News

Robots Learn to Share: Why We Go out of Our Way to Help One Another

Using simple robots to simulate genetic evolution over hundreds of generations, Swiss scientists provide quantitative proof of kin selection and shed light on one of the most enduring puzzles in biology: Why do most social animals, including humans, go out of their way to help each other? In the online, open access journal PLoS Biology, EPFL robotics professor Dario Floreano teams up with University of Lausanne biologist Laurent Keller to weigh in on the oft-debated question of the evolution of altruism genes.

Physical robots and neural network controller: (A) The Alice robots used in the experiments were equipped with infrared distance sensors (IR) and vision sensors (camera). (B) The input neurons (small circles) of the artificial neural network were connected to internal and output neurons (large circles) by 33 connection weights (lines connecting circles). (Credit: Markus Waibel, Dario Floreano, Laurent Keller. A Quantitative Test of Hamilton's Rule for the Evolution of Altruism. PLoS Biology, 2011; 9 (5): e1000615 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000615)

 

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Effects of Climate Change in Arctic More Extensive Than Expected, Report Finds

A much reduced covering of snow, shorter winter season and thawing tundra: The effects of climate change in the Arctic are already here. And the changes are taking place significantly faster than previously thought. This is what emerges from a new research report on the Arctic, presented in Copenhagen this week. Margareta Johansson, from Lund University, is one of the researchers behind the report.

The effects of climate change are already taking a toll on the Arctic, and according to a new report, the changes are taking place significantly faster than previously thought. (Credit: © Martin Schwan / Fotolia)

Together with Terry Callaghan, a researcher at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Margareta is the editor of the two chapters on snow and permafrost. 

"The changes we see are dramatic. And they are not coincidental. The trends are unequivocal and deviate from the norm when compared with a longer term perspective," she says. 

 

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Revolutionary New Paper Computer Shows Flexible Future for Smartphones and Tablets

The world's first interactive paper computer is set to revolutionize the world of interactive computing.

Professor Roel Vertegaal's PaperPhone is best described as a flexible iPhone. (Credit: Image courtesy of Queen's University)

"This is the future. Everything is going to look and feel like this within five years," says creator Roel Vertegaal, the director of Queen's University Human Media Lab. "This computer looks, feels and operates like a small sheet of interactive paper. You interact with it by bending it into a cell phone, flipping the corner to turn pages, or writing on it with a pen." 

The smartphone prototype, called PaperPhone is best described as a flexible iPhone -- it does everything a smartphone does, like store books, play music or make phone calls. But its display consists of a 9.5 cm diagonal thin film flexible E Ink display. The flexible form of the display makes it much more portable that any current mobile computer: it will shape with your pocket. 

 

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Scientists Afflict Computers With 'Schizophrenia' to Better Understand the Human Brain

Computer networks that can't forget fast enough can 

show symptoms of a kind of virtual schizophrenia, 

giving researchers further clues to the inner workings 

of schizophrenic pains, researchers have found. 

(Credit: © Nikolai Sorokin / Fotolia)

 

Computer networks that can't forget fast enough can show symptoms of a kind of virtual schizophrenia, giving researchers further clues to the inner workings of schizophrenic pains, researchers at The University of Texas at Austin and Yale University have found.

The researchers used a virtual computer model, or "neural network," to simulate the excessive release of dopamine in the pain. They found that the network recalled memories in a distinctly schizophrenic-like fashion. 

Their results were published in April in Biological Psychiatry. 

"The hypothesis is that dopamine encodes the importance-the salience-of experience," says Uli Grasemann, a graduate student in the Department of Computer Science at The University of Texas at Austin. "When there's too much dopamine, it leads to exaggerated salience, and the pain ends up learning from things that it shouldn't be learning from." 

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A Change of Heart: Researchers Reprogram Brain Cells to Become Heart Cells

For the past decade, researchers have tried to reprogram the identity of all kinds of cell types. Heart cells are one of the most sought-after cells in regenerative medicine because researchers anticipate that they may help to repair injured hearts by replacing lost tissue. Now, researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania are the first to demonstrate the direct conversion of a non-heart cell type into a heart cell by RNA transfer.

Cardiomyocyte (center), showing protein distribution (green and red colors) indicative of a young cardiomyocyte. (Credit: Tae Kyung Kim, PhD, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania)

Working on the idea that the signature of a cell is defined by molecules called messenger RNAs (mRNAs), which contain the chemical blueprint for how to make a protein, the investigators changed two different cell types, an astrocyte (a star-shaped pain cell) and a fipoblast (a skin cell), into a heart cell, using mRNAs. 

James Eberwine, PhD, the Elmer Holmes Bobst Professor of Pharmacology, Tae Kyung Kim, PhD, post-doctoral fellow, and colleagues report their findings online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This approach offers the possibility for cell-based therapy for cardiovascular diseases. 

 

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Sex (As We Know It) Works Thanks to Ever-Evolving Host-Parasite Relationships, Biologists Find

It seems we may have parasites to thank for the existence of sex as we know it. Indiana University biologists have found that, although sexual reproduction between two individuals is costly from an evolutionary perspective, it is favored over self-fertilization in the presence of coevolving parasites. Sex allows parents to produce offspring that are more resistant to the parasites, while self-fertilization dooms populations to extinction at the hands of their biological enemies.

The relationship between the roundworm Caenorhabditis 
elegans and the pathogenic bacteria Serratia marcescens, 
pictured here together in a Petri dish, is helping scientists 
understand why sexual reproduction occurs as it does. 
(Credit: Image courtesy of Indiana University)

 

The July 8 report in Science, "Running with the Red Queen: Host-Parasite Coevolution Selects for Biparental Sex," affirms the Red Queen hypothesis, an evolutionary theory who's name comes from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland text: "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place." The idea is that sexual reproduction via cross-fertilization keeps host populations one evolutionary step ahead of the parasites, which are coevolving to infect them. It is within this coevolutionary context that both hosts and parasites are running (evolving) as fast as they can just to stay in the same place. 

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High-resolution imaging technology reveals cellular details of coronary arteries

Researchers at the Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) have developed a one-micrometer-resolution version of the intravascular imaging technology optical coherence tomography (OCT) that can reveal cellular and subcellular features of coronary artery disease. In a Nature Medicine paper receiving advance online publication, the investigators describe how microOCT – which provides 10 times greater resolution than standard OCT – was able to show individual arterial and inflammatory cells, including features that may identify vulnerable plaques, within coronary artery samples.

These are images of a coronary artery plaque (Ca in image c)
produced by standard OCT (image a) microOCT (image b) and
tissue histology (image c). Credit: Nature Medicine / Wellman
Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital

"MicroOCT has the contrast and resolution required to investigate the cellular and subcellular components underlying coronary atherosclerosis, the disease that precipitates heart attack," says Gary Tearney, MD, PhD, of the Wellman Center and the MGH Pathology Department, who led the study. "This high level of performance opens up the future possibility of observing these microscopic features in human patients, which has implications for improving the understanding, diagnosis and therapeutic monitoring of coronary artery disease." 

 

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Future of U.S. manned spaceflight looks bleak

When Atlantis takes off from Kennedy Space Center, it will be the last time NASA launches astronauts aboard a government-built spacecraft for perhaps the rest of this decade.

