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50,000-Year-Old Microbial 'Super Life' Found Trapped Within Crystals

Plants and Animals

50,000-Year-Old Microbial 'Super Life' Found Trapped Within Crystals

Posted By liveworld

The Cave of the Crystals, buried 800 metres (2,625 feet) deep within Mexico’s Naica Mine, should be on everyone’s bucket list. Within this Narnia-like opening are enormous gypsum crystals, the largest of which is a staggering 12 meters (39 feet) long and weighs 55 tonnes (61 tons).

As reported by BBC News, however, scientists have discovered something else that’s been lurking within this swelteringly hot cave for a very, very long time – something that may completely change our understanding of biology. That’s right: a new form of microbial life has been found, and it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

The microbes, trapped in fluid inclusions within the crystals themselves, are ancient, with estimates ranging up to 50,000 years old. It appears that they’re living off manganese, iron and other metallic elements, using them to produce the required nutrients to survive.

To make sure they weren’t just dead remnants of the originals, the team of researchers extracted them from the crystals and managed to successfully revive them in a laboratory.

It must be pointed out that, within the Cave of the Crystals, air temperatures tend to hover around 58°C (136°F) at humidity values of up to with 99 percent. Without the proper form of protection, the average person can only remain conscious for about ten minutes.

Make no mistake, these little critters are extremophiles, in that they are able to not just survive but thrive within these hellish conditions.

The type of crystals the microbes were residing within. Rob Lavinsky/Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 3.0

According to the team of NASA microbiologists that discovered them, this is all the information the public or press are allowed to receive right now. Subject to peer review, all the data is currently being withheld by the space agency, which we’re sure will fuel some rather madcap conspiracy theories.

Announcing their remarkable find at the annual gathering of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Penelope Boston, the chief of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, tantalizingly described the microbes as “super life.”

Really though, we shouldn’t be surprised by this discovery, based on the information we’ve already got. Extremophiles have been found all over the world, from deep-sea vents, acidic hot springs, within volcanic craters and even within the crust itself.

Life, as they say, finds a way. We’re literally just one species out of a trillion, and just because we can’t thrive in any environment we choose, it doesn’t mean the same principle applies to the world of microbiology.

These ancient, newly discovered microbes within the Cave of the Crystals may seem strange, but extremophiles are actually more commonplace than we are. In fact, compared to most life on this pale, blue dot, humans, not microbes, are one of the most “alien.”

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Event Horizon Telescope To Begin Most Detailed Observation Of A Black Hole in April

Space

Event Horizon Telescope To Begin Most Detailed Observation Of A Black Hole in April

Posted By liveworld

The ambitious Event Horizon Telescope is ready to start its operation and in just a few months an international group of astronomers might see the most detailed look yet at a black hole.

The target is Sagittarius A* (pronounced ‘A’-star), the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. This incredible task can only be achieved by linking nine radio telescopes across the globe and making them act as a single Earth-size telescope.

“There’s great excitement. We’ve been fashioning our virtual telescope for almost two decades now, and in April we’re going to make the observations that we think have the first real chance of bringing a black hole’s event horizon into focus,” project leader Sheperd Doeleman from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told BBC News.

The team hopes it could get a successful observation between April 5 and April 14, finally providing a direct view of what the edge of a black hole looks like. Since not even light can escape black holes, they cannot be seen directly, so the researchers will be looking at the event horizon – the region that separates the black hole from the rest of the universe.

Gas and stars and material orbit around the black hole before being sucked in and radio waves give a great chance to see that gas. Also, radio waves allow astronomers to use interferometry, a clever trick to get high-resolution images.

It’s possible to combine the data from different radio telescopes into a single image, and the further they are apart, the higher the resolution. The telescopes used in the project are located in the US, Chile, Spain, and even the South Pole, providing an unprecedented resolution.

And high resolution is required if we want to see Sagittarius A*. Although it weighs 4 million Suns, it is “just” 44 million kilometers (27 million miles) in diameter. And being 26,000 light-years away from Earth gives it the apparent size in the sky similar to a CD on the surface of the Moon from Earth.

According to the equations of general relativity, the team should be seeing light fringing against a dark feature.

“Now, it could be that we will see something different,” Doeleman continued. “As I’ve said before, it’s never a good idea to bet against Einstein, but if we did see something that was very different from what we expect we would have to reassess the theory of gravity. I don’t expect that is going to happen, but anything could happen and that’s the beauty of it.”

