the solar corona.

NASA’s suborbital sounding rockets are proving to be a lower cost, yet effective means for exploring space. It will be interesting to see what other new information can be gathered using the HI-C telescope. For more information on NASA’s solar missions, visit http://www.nasa.gov/sdo.

Our Skin Can Tell Time

That our body has ‘clocks’ is known. The best known is the circadian ‘day-night’ clock that regulates our sleep patterns and allows to anticipate environmental changes between day and night. Scientists have now found that skin cells also have an internal ‘clock’.

Skin as a Protective Barrier

Because the skin is the outermost layer of the body, it is most affected by environmental variations in conditions such as temperature, UV and sunlight. In fact, one of its main functions is to protect the body by forming a barrier to harsh environmental conditions. Wouldn’t it thus make sense for the skin to ‘sense’ changes in the environment and respond accordingly?

Some Skin Genes are Time-Dependent

Researchers in Hamburg measured the expressions of various genes in skin cells at different times of the day, and found a whole bunch of genes that were expressed differently depending on the time of the day. This means that the skin adapts to the current environment and regulates itself on the current need. Just as our clothes very with the weather, the suite of proteins and fats expressed by the skin vary according to the time of day.

[Image Credit: Getty Images]

They also found that many of these daytime-regulated genes were regulated by one other gene. This gene is a transcription factor, which means it doesn’t directly produce a protein, but regulates the expression of other proteins, either by inhibiting them or activating them. That is, the gene called Klf9 is a parent regulator—it is affected by the environment, and in turn, it affects the expression of other genes. However, we don’t yet know how these changes lead to differences in the activity of the skin at different times and that remains to be studied.

The job of the biological clock is to control the exact timing of various processes like cell division and DNA repair in skin. Prof. Achim Kramer, who headed this research, is already looking to the future: “If we understand these processes better, we could target the use of medication to the time of day in which they work best and have the fewest side effects.”