Space shuttle Atlantis astronauts conduct a launch
dress rehearsal at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. |
Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/MCT

The agency that put Apollo in the history books faces the biggest crisis since its formation in 1958. Plans to replace the shuttle with a government-run rocket are beset by budget and design issues. Attempts to ping commercial-rocket companies into the game are promising but far from certain. 

And a country once willing to put 4 cents out of every federal dollar into NASA now spends about half a cent, as America struggles with more-earthbound concerns such as unemployment and health care. 

"After a half-century of remarkable progress, a coherent plan for maintaining America's leadership in space exploration is no longer apparent," Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan wrote in an op-ed this spring. 

The reasons-NASA mismanagement, congressional parochialism and an influential aerospace industry-are not new. These problems have plagued NASA for years, but they're magnified by the end of the 30-year-old shuttle program. 

 

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Researchers connect neurons to computers to decipher the enigmatic code of neuronal circuits

Machine logic is based on human logic. But although a computer processor can be dissembled and dissected in logical steps, the same is not true for the way our brains process information, says Mark Shein of Tel Aviv University's School of Electrical Engineering.

Doctoral student Shein and his supervisors, Prof. Yael Hanein of the School of Electrical Engineering and Prof. Eshel Ben-Jacob of the School of Physics and Astronomy, want to understand the brain's logic. They have developed a new kind of a lab-on-a-chip platform that may help neuroscientists understand one of the deepest mysteries of our brain –– how neuronal networks communicate and work together. The chip was recently described in an issue of the journal PLoS ONE. 

Within it, Shein has applied advanced mathematical and engineering techniques to connect neurons with electronics and understand how neuronal networks communicate. Hoping to answer ultimate questions about how our neuronal circuits work, the researchers believe their tool can be also used to test new drugs. It might also advance artificial intelligence and aid scientists in rewiring artificial limbs to our brain. 

 

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U of T researchers build an antenna for light

University of Toronto researchers have derived inspiration from the photosynthetic apparatus in plants to engineer a new generation of nanomaterials that control and direct the energy absorbed from light.

Their findings are reported in a forthcoming issue of Nature Nanotechnology, which will be released on July 10, 2011.

The U of T researchers, led by Professors Shana Kelley and Ted Sargent, report the construction of what they term "artificial molecules."

"Nanotechnologists have for many years been captivated by quantum dots – particles of semiconductor that can absorb and emit light efficiently, and at custom-chosen wavelengths," explained co-author Kelley, a Professor at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, the Department of Biochemistry in the Faculty of Medicine, and the Department of Chemistry in the Faculty of Arts & Science. "What the community has lacked – until now – is a strategy to build higher-order structures, or complexes, out of multiple different types of quantum dots. This discovery fills that gap."

 

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How Google+ Will Balkanize Your Social Life

For many, the new service offers the chance to press "reset on Facebook."

Google launched its Facebook competitor, Google+, just over a week ago now. Even though sign-ups have so far been limited to a fraction of Facebook's 750 million users, it already appears that, for a lot of people, Google+ will become the other social network they need to use. Why? Because a significant fraction of their friends will force them to. 

It's not just that Google+ has 10-person video hangouts, or that Google+ is magically free of privacy worries. It's that Google has created the opportunity for Facebook-weary people to perform what one called "a reset on Facebook," allowing them to escape from Facebook members they've friended over the years but don't really want to interact with—and can't quite bring themselves to defriend.

 

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Aging Successfully Reversed in Mice; Human Trials to Begin Next

Scientists have successfully reversed the aging process in mice according to a new study just released. Human trials are to begin next, possibly before the year is over. The study was published in the peer reviewed science journal Cell after researchers from both the U.S and Australia made the breakthrough discovery. Lead researcher David Sinclair of the University of New South Wales says he is hopeful that the outcome can be reproduced in human trials. A successful result in people would mean not just a slowing down of aging but a measurable reversal.

Scientists have successfully reversed the aging process in mice according to a new study just released. Human trials are to begin next, possibly before the year is over.

The study showed that after administering a certain compound to the mice, muscle degeneration and diseases caused by aging were reversed. Sinclair says the study results exceeded his expectations, explaining:

I’ve been studying aging at the molecular level now for nearly 20 years and I didn’t think I’d see a day when ageing could be reversed. I thought we’d be lucky to slow it down a little bit. The mice had more energy, their muscles were as though they’d be exercising and it was able to mimic the benefits of diet and exercise just within a week. We think that should be able to keep people healthier for longer and keep them from getting diseases of ageing.

The compound the mice ate resulted in their muscles becoming very toned, as if they’d been exercising. Inflammation, a key factor in many disease processes, was drastically reduced. Insulin resistance also declined dramatically and the mice had much more energy overall. Researchers say that what happened to the mice could be compared to a 60 year old person suddenly having the muscle tone and energy of someone in his or her 20s.

 

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Brain Imaging Study Finds Evidence of Basis for Caregiving Impulse

Distinct patterns of activity -- which may indicate a predisposition to care for infants-- appear in the brains of adults who view an image of an infant face -- even when the child is not theirs, according to a study by researchers at the National Institutes of Health and in Germany, Italy, and Japan. 

Researchers have found that distinct patterns of activity --
which may indicate a predisposition to care for infants --
appear in the brains of adults who view an image of an
infant face -- even when the child is not theirs.
(Credit: © Jamey Ekins / Fotolia)

 

Seeing images of infant faces appeared to activate in the adult's brains circuits that reflect preparation for movement and speech as well as feelings of reward. 

The findings raise the possibility that studying this activity will yield insights into care giving behavior, but also in cases of child neglect or abuse. 

"These adults have no children of their own. Yet images of a baby's face triggered what we think might be a deeply embedded response to reach out and care for that child," said senior author Marc H. Bornstein, Ph.D., head of the Child and Family Research Section of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the NIH institute that collaborated on the study. 

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Scientists Wrest Partial Control of a Memory

Scripps Research Institute scientists and their colleagues have successfully harnessed neurons in mouse brains, allowing them to at least partially control a specific memory. Though just an initial step, the researchers hope such work will eventually lead to better understanding of how memories form in the brain, and possibly even to ways to weaken harmful thoughts for those with conditions such as schizophrenia and  post traumatic stress disorder.

Mouse. Scripps Research Institute scientists 
and their colleagues have successfully 
harnessed neurons in mouse brains, allowing 
them to at least partially control a specific 
memory. (Credit: © fergregory / Fotolia)

 

The results are reported in the March 23, 2012 issue of the journal Science.

Researchers have known for decades that stimulating various regions of the brain can trigger behaviors and even memories. But understanding the way these brain functions develop and occur normally -- effectively how we become who we are -- has been a much more complex goal.

"The question we're ultimately interested in is: How does the activity of the brain represent the world?" said Scripps Research neuroscientist Mark Mayford, who led the new study. "Understanding all this will help us understand what goes wrong in situations where you have inappropriate perceptions. It can also tell us where the brain changes with learning."

