Science & Technology


'Cloud' of bacteria surround the earth - survives at 33,000 feet

high altitude bacteria
© Gary Meek/Georgia Tech

In the midst of airborne sea salt and dust, researchers from Georgia Tech unexpectedly found thousands of living fungal cells and bacteria, including E. coli and Streptococcus.
In the midst of airborne sea salt and dust, researchers from Georgia Tech unexpectedly found thousands of living fungal cells and bacteria, including E. coli and Streptococcus. Earth's upper atmosphere - below freezing, nearly without oxygen, flooded by UV radiation - is no place to live. But last winter, scientists from the Georgia Institute of Technology discovered that billions of bacteria actually thrive up there. Expecting only a smattering of microorganisms, the researchers flew six miles above Earth's surface in a NASA jet plane. There, they pumped outside air through a filter to collect particles. Back on the ground, they tallied the organisms, and the count was staggering: 20 percent of what they had assumed to be just dust or other particles was alive. Earth, it seems, is surrounded by a bubble of bacteria.

Now what?

Scientists don't yet know what the bacteria are doing up there, but they may be essential to how the atmosphere functions, says Kostas Konstantinidis, an environmental microbiologist on the Georgia Tech team. For example, they could be responsible for recycling nutrients in the atmosphere, like they do on Earth. And similar to other particles, they could influence weather patterns by helping clouds form. However, they also may be transmitting diseases from one side of the globe to the other. The researchers found E. coli in their samples (which they think hurricanes lifted from cities), and they plan to investigate whether plagues are raining down on us. If we can find out more about the role of bacteria in the atmosphere, says Ann Womack, a microbial ecologist at the University of Oregon, scientists could even fight climate change by engineering the bacteria to break down greenhouse gases into other, less harmful compounds.

Comment: See more about the possibility of new pathogens arriving on Earth via cometary dust.

New Light on the Black Death: The Cosmic Connection


Milky way galaxy structure mapped in unprecedented detail

Milky way Galaxy 1
© Sean Parker
The Milky Way arches over an old windmill near Paulden, Arizona.
Astronomers are one step closer to solving a longstanding mystery - just what our Milky Way galaxy looks like.

It may seem odd that a comprehensive understanding of the Milky Way's structure has so far eluded researchers. But it's tough to get a broad view of the galaxy from within.

"We are fairly confident that the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, but we don't know much in detail. At the most basic level, we'd like to be able to make a map that would show in detail what it looks like," said Mark Reid of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who led the new study.

Asteroid study group revises city-destroying threat-level down from 1-in-3000 year events to 1-in-100 years

Lots more where that came from
Space rocks big enough to destroy a city hit the Earth much more often than thought, according to an estimate by a private group devoted to preventing disaster from such orbital killers.

It took a space rock the size of San Francisco to finish off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, but a decent-sized metropolis could be reduced to smoldering ruins by a boulder that could fit inside a soccer field. The strike rate for such large space rocks, properly known as asteroids, has been estimated at once every 3,000 years, but the B612 Foundation, a planetary defense group, says the true figure could be as high as once a century. Outside scientists say that frequency is plausible but could well be too high.

"There are people who say, 'Oh, once every million years we have something we have to worry about.' That couldn't be more wrong," says physicist and former space shuttle astronaut Ed Lu, chief executive officer of the B612 Foundation. "Eventually you're going to get hit, because it's just a matter of time."

Brazil: Congress passes 'internet constitution' bill

© Reuters / Nacho Doce
People hold a banner protesting against surveillance on the Internet during the NETmundial: Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance in Sao Paulo April 23, 2014
Ahead of a two-day Net Mundial international conference in Sao Paulo on the future of the Internet, Brazil's Senate has unanimously adopted a bill which guarantees online privacy of Brazilian users and enshrines equal access to the global network.

The bill known as the "Internet constitution" or Marco Civil was first introduced in the wake of the NSA spying scandal and has now been signed into law by President Dilma Rousseff - one of the primary targets of the US intelligence apparatus, as leaks by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden revealed.

Rousseff presented the law on Wednesday at a global Net Mundial Internet conference in Sao Paulo.