[H/t: BBC News]

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Brain Scans May Be Able To Help Diagnose Babies At Risk Of Developing Autism

Health and Medicine

Brain Scans May Be Able To Help Diagnose Babies At Risk Of Developing Autism

Posted By liveworld

The signs that a child has autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, normally start to appear when they are around two years of age. But if doctors could diagnose ASD at a much earlier age, then steps could be taken before it has fully manifested that may allow both child and family manage the condition better.

Researchers now think that they could identify those most at risk of developing autism within the first year of a child’s life. The study, published this week in Nature, looked at the brain scans of 106 babies who came from families that already had a child with autism. From these scans taken at both six and 12 months of age, they then identified markers in the brains that predicted whether or not the child will develop ASD.

“Our study shows that early brain development biomarkers could be very useful in identifying babies at the highest risk for autism before behavioral symptoms emerge,” explains Joseph Piven in a statement. “Typically, the earliest an autism diagnosis can be made is between ages two and three. But for babies with older autistic siblings, our imaging approach may help predict during the first year of life which babies are most likely to receive an autism diagnosis at 24 months.”

If scientists are able to diagnose autism in children before it manifests itself, it may also allow for researchers to begin other studies looking into potential ways to prevent it from forming in the first place. The causes behind the condition are still unknown (despite what you may here from incredibly dubious films currently on release), with explanations ranging from underlying genetics to different ways in which the brain develops, although it is likely to be a mixture of factors involved.

Autism is generally seen as a condition that is more common in boys than in girls, but this is now being challenged. Part of the reason behind the skew may simply be down to the fact that this imbalance between the sexes is expected, and so when girls display behaviors indicative of autism they are often missed. It could also be that girls are simply better at masking them. But this is now being acknowledged, and better understood, and some even predict that in the UK alone there may be as many as 100,000 undiagnosed girls with autism, who are not getting the support they desperately need.

The results are still very early stage, and the researchers do not recommend rolling the technique out into clinics any time soon, but it could now form a basis for further research to investigate these early cues that may help speed up diagnoses. It could at least give parents an indication that they should be looking out for the signs of ASD as the child grows.

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Forensics Reconstruct The Face Of A Man Brutally Murdered 1,400 Year Ago

Editor's Blog

Forensics Reconstruct The Face Of A Man Brutally Murdered 1,400 Year Ago

Posted By liveworld

The face of a man murdered in the Scottish Highlands around 1,400 years ago has been digitally reconstructed, helping anthropologists and forensic scientists solve how his grisly death came about. One thing is for certain: Don’t mess with 6th-century tattooed Scottish Highlanders.

The remarkably well-preserved skeletal remains were found buried in a cave around the Black Isle in eastern Scotland. Along with finding evidence that the cave had been used for iron-smithing, they unearthed a skeleton that appeared to have been placed on his back in a cross-legged position with his limbs weighed down with heavy beach rocks.

The unusual scenario captured the curiosity of the University of Dundee’s Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification (CAHID) who took the body back to their lab for further research.

Radiocarbon dating of the bones showed that he died sometime between 430 and 630 CE. This would have meant he was part of the Picts, a collective of tribes in Scotland who repelled the conquests of both Romans and Angles up until the 10th century CE. They were named “the Picts” by the Romans, which derives from the term “painted or tattooed ones.”

The imaging process reveals same of the fractures sustained on the man’s face and skull. University of Dundee

Analysis showed massive fractures to his face and skull, which indicated at least five heavy blunt force impacts.

“The first impact was by a circular cross-section implement that broke his teeth on the right side,” Project leader and forensic anthropologist Professor Dame Sue Black explained a statement. “The second may have been the same implement, used like a fighting stick, which broke his jaw on the left. The third resulted in fracturing to the back of his head as he fell from the blow to his jaw with a tremendous force possibly onto a hard object perhaps stone.”

It didn’t stop there. 

“The fourth impact was intended to end his life as probably the same weapon was driven through his skull from one side and out the other as he lay on the ground,” she contiuned. “The fifth was not in keeping with the injuries caused in the other four where a hole, larger than that caused by the previous weapon, was made in the top of the skull.”