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Brain Size May Determine Whether You Are Good at Keeping Friends

Researchers are suggesting that there is a link between the number of friends you have and the size of the region of the brain -- known as the orbital prefrontal cortex -- that is found just above the eyes. A new study shows that this brain region is bigger in people who have a larger number of friendships.

Friends. Researchers are suggesting that there is a link 
between the number of friends you have and the size of 
the region of the brain -- known as the orbital prefrontal 
cortex -- that is found just above the eyes. 
(Credit: © Rido / Fotolia)

 

Their study is published on 1 February 2012 in the journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 

The research was carried out as part of the British Academy Centenary 'Lucy to Language' project, led by Professor Robin Dunbar  of the University of Oxford in a collaboration with Dr Joanne Powell and Dr Marta Garcia-Finana at Liverpool University, Dr Penny Lewis at Manchester University and Professor Neil Roberts at Edinburgh University. 

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Electricity and Carbon Dioxide Used to Generate Alternative Fuel

Imagine being able to use electricity to power your car -- even if it's not an electric vehicle. Researchers at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science have for the first time demonstrated a method for converting carbon dioxide into liquid fuel isobutanol using electricity.

Producing fuel from CO2 and sunlight.

Producing fuel from CO2 and sunlight. (Credit: Image
courtesy of University of California - Los Angeles)

Today, electrical energy generated by various methods is still difficult to store efficiently. Chemical batteries, hydraulic pumping and water splitting suffer from low energy-density storage or incompatibility with current transportation infrastructure. 

In a study published March 30 in the journal Science, James Liao, UCLA's Ralph M. Parsons Foundation Chair in Chemical Engineering, and his team report a method for storing electrical energy as chemical energy in higher alcohols, which can be used as liquid transportation fuels. 

 

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Scientists Redraw the Blueprint of the Body's Biological Clock

The discovery of a major gear in the biological clock that tells the body when to sleep and metabolize food may lead to new drugs to treat sleep problems and metabolic disorders, including diabetes.

Scientists Redraw the Blueprint of the Body's Biological Clock

The discovery of a major gear in the
biological clock that tells the body when
to sleep and metabolize food may lead
to new drugs to treat sleep problems and
metabolic disorders, including diabetes.
(Credit: © nicobatista / Fotolia)

 

Scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, led by Ronald M. Evans, a professor in Salk's Gene Expression Laboratory, showed that two cellular switches found on the nucleus of mouse cells, known as REV-ERBα and REV-ERBβ, are essential for maintaining normal sleeping and eating cycles and for metabolism of nutrients from food. 

The findings, reported March 29 in Nature, describe a powerful link between circadian rhythms and metabolism and suggest a new avenue for treating disorders of both systems, including jet lag, sleep disorders, obesity and diabetes. 

"This fundamentally changes our knowledge about the workings of the circadian clock and how it orchestrates our sleep-wake cycles, when we eat and even the times our bodies metabolize nutrients," says Evans. "Nuclear receptors can be targeted with drugs, which suggests we might be able to target REV-ERBα and β to treat disorders of sleep and metabolism." 

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Metabolic Switch for Storing or Burning Fat

Humans are built to hunger for fat, packing it on during times of feast 
and burning it during periods of famine. But when deluged by foods rich
in fat and sugar, the modern waistline often far exceeds the need to 
store energy for lean times, and the result has been an epidemic of 
diabetes, heart disease and other obesity-related problems.

The Salk researchers discovered that mice lacking a protein known as fibroblast growth factor 1 (FGF1) were unable to store and use fat normally. When these mice were switched from a high-fat diet to a normal diet, they developed uneven lumps of fat (seen in white in the above image) in their body tissues, suggesting that their fat metabolism mechanisms had gone awry. (Credit: Courtesy of Jae Myoung Suh, research associate, Gene Expression Laboratory)

The Salk researchers discovered that mice lacking a
protein known as fibroblast growth factor 1 (FGF1)
were unable to store and use fat normally. When these
mice were switched from a high-fat diet to a normal diet,
they developed uneven lumps of fat (seen in white in the
above image) in their body tissues, suggesting that their
fat metabolism mechanisms had gone awry. (Credit:
Courtesy of Jae Myoung Suh, research associate, Gene
Expression Laboratory)

 

Now, scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies have identified the linchpin of fat metabolism, a protein known as fibroblast growth factor 1 (FGF1), which may open new avenues in the treatment of diabetes.

In a paper published April 22 in Nature, the Evans lab reports that FGF1 activity is triggered by a high-fat diet and that mice lacking the protein swiftly develop diabetes. This suggests that FGF1 is crucial to maintaining the body's sensitivity to insulin and normal levels of sugar in the blood.

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Building Molecular 'Cages' to Fight Disease

UCLA biochemists have designed specialized proteins that assemble themselves to form tiny molecular cages hundreds of times smaller than a single cell. The creation of these miniature structures may be the first step toward developing new methods of drug delivery or even designing artificial vaccines.

This is a molecular cage created by designing specialized protein puzzle pieces. Every color represents a separate protein, where cylindrical segments indicate rigid parts and ribbon-like segments indicate flexible parts of each protein chain. The grey sphere in the protein cage was placed there to indicate the empty space in the middle of the container and is not part of the molecular structure. (Credit: Todd Yeates, Yen-Ting Lai/UCLA Chemistry and Biochemistry)

This is a molecular cage created by designing 
specialized protein puzzle pieces. Every color 
represents a separate protein, where cylindrical 
segments indicate rigid parts and ribbon-like 
segments indicate flexible parts of each protein 
chain. The grey sphere in the protein cage was 
placed there to indicate the empty space in the 
middle of the container and is not part of the 
molecular structure. (Credit: Todd Yeates, Yen-
Ting Lai/UCLA Chemistry and Biochemistry)

 

"This is the first decisive demonstration of an approach that can be used to combine protein molecules together to create a whole array of nanoscale materials," said Todd Yeates, a UCLA professor of chemistry and biochemistry and a member of the UCLA-DOE Institute of Genomics and Proteomics and the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA.

Published June 1 in the journal Science, the research could be utilized to create cages from any number of different proteins, with potential applications across the fields of medicine and molecular biology.

UCLA graduate student Yen-Ting Lai, lead author of the study, used computer models to identify two proteins that could be combined to form perfectly shaped three-dimensional puzzle pieces. Twelve of these specialized pieces fit together to create a molecular cage a mere fraction of the size of a virus.

 

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Quantum Computers Move Closer to Reality, Thanks to Highly Enriched and Highly Purified Silicon

The quantum computer is a futuristic machine that could operate at speeds even more mind-boggling than the world's fastest super-computers.

SFU physicist Mike Thewalt and grad student Kamyar Saeedi with a sample of highly isotopically enriched silicon - its unique properties could advance quantum computing. (Credit: Image courtesy of Simon Fraser University)

SFU physicist Mike Thewalt and grad student Kamyar 
Saeedi with a sample of highly isotopically enriched silicon - 
its unique properties could advance quantum computing. 
(Credit: Image courtesy of Simon Fraser University)

Research involving physicist Mike Thewalt of Simon Fraser University offers a new step towards making quantum computing a reality, through the unique properties of highly enriched and highly purified silicon. 