Science just discovered a brand new shape

You probably thought you learned all the shapes - your circles, your squares, your triangles and rhombi - sometime in elementary school. You'd be mistaken. Using complex materials such as rubber bands, plastic cups, and paper clips, researchers at Harvard University have just observed and recreated an entirely new shape: the hemihelix.

It's true, you probably won't see the new shape much in nature (if at all), but, just in case, it looks like this:
In fact, it can be recreated fairly easily with some rudimentary materials, which we'll get to in a minute.

Why bother doing something like this at all? Like many things in science, it was kind of an accident. The Harvard team, led by Katia Bertoldi, a professor of applied mechanics, was setting out to try to create a new type of spring. To do that, they were intertwining two different strips of rubber bands that were different lengths and widths. During one of the tests, they accidentally formed a hemihelix, which is like a corkscrew that changes its chirality, or the way it's proverbially screwing, halfway through. Think of it as a if someone put a mirror in the middle of a corkscrew.

DNA nanobots can fool the immune system by disguising themselves as viruses

© Steven Perrault/Harvard's Wyss Institute
Sometimes to help the body, you have to fool the body, which is why researchers from Harvard's Wyss Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering modeled their latest DNA nanodevice after those great immune-system evaders, viruses.

The whole project, outlined in a new paper published at ACS Nano, is pretty bizarre and cool - back in February 2012, researchers at Wyss announced that they had developed a robotic device fashioned out of DNA. They described how one day the tiny devices could be used for targeting specific, undesirable cells within the body.

The DNAbots were shaped like an open barrel whose two halves are closed by a hinge. When the barrel rolls across, say, a leukemia or lymphoma cell, the special DNA latches could recognize the cell-surface proteins, and the two halves of the barrel could swing open to deliver the DNAbot's payload, which could include molecules with encoded instructions that would interact with specific cell surface signaling receptors, all to give the cells the order to self-destruct. That's the idea, anyway.

The approach was already modeled on the seek-and-destroy methods of our body's own white blood cells. However, rather than being flattered by the mimicry, the immune system reacted to the DNA bots in a pretty hostile manner when they were injected into mice. When researchers covered the bots in fluorescent dye and injected them into the rodents' bloodstreams, the bots showed up glowing in their bladders pretty quickly. They were getting caught, filtered, and marked for expulsion.
Blue Planet

Climate Science and The case for blunders

Science is not concerned only with things that we understand. The most exciting and creative parts of science are concerned with things that we are still struggling to understand. Wrong theories are not an impediment to the progress of science. They are a central part of the struggle. - Freeman Dyson

Mario Livio has written a book entitled Brilliant Blunders. I haven't read the book, but I am intrigued by a review written by Freeman Dyson for the New York Times Review of Books The Case for Blunders. Excerpts:

Science consists of facts and theories. Facts and theories are born in different ways and are judged by different standards. Facts are supposed to be true or false. They are discovered by observers or experimenters. A scientist who claims to have discovered a fact that turns out to be wrong is judged harshly. One wrong fact is enough to ruin a career.

Comment: Yes, most notably financial objectives, which give legs to bad science, carried out by those who have interests in believing wrong theories and twisting the facts.
Climate Science is Zombie Science

When a branch of science based on incoherent, false or phoney theories is serving a useful but non-scientific purpose it may be kept-going by continuous transfusions of cash from those whose non-scientific interests it serves.

For example, if a branch of pseudo-science based on a phoney theory is nonetheless valuable for political purposes (e.g. to justify a government intervention such as a new tax) or for marketing purposes (to provide the rationale for a marketing campaign) then real science expires and a 'zombie science' evolves.

Zombie science is science that is dead but will not lie down. It keeps twitching and lumbering around so that (from a distance, and with your eyes half-closed) zombie science looks much like real science.