The cherry on top of this study is the digital reconstruction of the face by the CAHID team, created through a blend of anatomical science, anthropology, forensic art, and imaging technology.

How this man’s final days played out remains a mystery to the researchers. However, further excavations of the cave and more detailed analysis of the bones hopes to provide the forensic anthropologists with some answers.

Excavation leader Steven Birch speculated: “While we don’t know why the man was killed, the placement of his remains gives us insight into the culture of those who buried him. Perhaps his murder was the result of interpersonal conflict; or was there a sacrificial element relating to his death?”

The end results of the forensic work show the man having a particularly good hair day. University of Dundee

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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Has Some Curious Thoughts About The Future Of Schools

Editor's Blog

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Has Some Curious Thoughts About The Future Of Schools

Posted By liveworld

Betsy DeVos, someone who knows as much about education as a pancake, is the US Secretary for Education. So far, she’s claimed that all schools need guns because of potential grizzly attacks, had her social media peon misspell the name of a famous advocate of education – and then misspell the apology – and she can’t seem to find her pencils.

Things, as they say, are not going well.

New journalistic portal Axios managed to get some time with the longtime GOP donor and pencil botherer this week, and they asked her what she would have said differently during her final confirmation hearing. There are some wonderful bits of madness sprinkled throughout, along with some genuinely frightening parts.

“I expect there will be more public charter schools. I expect there will be more private schools. I expect there will be more virtual schools,” DeVos mused aloud, thinking about the future of American education. Then she added: “I expect there will be more schools of any kind that haven’t even been invented yet.”

What in the name of W.E.B. Du Bois does this mean? Where else can you go other than “virtual” for the future? Underwater schools? Sky schools? Space schools? Hedgehog schools? (Actually, these all sound pretty awesome.)

This is an incredibly vague answer. DeVos’ general policy towards education is that there should be more “choice” at the state and district level for curriculums which, given her family’s strong pro-creationism stance, worries quite a lot of people. Other than that, the future of American schools under her leadership is anyone’s guess, really.

It’s worth pointing out that she is quite keen to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a bipartisan law signed by President Obama that superseded the flawed 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.

The purpose of ESSA was to actually give a lot of control over educational policy back to local authorities while still making sure poorly performing students and schools are focused on for improvement. At the very least, it’s a good sign she wants to implement it, but it’s unclear exactly how she would go about that. “It’s too early to have numerical goals,” she added.

Her focus, though, seems to be weakening the federal government’s power of educational policy as much as possible – and this is what really concerns educators across the US.

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No, Aliens Did Not Hack Voyager 2 Back In 2010

Space

No, Aliens Did Not Hack Voyager 2 Back In 2010

Posted By liveworld

In the last few days, there have been some reports that the Voyager 2 spacecraft was hacked in 2010 and even more importantly it was probably done by aliens. So let’s have a look at the facts and let’s separate them from the rather obvious fiction.

On May 6, 2010, NASA engineers put out a press release that the Voyager 2 has been transmitting unreadable data for the past few weeks. The cause of it all was a single computer bit that had flipped, making the transmitting data unreadable.

The website Physics-Astronomy reported this last October, based on a story run by the Telegraph on May 14, 2010, with speculation from German pseudoscience author Hartwig Hausdorf that the probe was being hacked by aliens.

“It seems almost as if someone has reprogrammed or hijacked the probe – thus perhaps we do not yet know the whole truth,” Hausdorf told the German Newspaper Bild.

And he was partly right. The whole truth would come out a few days later, when NASA confirmed that the cause was one flip of a bit in the memory of an onboard computer and by May 20, the whole system was back to being fully operational.

The probe was neither reprogrammed nor hijacked. While the science data was illegible, NASA could still get the health data of the craft, which showed everything was going fine and dandy. In all likelihood a natural external factor caused the bit to flip.

A cosmic ray – high-energy particles from interstellar space – might have been responsible for it. According to an extensive IBM study on the subject, computers on Earth experience one cosmic-ray-induced error per 256 megabytes of RAM per month.

The study, which was commissioned in the ’90s, is about Earth computers that are actually being used quite safely within Earth’s magnetic field. Voyager 2 is at the edge of the Solar System, where cosmic sources of radiation are more intense. A software error due to a cosmic ray is a possible explanation.