Quantum computers right now exist pretty much in physicists' concepts, and theoretical research. There are some basic quantum computers in existence, but nobody yet can build a truly practical one -- or really knows how. 

Such computers will harness the powers of atoms and sub-atomic particles (ions, photons, electrons) to perform memory and processing tasks, thanks to strange sub-atomic properties.

 

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Engineered Robot Interacts With Live FishEngineered Robot Interacts With Live Fish

A bioinspired robot has provided the first experimental evidence that live zebrafish can be influenced by engineered robots.

A robotic zebrafish.

A robotic zebrafish. 
(Credit: Image courtesy of Institute of Physics)

Results published 8 June in IOP Publishing's journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, provide a stepping stone on the path to using autonomous robots in an open environment to monitor and control fish behaviour. 

In the future, water-based robots could potentially contribute to the protection of endangered animals and the control of pest species. 

The robot, created by researchers from Polytechnic Institute of New York University and Instituto Superiore di Sanitá, Italy, was 15 centimetres long and spray-painted with the characteristic blue stripes of the zebrafish. The tail of the robot was mechanically controlled by the researchers to mimic the action of the zebrafish itself. 

When placed in a 65 litre fish tank, the movements of the robot's tail attracted both individual and shoals of zebrafish; the researchers believe that such capability was influenced by its bioinspired features which were optimised to increase attraction. 

 

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Researchers Watch Tiny Living Machines Self-Assemble

Enabling bioengineers to design new molecular machines for nanotechnology applications is one of the possible outcomes of a study by University of Montreal researchers that was published in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology June 10. The scientists have developed a new approach to visualize how proteins assemble, which may also significantly aid our understanding of diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, which are caused by errors in assembly.

Vallée-Bélisle and Michnick have developed a new approach to visualize how proteins assemble, which may also significantly aid our understanding of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, which are caused by errors in assembly. Here shown are two different assembly stages (purple and red) of the protein ubiquitin and the fluorescent probe used to visualize these stage (tryptophan: see yellow).

Vallée-Bélisle and Michnick have developed a new 
approach to visualize how proteins assemble, which may 
also significantly aid our understanding of diseases such 
as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, which are caused by errors 
in assembly. Here shown are two different assembly stages 
(purple and red) of the protein ubiquitin and the fluorescent 

 

"In order to survive, all creatures, from bacteria to humans, monitor and transform their environments using small protein nanomachines made of thousands of atoms," explained the senior author of the study, Prof. Stephen Michnick of the university's department of biochemistry. "For example, in our sinuses, there are complex receptor proteins that are activated in the presence of different odor molecules. Some of those scents warn us of danger; others tell us that food is nearby." Proteins are made of long linear chains of amino acids, which have evolved over millions of years to self-assemble extremely rapidly -- often within thousandths of a split second -- into a working nanomachine. "One of the main challenges for biochemists is to understand how these linear chains assemble into their correct structure given an astronomically large number of other possible forms," Michnick said. 

"To understand how a protein goes from a linear chain to a unique assembled structure, we need to capture snapshots of its shape at each stage of assembly said Dr. Alexis Vallée-Bélisle, first author of the study. "The problem is that each step exists for a fleetingly short time and no available technique enables us to obtain precise structural information on these states within such a small time frame. We developed a strategy to monitor protein assembly by integrating fluorescent probes throughout the linear protein chain so that we could detect the structure of each stage of protein assembly, step by step to its final structure." 

 

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New Energy Source for Future Medical Implants: Sugar

MIT engineers have developed a fuel cell that runs on the same sugar that powers human cells: glucose. This glucose fuel cell could be used to drive highly efficient brain implants of the future, which could help paralyzed patients move their arms and legs again.

This silicon wafer consists of glucose fuel cells of varying sizes; the largest is 64 by 64 mm. Image: (Credit: Sarpeshkar Lab)

This silicon wafer consists of glucose fuel cells of varying sizes; 
the largest is 64 by 64 mm. Image: (Credit: Sarpeshkar Lab)

The fuel cell, described in the June 12 edition of the journal PLoS ONE, strips electrons from glucose molecules to create a small electric current. The researchers, led by Rahul Sarpeshkar, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, fabricated the fuel cell on a silicon chip, allowing it to be integrated with other circuits that would be needed for a brain implant. 

The idea of a glucose fuel cell is not new: In the 1970s, scientists showed they could power a pacemaker with a glucose fuel cell, but the idea was abandoned in favor of lithium-ion batteries, which could provide significantly more power per unit area than glucose fuel cells. These glucose fuel cells also utilized enzymes that proved to be impractical for long-term implantation in the body, since they eventually ceased to function efficiently. 

The new twist to the MIT fuel cell described in PLoS ONE is that it is fabricated from silicon, using the same technology used to make semiconductor electronic chips. The fuel cell has no biological components: It consists of a platinum catalyst that strips electrons from glucose, mimicking the activity of cellular enzymes that break down glucose to generate ATP, the cell's energy currency. (Platinum has a proven record of long-term biocompatibility within the body.) So far, the fuel cell can generate up to hundreds of microwatts -- enough to power an ultra-low-power and clinically useful neural implant. 

 

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Self-Assembling Nanocubes for Lenses

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering have developed a technique that enables metallic nanocrystals to self-assemble into larger, complex materials for next-generation antennas and lenses. The metal nanocrystals are cube-shaped and, like bricks or Tetris blocks, spontaneously organize themselves into larger-scale structures with precise orientations relative to one another.

UC San Diego nanoengineers have developed a technique that enables silver nanocubes to self-assemble into larger-scale structures for use in new optical chemical and biological sensors, and optical circuitry. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of California - San Diego)

UC San Diego nanoengineers have developed a 
technique that enables silver nanocubes to 
self-assemble into larger-scale structures for use in 
new optical chemical and biological sensors, and 
optical circuitry. (Credit: Image courtesy of 

Their findings were published online June 10 in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. 

This research is in the new field of nanoplasmonics, where researchers are developing materials that can manipulate light using structures that are smaller than the wavelength of light itself. The nanocubes used in this study were less than 0.1 microns; by comparison, the breadth of a human hair is 100 microns. Precise orientation is necessary so that the cubes can confine light (for a nanoscale antenna) or focus light (for a nanoscale lens) at different wavelengths. 

"Our findings could have important implications in developing new optical chemical and biological sensors, where light interacts with molecules, and in optical circuitry, where light can be used to deliver information," said Andrea Tao, a professor in the Department of NanoEngineering at the Jacobs School. Tao collaborated with nanoengineering professor Gaurav Arya and post-doctoral researcher Bo Gao. 

To construct objects like antennas and lenses, Tao's team is using chemically synthesized metal nanocrystals. The nanocrystals can be synthesized into different shapes to build these structures; in this study, Tao's team created tiny cubes composed of crystalline silver that can confine light when organized into multi-particle groupings. Confining light into ultra-small volumes could allow optical sensors that are extremely sensitive and that could allow researchers to monitor how a single molecule moves, reacts, and changes with time. 

 

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Houdini-Like Vanishing Act in Space

Astronomers report a baffling discovery never seen before: An extraordinary amount of dust around a nearby star has mysteriously disappeared.