But in fact the zombie has no life of its own; it is animated and moved only by the incessant pumping of funds.
Other relevant links on the fraudulent use of bad theories in the name of 'man-made climate change':

Climate Change Swindlers and the Political Agenda

Video: Al Gore sued by over 30.000 Scientists for fraud

Climategate: Science Is Dying

While climate science is a prime example of science being milked by industry through the policy-makers in its pockets, there are countless other examples where theories and facts are tailored to produce profits to the detriment of people and planet: BigPharma (Vaccines, Statins, countless other products which profit from either manufactured or bought consensus), BigAgro (GMO, pesticides, etc), the Telecoms industry (Wi-fi technology)...


Y chromosome is more than a sex switch

Y chromosome
© Andrew Syred/Science Source
Here to stay. The Y chromosome is small compared with the X, but is required to keep levels of some genes high enough for mammals to survive.
The small, stumpy Y chromosome - possessed by male mammals but not females, and often shrugged off as doing little more than determining the sex of a developing fetus - may impact human biology in a big way. Two independent studies have concluded that the sex chromosome, which shrank millions of years ago, retains the handful of genes that it does not by chance, but because they are key to our survival. The findings may also explain differences in disease susceptibility between men and women.

"The old textbook description says that once maleness is determined by a few Y chromosome genes and you have gonads, all other sex differences stem from there," says geneticist Andrew Clark of Cornell University, who was not involved in either study. "These papers open up the door to a much richer and more complex way to think about the Y chromosome."

The sex chromosomes of mammals have evolved over millions of years, originating from two identical chromosomes. Now, males possess one X and one Y chromosome and females have two Xs. The presence or absence of the Y chromosome is what determines sex - the Y chromosome contains several genes key to testes formation. But while the X chromosome has remained large throughout evolution, with about 2000 genes, the Y chromosome lost most of its genetic material early in its evolution; it now retains less than 100 of those original genes. That's led some scientists to hypothesize that the chromosome is largely indispensable and could shrink away entirely.

UN issues new 15 year climate tipping point - but UN issued tipping points in 1982 and another 10-year tipping point in 1989!

According to the Boston Globe, the United Nations has issued a new climate "tipping point" by which the world must act to avoid dangerous global warming.

The Boston Globe noted on April 16, 2014: "The world now has a rough deadline for action on climate change. Nations need to take aggressive action in the next 15 years to cut carbon emissions, in order to forestall the worst effects of global warming, says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change."

Once again, the world is being warned of an ecological or climate "tipping point" by the UN.

As early as 1982, the UN was issuing a two decade tipping point. UN official Mostafa Tolba, executive director of the UN Environment Program (UNEP), warned on May 11, 1982, the "world faces an ecological disaster as final as nuclear war within a couple of decades unless governments act now." According to Tolba in 1982, lack of action would bring "by the turn of the century, an environmental catastrophe which will witness devastation as complete, as irreversible as any nuclear holocaust."

Scientists 'edit' DNA to correct adult genes and cure diseases

© The Independent, UK
Experts hail ‘fantastic advance’ of new technique that can alter life-threatening mutations with pinpoint accuracy.
A genetic disease has been cured in living, adult animals for the first time using a revolutionary genome-editing technique that can make the smallest changes to the vast database of the DNA molecule with pinpoint accuracy.

Scientists have used the genome-editing technology to cure adult laboratory mice of an inherited liver disease by correcting a single "letter" of the genetic alphabet which had been mutated in a vital gene involved in liver metabolism.

A similar mutation in the same gene causes the equivalent inherited liver disease in humans - and the successful repair of the genetic defect in laboratory mice raises hopes that the first clinical trials on patients could begin within a few years, scientists said.

The success is the latest achievement in the field of genome editing. This has been transformed by the discovery of Crispr, a technology that allows scientists to make almost any DNA changes at precisely defined points on the chromosomes of animals or plants. Crispr - pronounced "crisper" - was initially discovered in 1987 as an immune defence used by bacteria against invading viruses. Its powerful genome-editing potential in higher animals, including humans, was only fully realised in 2012 and 2013 when scientists showed that it can be combined with a DNA-sniping enzyme called Cas9 and used to edit the human genome.

Since then there has been an explosion of interest in the technology because it is such a simple method of changing the individual letters of the human genome - the 3 billion "base pairs" of the DNA molecule - with an accuracy equivalent to correcting a single misspelt word in a 23-volume encyclopaedia.