Voyager 2 is the third furthest human-made object from Earth, now at a distance of 17 billion kilometers (10.6 billion miles) almost 32 light-hours away. It’s catching up to the second furthest object, Pioneer 10, but will never beat Voyager 1, which is now in interstellar space.

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Preserved Body Of Giant Tortoise "Lonesome George" Returns To Galapagos

Plants and Animals

Preserved Body Of Giant Tortoise "Lonesome George" Returns To Galapagos

Posted By liveworld

The tortoise, the legend. After five long years, “Lonesome George” has returned to his native home on the Galapagos Islands (albeit in a stuffed and preserved taxidermied form).

Lonesome George became quite the celebrity towards the end of his 100-odd years of life as he was the last remaining individual from the giant Pinta Island tortoise species. After passing away in 2012, his earthly remains were sent to a team of expert taxidermists in New York at the American Museum of Natural History, where he was primed, polished, and preserved.

You can even watch a short documentary from 2015 about the fine art of preserving Lonesome George in the video below.

The taxidermied remains of this odd-looking fella was on display at the Museum from September 2014 until January 2015. After some initial delays, he’s now headed home. The body was flown to Ecuador and then the Galapagos on Friday, February 17, where it will be on public display in the islands’ Symbol of Hope Exhibition Hall next week.

Lonesome George – who was regularly dubbed the “rarest creature in the world” – remains a powerful symbol of conservation. After conservationists realized he was the last known individual of his species they launched numerous efforts over the decades to breed him with females of a similar species, sadly to no avail. 

Advances in science, however, hint that the days of the Pinta Island tortoise might not have ended just yet. Over the past few years, there have been numerous snippets of speculation that it might be possible to resurrect Lonesome George, provided researchers can find a genetically similar species.

For the time being, George remains as lonesome as ever on the Galapagos. But with a little hard work, perhaps his story could continue.

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What Is The Best Mosquito Repellent? Science Comes To The Rescue

Health and Medicine

What Is The Best Mosquito Repellent? Science Comes To The Rescue

Posted By liveworld

Everyone has a tried and tested technique that they swear repels mosquitoes. From citronella candles to the curve ball, Avon Skin-So-Soft, we are each convinced that they are doing their job and keeping us safe from the sneaky little blood suckers. But how do we know they are actually doing their job and keeping the pesky insects at bay?

In light of the recent Zika epidemic, which is still bubbling away in the Americas, there has been renewed interest in mosquito repellents. So a new paper published in the Journal of Insect Science has decided to look into the efficacy of a range of mosquito repelling products, and we think it’s fair to say that for many of them, it’s not looking great. None of the 11 products that all claimed to work were 100 percent effective, and some were no better than no protection at all.

The researchers decided to test the repellents by placing a human “bait” in a wind tunnel alongside a mesh cage containing Aedes aegypti mosquitoes downwind, and recording whether or not the insects were attracted to, or repelled from the bait dowsed with the range of products.

They found that citronella candles have zero effect on repelling mosquitos, and in actual fact “attracted slightly more mosquitoes [than] the human bait person alone,” although they do note the difference was not statistically significant. All the spray-on products did repel mosquitos to a degree, but they still offer the high probability that you will get bitten, particularly if there are high numbers of the blood suckers around.

By far the most effective repellents were oil of lemon eucalyptus spray and DEET, which reduced mosquito attraction by 60 percent. And when it came to the plethora of wearable repellents, well, they were pretty useless too. Bracelets containing herbal repellents and sonic mosquito repellers, which apparently use high-frequency noises to banish the insects, were particularly terrible.

“We are not aware of any scientific study showing that mosquitoes can be repelled by sound waves and therefore we consider these devices as the modern equivalent of snake oil,” wrote the authors in a particularly scathing attack on the sonic devices.

There was, however, one piece of wearable tech that did have a positive result. The OFF! Clip-on Metofluthrin nebulizer that uses a fan to distribute the insecticide metofluthrin around the wearer was found to be pretty good at its job, and the only wearable repellent to actually repel the mosquitoes.

So there we have it. It seems the safest bet is to stick to spray-on repellents, but even this comes with a warning that they are not anywhere near as effective as they claim, and caution should definitely be taken if you are going to be exposed to large numbers of mosquitoes.