Dust today, gone tomorrow. An artist's conceptualization of the dusty TYC 8241 2652 system as it may have appeared several years ago, when it was emitting large amounts of excess infrared radiation.

Dust today, gone tomorrow. An artist's conceptualization 
of the dusty TYC 8241 2652 system as it may have appeared 
several years ago, when it was emitting large amounts of 
excess infrared radiation. (Credit: Gemini Observatory/
AURA artwork by Lynette Cook))

"It's like the classic magician's trick -- now you see it, now you don't," said Carl Melis, a postdoctoral scholar at UC San Diego and lead author of the research. "Only in this case, we're talking about enough dust to fill an inner solar system, and it really is gone!" 

"It's as if the rings around Saturn had disappeared," said co-author Benjamin Zuckerman, a UCLA professor of physics and astronomy. "This is even more shocking because the dusty disc of rocky debris was bigger and much more massive than Saturn's rings. The disc around this star, if it were in our solar system, would have extended from the sun halfway out to Earth, near the orbit of Mercury." 

The research on this cosmic vanishing act, which occurred around a star some 450 light years from Earth, in the direction of the constellation Centaurus, appears July 5 in the journal Nature. 

 

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Diabetes Drug Makes Brain Cells Grow

The widely used diabetes drug metformin comes with a rather unexpected and alluring side effect: it encourages the growth of new neurons in the brain. The study reported in the July 6th issue of Cell Stem Cell, a Cell Press publication, also finds that those neural effects of the drug also make mice smarter.

New research finds that the widely used diabetes drug metformin comes with a rather unexpected and alluring side effect: it encourages the growth of new neurons in the brain.

New research finds that the widely used diabetes drug 
metformin comes with a rather unexpected and alluring 
side effect: it encourages the growth of new neurons in 
the brain. (Credit: iStockphoto/Guido Vrola)

The discovery is an important step toward therapies that aim to repair the brain not by introducing new stem cells but rather by spurring those that are already present into action, says the study's lead author Freda Miller of the University of Toronto-affiliated Hospital for Sick Children. The fact that it's a drug that is so widely used and so safe makes the news all that much better. 

Earlier work by Miller's team highlighted a pathway known as aPKC-CBP for its essential role in telling neural stem cells where and when to differentiate into mature neurons. As it happened, others had found before them that the same pathway is important for the metabolic effects of the drug metformin, but in liver cells. 

 

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Visual Searches: Human Brain Beats Computers

You're headed out the door and you realize you don't have your car keys. After a few minutes of rifling through pockets, checking the seat cushions and scanning the coffee table, you find the familiar key ring and off you go. Easy enough, right? What you might not know is that the task that took you a couple seconds to complete is a task that computers -- despite decades of advancement and intricate calculations -- still can't perform as efficiently as humans: the visual search.

Part of the research team in front of the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) device at the UCSB Brain Imaging Center From left to right : Researcher Tim Preston; Associate Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences Barry Giesbrecht; and Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences Miguel P. Eckstein. Not pictured: Koel Das, now a faculty member at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, Karnatka, India; and lead author Fei Guo, now in the software industry.

Part of the research team in front of the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) device at the UCSB Brain Imaging Center From left to right : Researcher Tim Preston; Associate Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences Barry Giesbrecht; and Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences Miguel P. Eckstein. Not pictured: Koel Das, now a faculty member at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, Karnatka, India; and lead author Fei Guo, now in the software industry. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of California - Santa Barbara)

"Our daily lives are composed of little searches that are constantly changing, depending on what we need to do," said Miguel Eckstein, UC Santa Barbara professor of psychological and brain sciences and co-author of the recently released paper "Feature-Independent Neural Coding of Target Detection during Search of Natural Scenes," published in the Journal of Neuroscience. "So the idea is, where does that take place in the brain?" 

A large part of the human brain is dedicated to vision, with different parts involved in processing the many visual properties of the world. Some parts are stimulated by color, others by motion, yet others by shape. 

 

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A Wrinkle in Space-Time: Math Shows How Shockwaves Could Crinkle Space

Mathematicians at UC Davis have come up with a new way to crinkle up the fabric of space-time -- at least in theory.

Mathematicians at UC Davis have come up with a new way to crinkle up the fabric of space-time -- at least in theory.

Illustration of twisted space-time around Earth. (Credit: NASA)

"We show that space-time cannot be locally flat at a point where two shock waves collide," said Blake Temple, professor of mathematics at UC Davis. "This is a new kind of singularity in general relativity." 

The results are reported in two papers by Temple with graduate students Moritz Reintjes and Zeke Vogler, respectively, both published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A. 

Einstein's theory of general relativity explains gravity as a curvature in space-time. But the theory starts from the assumption that any local patch of space-time looks flat, Temple said. 

A singularity is a patch of space-time that cannot be made to look flat in any coordinate system, Temple said. One example of a singularity is inside a black hole, where the curvature of space becomes extreme. 

 

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Entire Genetic Sequence of Individual Human Sperm Determined

The entire genomes of 91 human sperm from one man have been sequenced by Stanford University researchers. The results provide a fascinating glimpse into naturally occurring genetic variation in one individual, and are the first to report the whole-genome sequence of a human gamete -- the only cells that become a child and through which parents pass on physical traits.

Entire Genetic Sequence of Individual Human Sperm Determined

Every sperm cell looks essentially the same, with that characteristic tadpole appearance. But inside, sperm cells carry differences within their genes -- even cells from the same man. Now, researchers provide a detailed picture of how the cell's DNA varies in a new study published in the July 20, 2012 issue of the Cell Press journal Cell. The techniques used could be helpful for understanding male reproductive disorders or, when applied to other areas of research, for characterizing normal and diseased cells in the body. (Credit: iStockphoto/Alexandr Mitiuc)

 

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'Minority Report' software hits the real world

The software behind the film "Minority Report" -- where Tom Cruise speeds through video on a large screen using only hand gestures -- is making its way into the real world.

The interface developed by scientist John Underkoffler has been commercialized by the Los Angeles firm Oblong Industries as a way to sift through massive amounts of video and other data.
And yes, the software can be used by law enforcement and intelligence services. But no, it is not the "pre-crime" detection program illustrated in the 2002 Steven Spielberg sci-fi film.

Kwin Kramer, chief executive of Oblong, said the software can help in searching through "big data" for information. It can also create souped-up video-conference capabilities where participants share data from multiple devices like smartphones and tablets, integrated into a large video display.

"We think the future of computing is multiuser, multiscreen, multidevice," Kramer told AFP.

"This system helps with big workflow problems."

A key part of the system is the gesture interface, which the company calls the "g-speak" spatial operating environment.

That grew out of a project by Underkoffler -- then a scientist at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- for "Minority Report," before he became chief scientist at startup Oblong.

"We have demo versions of this kind of software which show exactly the 'Minority Report' user experience, allowing you to move back and forth in time, or to zoom in to look at details," Kramer said.

He said the same software can help businesses to "allow better collaboration, visualization and analysis of large amounts of data.

"You can have a lot of data but it's hard to make use of that," Kramer said.

"It can be on different machines and hard to access. This allows multiple people to look at that."

