Saturday, October 24, 2009

Random Linkage 24/10/09

Smart rat 'Hobbie-J' produced by over-expressing a gene that helps brain cells communicate
‘Over-expressing a gene that lets brain cells communicate just a fraction of a second longer makes a smarter rat, report researchers from the Medical College of Georgia and East China Normal University.’

Algae and Light Help Injured Mice Walk Again
‘In the summer of 2007, a team of Stanford graduate students dropped a mouse into a plastic basin. The mouse sniffed the floor curiously. It didn’t seem to care that a fiber-optic cable was threaded through its skull. Nor did it seem to mind that the right half of its motor cortex had been reprogrammed.’

Killer Algae: Key Player In Mass Extinctions
‘Supervolcanoes and cosmic impacts get all the terrible glory for causing mass extinctions, but a new theory suggests lowly algae may be the killer behind the world's great species annihilations.’

Giant Impact Near India — Not Mexico — May Have Killed Dinosaurs
'A huge, mysterious basin off the coast of India could be the largest, multi-ringed impact crater ever found on Earth. And if a new study is right, this impact may supercede the one that created the Chicxulub crater off Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula as what may have been responsible for killing the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Sankar Chatterjee of Texas Tech University and a team of researchers have been studying a 500-kilometer-wide (300-mile-wide) depression on the Indian Ocean seafloor which was likely created by a bolide perhaps 40 kilometers (25 miles) in diameter. Such an event would have triggered worldwide climate changes, including intensified volcanism, that led to mass extinction.'

New Concept May Enhance Earth-Mars Communication
‘Direct communication between Earth and Mars can be strongly disturbed and even blocked by the Sun for weeks at a time, cutting off any future human mission to the Red Planet. An ESA engineer working with engineers in the UK may have found a solution using a new type of orbit combined with continuous-thrust ion propulsion.’

Moon scientist arrested on spy charges
'A US scientist who had high-level security clearance and was a principal investigator on a current NASA Moon mission has been arrested for attempted espionage.'
(It's not every day that Nature features an espionage story; still, it would be even better if he'd been arrested on the Moon.)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Serving Your Space Porn Needs Since 2006

The Big Picture has posted a stunning selection of images taken by the Cassini orbiter during Saturn's equinox. Do I need to tell you to get over there right away and check them out?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Yesterday's Future Today

Here's an exciting example of cutting edge medical science, combining a clever molecular biology technique with a race-against-time detective story:
In a dramatic illustration of the power of emerging genetic technologies, Yale University researchers have reported making a clinical diagnosis for the first time using comprehensive DNA sequencing of all the protein-coding genes in the genome. The information changed the course of treatment of a baby boy suffering from symptoms of dehydration thousands of miles away in Turkey.
The baby boy presented symptoms that suggested he was suffering from a genetic condition affecting the way his kidneys functioned. Researchers extracted DNA from a small blood sample and applied a technique, whole exome sequencing, that analyses the small percentage of the genome that contains exons. Exons are stretches of DNA in genes that code for the sequences of amino acids that make up proteins. In eukaroyotes (basically, any organism with a cell nucleus), exons are separated by long stretches of DNA, introns, that don't code for amino acids in proteins. Genomes also contain huge amounts of so-called junk DNA between functioning genes, as well various other kinds of non-amino acid coding DNA. As a result, the DNA that codes for proteins makes up just 1% of the human genome, so a technique that exclusively reads exons saves a lot of time and money, and can quickly and accurately pinpoint mutations.

To cut a long story short, the researchers found that the mutation wasn't, as first suspected, the one that causes a rare condition known as Bartter syndrome, but affected a gene that regulates uptake of chloride and water by cells lining the gastrointestinal tract. Since most (but not all) genetic diseases are caused by mutations in the exome, this has all kinds of implications for fast, rapid, and accurate diagnosis of many diseases, and could help unravel the kind of complex syndromes that Dr Gregory House deals with on a weekly basis.

I'm especially interested in this not only because it is a very clever and neat technique, but it's also a powerful illustration that the future is a lot closer than we think. Or in this instance, than I thought. One of the characters in The Quiet War used a similar technique to diagnose a problem with a microalgal culture essential for the quickening of a biome. Macy Minnot applied a belt-and-braces approach I assumed would be commonplace in her present, our future: a comprehensive reading not only of the entire genome of the recalcitrant microalgal species, but also of its proteome (the complete array of structural and functional proteins in a cell). A little crude compared to the finer focus of exome sequencing, maybe, but able to capture a holistic snapshot of everything going on inside a cell, including all kinds of regulatory functions coded in non-exomic DNA. And by a funny little coincidence pinpointing a problem with another kind of transport gene, this one regulating uptake of phosphate.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


'These photographs of albatross chicks were made just a few weeks ago on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand and coral near the middle of the North Pacific. The nesting babies are fed bellies-full of plastic by their parents, who soar out over the vast polluted ocean collecting what looks to them like food to bring back to their young. On this diet of human trash, every year tens of thousands of albatross chicks die on Midway from starvation, toxicity, and choking.'

Monday, October 19, 2009

There She Blows

Remember LCROSS? A rocket stage and a space probe crashing into a crater at the Moon's south pole one after the other? The huge plume that should have been visible from Earth, and should have provided evidence for or against the presence of water ice in the achingly cold permanent shadows inside the crater? I know, I know, it was a bust. No big plume, no instant results. It all happened so long ago, all of ten days, and the world has moved on.

Well, turns out there was a plume after all, created by the impact of the rocket stage. There it is, inside the circle, right on the money. An actual spaceship (kind of) impact! According to one of the scientists on the project, “Within the range of model predictions we made, the ejecta brightness appears to be at the low end of our predictions." So it wasn't visible from Earth, or the Hubble telescope, but there it is all the same, captured by the LCROSS probe as it rode in towards its own impact. LCROSS captured spectrographic data too, and so did the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which went on to map the thermal footprint of the impacts. Scientists are analysing it. Some time soon, maybe early in November, they may have some preliminary results.

And right there is one of the problems with trying to get people interested in science, in the age of One-Click shopping. News cycles grow shorter and shorter. We want our instant fix even more instantly. Superinstantly. Hyperinstantly. But actual science is slow and painstaking. It takes time, to look at the evidence. It takes more time to work out what it means. You give people two impacts on the Moon, one right after the other. I mean, really, how much more excitement can you take? But there's no big plume and no instant answer. Pundits begin to predict a moondoggle and complain that the project was overhyped and too hastily staged. And meanwhile, the truth grows stealthily and slowly towards the light. But when it emerges, especially if it's equivocal, will it be reported?

Oh, by the way, 32 new exoplanets found.
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