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Scientists Need Your Brains, No Seriously

Health and Medicine

Scientists Need Your Brains, No Seriously

Posted By liveworld

Scientists want your brains. By that, we don’t mean the complex abstract ideas inside them. Instead, they actually need that springy gray bundle of neurons in your head.

While you’re no doubt aware of donating your liver, kidney, heart, lungs, or other body parts to science, many people are unaware that the brain is also a highly sought after specimen for researchers to get their scalpels into.

A new report by BBC News has revealed some brain banks in the US are suffering from a shortage of specimens, which could potentially be holding back research into mental illness and neurological disorders. This is because not enough people in some areas are donating their brains to science after they die. Firstly, many are unaware there’s a demand for them and secondly because the majority of people see their mental condition as purely a psychological issue, rather than an anatomical one.

“If people think that there are no changes in the brain of somebody that suffers from major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder then there is no reason for them to donate their brain for research because there is nothing there to find,” Professor Sabina Berretta, the scientific director of the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, told BBC News. “This conception is radically wrong from a biological point of view.”

This is just as true when it comes to understanding, and possibly even finding a cure for, neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease. Brain tissue donations have already massively opened up the study of brain-associated conditions, much of which has come from healthy brains. Quite simply, the more brains the better.

“Research made possible through the donation of brain tissue has already led to major advances in our understanding of Parkinson’s and resulted in new treatments that are currently being developed and tested,” Claire Bale, head of research communications and engagement at Parkinson’s UK, said in a statement.

In the US you can donate your precious brain to the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center by simply filling out a Brain Donor Registration application. You, or someone on your behalf, can then call up 1-800-BRAINBANK (1-800-272-4622) – no, that’s not a joke – just before or after death. There are many similar schemes in countries across the world. 

So, get your head into gear and get signed up to a donation program. 

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Glacial "Aftershock" Causes City-Sized Chunk Of Ice To Break From Antarctica

Environment

Glacial "Aftershock" Causes City-Sized Chunk Of Ice To Break From Antarctica

Posted By liveworld

Hey, remember that giant piece of Antarctica that’s been rapidly tearing away from the continent and threatening to go solo? Well, guess what – it’s still not quite broken off just yet. In fact, much to the irritation of the world’s scientific media, the Larsen C ice shelf is being a bit of a prima donna about the whole thing.

Fortunately, for those hoping for some good ice-on-sea action, another piece of Antarctica has decided to jump on the bandwagon and calve itself off. A part of Pine Island Glacier, a key component of the cryosphere of the south, has said its farewells and drifted off to melt away.

This particular glacier is a little fragile, and has been fragmenting quite dramatically since 2014. This newly shed piece is roughly the size of Manhattan, which sounds huge but is essentially impossible to physically imagine. Put it this way – it covers roughly the same area as 433.2 million large-sized pizzas. Yes, the topping is irrelevant here.

Like the aforementioned diva of a chunk of ice that is yet to break off from the Antarctic Peninsula, Pine Island Glacier is actually an ice shelf, which means it’s already floating on the water – so its escape into the sea does not directly contribute to sea level rise. However, ice shelves hold back land-based glaciers and vast ice sheets, so when they go, the proverbial dam bursts.

content-1487335397-pine-gif.gif

A gorgeous timelapse of the latest calving event. ESO/NASA

Although it still takes a while – they don’t all tumble into the sea in one giant cacophonous collapse – the collapse of ice shelves, sometimes (but not always) linked to anthropogenic climate change, indirectly contributes to sea level rise. It’s almost never a good sight to behold, even if it does look pretty epic.

These latest images come courtesy of the Operational Land Imager (OLI) attached to the Landsat 8, and the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) adorning NASA’s Terra satellite. Sometime between January 24 and January 26, Pine Island Glacier’s front end fell off.

Apparently, if you’re just tuning in now, you missed the best part of the calving process, which took place in 2015. Back then, a piece of ice 10 times the size of the newest addition to the fleet broke away.

“I think this event is the calving equivalent of an ‘aftershock’ following the much bigger event,” Ian Howat, a glaciologist at Ohio State University, said in a statement. “Apparently, there are weaknesses in the ice shelf – just inland of the rift that caused the 2015 calving – that are resulting in these smaller breaks.”

Either way, we can all agree that the Pine Island Glacier is really showing up Larsen C.

[H/T: ESO/NASA]

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