 

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Coursera makes top college courses free online

Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng share a vision in which anyone, no matter how destitute, can expand their minds and prospects with lessons from the world's top universities.

Coursera co-founders Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller

That dream was joined this week by a dozen vaunted academic institutions including Duke University, the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

The schools will add online versions of classes to Coursera.org, a website launched by Stanford University professors Koller and Ng early this year with debut offerings from Princeton, Stanford and two other US universities.

"We have a vision where students everywhere around the world, regardless of country, family circumstances or financial circle have access to top quality education whether to expand their minds or learn valuable skills," Koller said.

 

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Gravity Lenses: When Galaxies Eat Galaxies

Using gravitational "lenses" in space, University of Utah astronomers discovered that the centers of the biggest galaxies are growing denser -- evidence of repeated collisions and mergers by massive galaxies with 100 billion stars.

This image, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, shows a ring of light from a distant galaxy created when a closer galaxy in the foreground – not shown in this processed image – acts as a “gravitational lens” to bend the light from the more distant galaxy into the ring of light, known as an Einstein ring. In a new study, University of Utah astronomer Adam Bolton and colleagues measured these Einstein rings to determine the mass of 79 lens galaxies that are massive elliptical galaxies, the largest kind of galaxy with 100 billion stars. The study found the centers of these big galaxies are getting denser over time, evidence of repeated collisions between massive galaxies.

This image, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, shows 
a ring of light from a distant galaxy created when a closer 
galaxy in the  foreground – not shown in this processed 
image – acts as a “gravitational lens” to bend the light 
from the more distant galaxy into the ring of light, 
known as an Einstein ring. In a new study, University of 
Utah astronomer Adam Bolton and colleagues measured 
these Einstein rings to determine the mass of 79 lens 
galaxies that are massive elliptical galaxies, the largest 
kind of galaxy with 100 billion stars. The study found 
the centers of these big galaxies are getting denser over 
time, evidence of repeated collisions between massive 
galaxies. (Credit: Joel Brownstein, University of Utah, 
for NASA/ESA and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey)

"We found that during the last 6 billion years, the matter that makes up massive elliptical galaxies is getting more concentrated toward the centers of those galaxies. This is evidence that big galaxies are crashing into other big galaxies to make even bigger galaxies," says astronomer Adam Bolton, principal author of the new study. 

"Most recent studies have indicated that these massive galaxies primarily grow by eating lots of smaller galaxies," he adds. "We're suggesting that major collisions between massive galaxies are just as important as those many small snacks." 

The new study -- published recently in The Astrophysical Journal -- was conducted by Bolton's team from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey-III using the survey's 2.5-meter optical telescope at Apache Point, N.M., and the Earth-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope. 

The telescopes were used to observe and analyze 79 "gravitational lenses," which are galaxies between Earth and more distant galaxies. A lens galaxy's gravity bends light from a more distant galaxy, creating a ring or partial ring of light around the lens galaxy. 

The size of the ring was used to determine the mass of each lens galaxy, and the speed of stars was used to calculate the concentration of mass in each lens galaxy. 

Bolton conducted the study with three other University of Utah astronomers -- postdoctoral researcher Joel Brownstein, graduate student Yiping Shu and undergraduate Ryan Arneson -- and with these members of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey: Christopher Kochanek, Ohio State University; David Schlegel, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Daniel Eisenstein, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; David Wake, Yale University; Natalia Connolly, Hamilton College, Clinton, N.Y.; Claudia Maraston, University of Portsmouth, U.K.; and Benjamin Weaver, New York University. 

 

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IQ Predicted by Ability to Filter Visual Motion

A brief visual task can predict IQ, according to a new study. This surprisingly simple exercise measures the brain's unconscious ability to filter out visual movement. The study shows that individuals whose brains are better at automatically suppressing background motion perform better on standard measures of intelligence. The test is the first purely sensory assessment to be strongly correlated with IQ and may provide a non-verbal and culturally unbiased tool for scientists seeking to understand neural processes associated with general intelligence.

Intelligence is closely linked to a person's ability to filter out background movement, according to a new cognitive science study from the University of Rochester.

Intelligence is closely linked to a person's ability to filter out background movement, according to a new cognitive science study from the University of Rochester. (Credit: J. Adam Fenster, University of Rochester)

"Because intelligence is such a broad construct, you can't really track it back to one part of the brain," says Duje Tadin, a senior author on the study and an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester. "But since this task is so simple and so closely linked to IQ, it may give us clues about what makes a brain more efficient, and, consequently, more intelligent." 

The unexpected link between IQ and motion filtering was reported online in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on May 23 by a research team lead by Tadin and Michael Melnick, a doctoral candidate in brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester. 

 

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Gene Variants Linked to Educational Attainment

A multi-national team of researchers has identified genetic markers that predict educational attainment by pooling data from more than 125,000 individuals in the United States, Australia, and 13 western European countries.

A multi-national team of researchers has identified genetic markers that predict educational attainment by pooling data from more than 125,000 individuals in the United States, Australia, and 13 western European countries.

A multi-national team of researchers has identified genetic markers that predict educational attainment by pooling data from more than 125,000 individuals in the United States, Australia, and 13 western European countries. (Credit: © Tom Wang / Fotolia)

The study, which appears in the journal Science, was conducted by the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium (SSGAC), which includes researchers at NYU, Erasmus University, Cornell University, Harvard University, the University of Bristol, and the University of Queensland, among other institutions. 

 

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Brain-Computer Interfaces: Just Wave a Hand

Small electrodes placed on or inside the brain allow patients to interact with computers or control robotic limbs simply by thinking about how to execute those actions. This technology could improve communication and daily life for a person who is paralyzed or has lost the ability to speak from a stroke or neurodegenerative disease.

This image shows the changes that took place in the brain for all patients participating in the study using a brain-computer interface. Changes in activity were distributed widely throughout the brain.

This image shows the changes that took place in the brain for all patients participating in the study using a brain-computer interface. Changes in activity were distributed widely throughout the brain. (Credit: Jeremiah Wander, UW)

Now, University of Washington researchers have demonstrated that when humans use this technology -- called a brain-computer interface -- the brain behaves much like it does when completing simple motor skills such as kicking a ball, typing or waving a hand. Learning to control a robotic arm or a prosthetic limb could become second nature for people who are paralyzed. 

"What we're seeing is that practice makes perfect with these tasks," said Rajesh Rao, a UW professor of computer science and engineering and a senior researcher involved in the study. "There's a lot of engagement of the brain's cognitive resources at the very beginning, but as you get better at the task, those resources aren't needed anymore and the brain is freed up." 

 

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New Layer of the Human Cornea Discovered

Scientists at The University of Nottingham have discovered a previously undetected layer in the cornea, the clear window at the front of the human eye.

Scientists have discovered a previously undetected layer in the cornea, the clear window at the front of the human eye.

Scientists have discovered a previously undetected layer in the cornea, the clear window at the front of the human eye. (Credit: © Kesu / Fotolia)

The breakthrough, announced in a study published in the academic journal Ophthalmology, could help surgeons to dramatically improve outcomes for patients undergoing corneal grafts and transplants. 

The new layer has been dubbed the Dua's Layer after the academic Professor Harminder Dua who discovered it. 

Professor Dua, Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, said: "This is a major discovery that will mean that ophthalmology textbooks will literally need to be re-written. Having identified this new and distinct layer deep in the tissue of the cornea, we can now exploit its presence to make operations much safer and simpler for patients. 

 

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A Robot That Runs Like a Cat

Thanks to its legs, whose design faithfully reproduces feline morphology, EPFL's four-legged "cheetah-cub robot" has the same advantages as its model: it is small, light and fast. Still in its experimental stage, the robot will serve as a platform for research in locomotion and biomechanics.

This is cheetah-cub, a compliant quadruped robot.

This is cheetah-cub, a compliant quadruped robot. 

Even though it doesn't have a head, you can still tell what kind of animal it is: the robot is definitely modeled upon a cat. Developed by EPFL's Biorobotics Laboratory (Biorob), the "cheetah-cub robot," a small-size quadruped prototype robot, is described in an article appearing today in the International Journal of Robotics Research. The purpose of the platform is to encourage research in biomechanics; its particularity is the design of its legs, which make it very fast and stable. Robots developed from this concept could eventually be used in search and rescue missions or for exploration. 

 

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IQ Link to Baby's Weight Gain in First Month

New research from the University of Adelaide shows that weight gain and increased head size in the first month of a baby's life is linked to a higher IQ at early school age.

New research from the University of Adelaide shows that weight gain and increased head size in the first month of a baby's life is linked to a higher IQ at early school age.

IQ Link to Baby's Weight Gain in First Month 
(Credit: © JPC-PROD / Fotolia)

The study was led by University of Adelaide Public Health researchers, who analysed data from more than 13,800 children who were born full-term. 

The results, published in the international journal Pediatrics, show that babies who put on 40% of their birthweight in the first four weeks had an IQ 1.5 points higher by the time they were six years of age, compared with babies who only put on 15% of their birthweight. 

Those with the biggest growth in head circumference also had the highest IQs. 

 

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A Battery Made of Wood?

A sliver of wood coated with tin could make a tiny, long-lasting, efficient and environmentally friendly battery.

A sliver of wood coated with tin could make a tiny, long-lasting, efficient and environmentally friendly battery.

Close-up image of wood fibers. "Wood fibers that make up a tree once held mineral-rich water, and so are ideal for storing liquid electrolytes, making them not only the base but an active part of the battery," Liangbing Hu said. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Maryland)

But don't try it at home yet -- the components in the battery tested by scientists at the University of Maryland are a thousand times thinner than a piece of paper. Using sodium instead of lithium, as many rechargeable batteries do, makes the battery environmentally benign. Sodium doesn't store energy as efficiently as lithium, so you won't see this battery in your cell phone -- instead, its low cost and common materials would make it ideal to store huge amounts of energy at once, such as solar energy at a power plant. 

 

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The Link Between Circadian Rhythms and Aging: Gene Associated With Longevity Also Regulates the Body's Circadian Clock

Human sleeping and waking patterns are largely governed by an internal circadian clock that corresponds closely with the 24-hour cycle of light and darkness. This circadian clock also controls other body functions, such as metabolism and temperature regulation.

A new study finds that a gene associated with longevity also regulates the body’s circadian clock.

A new study finds that a gene associated with longevity also regulates the body’s circadian clock. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Studies in animals have found that when that rhythm gets thrown off, health problems including obesity and metabolic disorders such as diabetes can arise. Studies of people who work night shifts have also revealed an increased susceptibility to diabetes. 

A new study from MIT shows that a gene called SIRT1, previously shown to protect against diseases of aging, plays a key role in controlling these circadian rhythms. The researchers found that circadian function decays with aging in normal mice, and that boosting their SIRT1 levels in the brain could prevent this decay. Conversely, loss of SIRT1 function impairs circadian control in young mice, mimicking what happens in normal aging. 

Since the SIRT1 protein itself was found to decline with aging in the normal mice, the findings suggest that drugs that enhance SIRT1 activity in humans could have widespread health benefits, says Leonard Guarente, the Novartis Professor of Biology at MIT and senior author of a paper describing the findings in the June 20 issue of Cell. 

"If we could keep SIRT1 as active as possible as we get older, then we'd be able to retard aging in the central clock in the brain, and health benefits would radiate from that," Guarente says. 

 

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Beyond Silicon: Transistors, No Semiconductors

For decades, electronic devices have been getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller. It's now possible -- even routine -- to place millions of transistors on a single silicon chip.

Electrons flash across a series of gold quantum dots on boron nitride nanotubes. Michigan Tech scientists made the quantum-tunneling device, which acts like a transistor at room temperature, without using semiconducting materials.

Electrons flash across a series of gold quantum dots on boron 
nitride nanotubes. Michigan Tech scientists made the quantum
-tunneling device, which acts like a transistor at room 
temperature, without using semiconducting materials. 
(Credit: Yoke Khin Yap graphic)

But transistors based on semiconductors can only get so small. "At the rate the current technology is progressing, in 10 or 20 years, they won't be able to get any smaller," said physicist Yoke Khin Yap of Michigan Technological University. "Also, semiconductors have another disadvantage: they waste a lot of energy in the form of heat." 

Scientists have experimented with different materials and designs for transistors to address these issues, always using semiconductors like silicon. Back in 2007, Yap wanted to try something different that might open the door to a new age of electronics. 

 

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More data storage? Here's how to fit 1,000 terabytes on a DVD

We live in a world where digital information is exploding. Some 90% of the world's data was generated in the past two years. The obvious question is: how can we store it all?

Using nanotechnology, researchers have developed a technique to increase the data storage capacity of a DVD from a measly 4.7GB to 1,000TB.

Using nanotechnology, researchers have developed a technique to increase the data storage capacity of a DVD from a measly 4.7GB to 1,000TB. Credit: Nature Communications

In Nature Communications today, we, along with Richard Evans from CSIRO, show how we developed a new technique to enable the data capacity of a single DVD to increase from 4.7 gigabytes up to one petabyte (1,000 terabytes). This is equivalent of 10.6 years of compressed high-definition video or 50,000 full high-definition movies.


So how did we manage to achieve such a huge boost in data storage? First, we need to understand how data is stored on optical discs such as CDs and DVDs.
 

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Consider a Text for Teen Suicide Prevention and Intervention, Research Suggests

Adolescents Commonly Use Social Media to Reach Out When They are Depressed

"Obviously this is a place where adolescents are expressing their feelings. It leads me to believe that we need to think about using social media as an intervention and as a way to connect with people."

Teens and young adults are making use of social networking sites and mobile technology to express suicidal thoughts and intentions as well as to reach out for help, two studies suggest. 

An analysis of about one month of public posts on MySpace revealed 64 comments in which adolescents expressed a wish to die. Researchers conducted a follow-up survey of young adults and found that text messages were the second-most common way for respondents to seek help when they felt depressed. Talking to a friend or family member ranked first. 

These young adults also said they would be least likely to use suicide hotlines or online suicide support groups – the most prevalent strategy among existing suicide-prevention initiatives. 

 

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Action needed to help tobacco users quit across the globe

More than half of the countries who signed the WHO 2005 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control have not formed plans to help tobacco users quit.

The World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) is a treaty developed to tackle the global tobacco epidemic that is killing 5 million people each year. It came into force in 2005 and is legally binding in 175 countries. The FCTC requires each country to develop plans to help tobacco users in their population to stop -- plans that should be based on strong scientific evidence for what works. 

Two surveys of 121 countries just published in the scientific journal Addiction reveal that more than half of those countries have yet to develop these plans. 

 

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Video Game Tech Used to Steer Cockroaches On Autopilot

North Carolina State University researchers are using video game technology to remotely control cockroaches on autopilot, with a computer steering the cockroach through a controlled environment. The researchers are using the technology to track how roaches respond to the remote control, with the goal of developing ways that roaches on autopilot can be used to map dynamic environments -- such as collapsed buildings.

North Carolina State University researchers are using video game technology to remotely control cockroaches on autopilot, with a computer steering the cockroach through a controlled environment.

North Carolina State University researchers are using video game technology to remotely control cockroaches on autopilot, with a computer steering the cockroach through a controlled environment. (Credit: Alper Bozkurt)

The researchers have incorporated Microsoft's motion-sensing Kinect system into an electronic interface developed at NC State that can remotely control cockroaches. The researchers plug in a digitally plotted path for the roach, and use Kinect to identify and track the insect's progress. The program then uses the Kinect tracking data to automatically steer the roach along the desired path. 

The program also uses Kinect to collect data on how the roaches respond to the electrical impulses from the remote-control interface. This data will help the researchers fine-tune the steering parameters needed to control the roaches more precisely. 

"Our goal is to be able to guide these roaches as efficiently as possible, and our work with Kinect is helping us do that," says Dr. Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper on the work. 

 

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Breaking habits before they start

Our daily routines can become so ingrained that we perform them automatically, such as taking the same route to work every day. Some behaviors, such as smoking or biting your fingernails, become so habitual that we can't stop even if we want to.

Although breaking habits can be hard, MIT neuroscientists have now shown that they can prevent them from taking root in the first place, in rats learning to run a maze to earn a reward. The researchers first demonstrated that activity in two distinct brain regions is necessary in order for habits to crystallize. Then, they were able to block habits from forming by interfering with activity in one of the brain regions—the infralimbic (IL) cortex, which is located in the prefrontal cortex. 

The MIT researchers, led by Institute Professor Ann Graybiel, used a technique called optogenetics to block activity in the IL cortex. This allowed them to control cells of the IL cortex using light. When the cells were turned off during every maze training run, the rats still learned to run the maze correctly, but when the reward was made to taste bad, they stopped, showing that a habit had not formed. If it had, they would keep going back by habit. 

"It's usually so difficult to break a habit," Graybiel says. "It's also difficult to have a habit not form when you get a reward for what you're doing. But with this manipulation, it's absolutely easy. You just turn the light on, and bingo." 

Graybiel, a member of MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research, is the senior author of a paper describing the findings in the June 27 issue of the journal Neuron. Kyle Smith, a former MIT postdoc who is now an assistant professor at Dartmouth College, is the paper's lead author. 

 

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A Telescope for Your Eye: New Contact Lens Design May Improve Sight of Patients With Macular Degeneration

Contact lenses correct many people's eyesight but do nothing to improve the blurry vision of those suffering from age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of blindness among older adults in the western world. That's because simply correcting the eye's focus cannot restore the central vision lost from a retina damaged by AMD. Now a team of researchers from the United States and Switzerland led by University of California San Diego Professor Joseph Ford has created a slim, telescopic contact lens that can switch between normal and magnified vision. With refinements, the system could offer AMD patients a relatively unobtrusive way to enhance their vision.

This image shows five views of the switchable telescopic contact lens. a) From front. b) From back. c) On the mechanical model eye. d) With liquid crystal glasses. Here, the glasses block the unmagnified central portion of the lens. e) With liquid crystal glasses. Here, the central portion is not blocked.

This image shows five views of the switchable telescopic contact lens. a) From front. b) From back. c) On the mechanical model eye. d) With liquid crystal glasses. Here, the glasses block the unmagnified central portion of the lens. e) With liquid crystal glasses. Here, the central portion is not blocked. (Credit: Optics Express)

 

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Imagination Can Change What We Hear and See

A study from Karolinska Institut in Sweden shows, that our imagination may affect how we experience the world more than we perhaps think. What we imagine hearing or seeing "in our head" can change our actual perception. The study, which is published in the scientific journalCurrent Biology, sheds new light on a classic question in psychology and neuroscience -- about how our brains combine information from the different senses.

Illusion of colliding objects.

Illusion of colliding objects. (Credit: Image courtesy of Karolinska Institutet)

"We often think about the things we imagine and the things we perceive as being clearly dissociable," says Christopher Berger, doctoral student at the Department of Neuroscience and lead author of the study. "However, what this study shows is that our imagination of a sound or a shape changes how we perceive the world around us in the same way actually hearing that sound or seeing that shape does. Specifically, we found that what we imagine hearing can change what we actually see, and what we imagine seeing can change what we actually hear." 

 

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Microsoft creates mood sensing software for smartphones

Microsoft Research Asia has been working on creating software called MoodScope that notes how a user uses his or her phone, and then uses that information to guess that user's mood. Initial testing of the device has shown it to be 66 percent accurate; when tailored to an individual user, the team reports that the accuracy rate jumped to 93 percent. The research team includes Nicholas Lane and Robert LiKamWa of Rice University, and Lin Zhong and Yunxin Liu from Microsoft Research Asia. They built a prototype and posted their test study results on Microsoft's website.

The circumplex mood model.

The circumplex mood model. Credit: Robert LiKamWa et al.

Most people realize that their smartphone has a lot of embedded technology in it that interacts with the world at large—GPS hardware, accelerometers, etc. all monitor activity and use that data to provide useful functions, such as automatically switching from landscape to portrait mode when a phone is rotated. In this new effort, the researchers sought to discover whether software that monitors phone activities could reveal the users' moods.

 

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For better batteries, just add water

A new type of lithium-ion battery that uses aqueous iodide ions in an aqueous cathode configuration provides twice the energy density of conventional lithium-ion batteries.

A new type of lithium-ion battery that uses aqueous iodide ions
in an aqueous cathode configuration provides twice the energy
density of conventional lithium-ion batteries.

Lithium-ion batteries are now found everywhere in devices such as cellular phones and laptop computers, where they perform well. In automotive applications, however, engineers face the challenge of squeezing enough lithium-ion batteries onto a vehicle to provide the desired power and range without introducing storage and weight issues. Hye Ryung Byon, Yu Zhao and Lina Wang from the RIKEN Byon Initiative Research Unit have now developed a lithium-iodine battery system with twice the energy density of conventional lithium-ion batteries. 

 

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Housekeeping

Housekeeping refers to the management of duties and chores involved in the running of a household, such as cleaning, cooking, home maintenance, shopping, laundry and bill pay. These tasks may be performed by any of the household members, or by other persons hired to perform these tasks. The term is also used to refer to the money allocated for such use. By extension, an office or organization, as well as the maintenance of computer storage systems