Science & Technology


Bioengineering study finds two-cell mouse embryos already talking about their future

© Victor O. Leshyk
Bioengineers at UC San Diego have determined through single-cell-RNA-sequencing that embryonic mouse cells show differences in gene expression as early as the two-cell stage of development.
Bioengineers at the University of California, San Diego have discovered that mouse embryos are contemplating their cellular fates in the earliest stages after fertilization when the embryo has only two to four cells, a discovery that could upend the scientific consensus about when embryonic cells begin differentiating into cell types. Their research, which used single-cell RNA sequencing to look at every gene in the mouse genome, was published recently in the journal Genome Research. In addition, this group published a paper on analysis of "time-course"single-cell data which is taken at precise stages of embryonic development in the journal of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Until recently, we haven't had the technology to look at cells this closely," said Sheng Zhong, a bioengineering professor at UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, who led the research. "Using single-cell RNA-sequencing, we were able to measure every gene in the mouse genome at multiple stages of development to find differences in gene expression at precise stages."

The findings reveal cellular activity that could provide insight into where normal developmental processes break down, leading to early miscarriages and birth defects.

The researchers discovered that a handful of genes are clearly signaling to each other at the two-cell and four-cell stage, which happens within days after an egg has been fertilized by sperm and before the embryo has implanted into the uterus. Among the identified genes are several genes belonging to the WNT signaling pathway, well-known for their role in cell-cell communications.

It's official: Automation makes us dumb and leads to 'skill fade'

© Luci Gutiérrez
Computers are taking over the kinds of knowledge work long considered the preserve of well-educated, well-trained professionals.
Artificial intelligence has arrived. Today's computers are discerning and sharp. They can sense the environment, untangle knotty problems, make subtle judgments and learn from experience. They don't think the way we think - they're still as mindless as toothpicks - but they can replicate many of our most prized intellectual talents. Dazzled by our brilliant new machines, we've been rushing to hand them all sorts of sophisticated jobs that we used to do ourselves.

But our growing reliance on computer automation may be exacting a high price. Worrisome evidence suggests that our own intelligence is withering as we become more dependent on the artificial variety. Rather than lifting us up, smart software seems to be dumbing us down.

Black hole loses its appetite for gassy cloud

© ESO/MPE/Marc Schartmann
This simulation shows the possible behavior of a gas cloud (G2) that has been observed approaching the black hole at the center of the Milky Way.
In a showdown of black hole versus G2 - a cloud of gas and dust - it looks like G2 won.

Recent research shows that G2 came within 30 billion kilometers of the super-massive black hole at the center of our galaxy, yet managed to escape from the gravitational pull of the black hole.

Initially, a supercomputer simulation prepared by two Lab physicists and a former postdoc more than two years ago suggested that some of G2 would survive, although its surviving mass would be torn apart, leaving it with a different shape and questionable fate.

The findings are the work of computational physicist Peter Anninos and astrophysicist Stephen Murray, both of AX division within the Weapons and Complex Integration Directorate (WCI), along with their former postdoc Chris Fragile, now an associate professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, and his student, Julia Wilson.

The team's simulations allowed the members to more efficiently follow the cloud's progression toward the black hole.
Comet 2

New Comet: C/2014 W2 (PANSTARRS)

CBET nr. 4019, issued on 2014, November 21, announces the discovery of a comet (magnitude ~18.7) by PANSTARRS survey in four w-band CCD exposures taken with the 1.8-m Pan-STARRS1 telescope at Haleakala on Nov. 17. The new comet has been designated C/2014 W2 (PANSTARRS).

We performed follow-up measurements of this object, while it was still on the neocp. Stacking of 10 unfiltered exposures, 120-sec each, obtained remotely on 2014, November 18.9 from I89 (iTelescope network - Nerpio) through a 0.43-m f/6.8 reflector + CCD, shows that this object is a comet: diffuse coma about 6" in diameter.

Our confirmation image (click on it for a bigger version)
Comet C/2014 W2
© Remanzacco Observatory
M.P.E.C. 2014-W55 (including pre-discovery Catalina Sky Survey observations, identified by T. Spahr, on Oct. 26.3, when the comet was at mag 17.7-18.0, and on Nov. 16.3 at mag 17.3-17.5) assigns the following elliptical orbital elements to comet C/2014 W2: T 2016 Mar. 19.554; e= 0.95; Peri. = 85.90; q = 2.67; Incl.= 81.04

Two exocomet families found around baby star system

© ESO/L. Calçada
This artist’s impression shows exocomets orbiting the star Beta Pictoris. Astronomers analysing observations of nearly 500 individual comets made with the HARPS instrument at ESO’s La Silla Observatory have discovered two families of exocomets around the young star.
Scientists have found two families of comets in the developing Beta Pictoris star system, located about 64 million light-years from Earth, including one group that appears to be remnants of a smashed-up protoplanet.

The discovery bolsters our theoretical understanding of the violent processes that led to the formation of Earth and the other terrestrial planets in the solar system.

"If you look back at the solar system when it was only 22 million years old, you might have seen phenomena that's a like more like what's happening in Beta Pic," astrophysicist Aki Roberge, with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., told Discovery News.

"Rocky planets like the Earth, or any kind of solid planet, are built up out of comets and asteroids. It's the collisions of those bodies that build up the planets in the first place," she said.

Astronomers found the exocomets by analyzing eight years of archived data collected by the HARPS instrument on ESA's 3.6-meter telescope at La Silla Observatory in Chile. They were focusing on small, evaporating bodies that passed across the face of their parent star, relative to the telescope's line of sight.

Japanese company plans 9 mile long undersea city

Japanese firm devises plan for an Ocean Spiral community that descends nine miles to the seabed.

ocean spiral
© Shimizu Corp/AFP/Getty Images
An artist impression of Ocean Spiral.
With dry land increasingly at a premium, a Japanese construction company has come up with a plan to sink a spiralling city into the depths of our oceans.

Each Ocean Spiral will be home to about 5,000 people, according to Shimizu Corp., with each structure also incorporating business and office facilities, hotel and entertainment facilities.

A blueprint for the city of the future was unveiled in Tokyo this week, with Shimizu confidently predicting that the first of its underwater cities would be ready for residents to move in as early as 2030.

At the surface, the city will have a vast floating dome that could be made watertight and retracted beneath the surface in bad weather.

Comment: Good luck with that.


Lake effect snow: Nature's greatest snow machine

Buffalo snowstorm
© Jeff Suhr
The above photo, taken from a plane above Buffalo yesterday by photographer Jeff Suhr, shows the brutal lake effect snow storm in effect over Western New York right now. Some areas are expecting up to six feet of snow by the end of the week. These snowstorms are among the most intense in the world, and the processes that create them are pretty spectacular.

The Great Lakes

Lake effect snow is possible in cold spots around the world, but this post will focus on the extreme weather that's often centered around the Great Lakes. The five lakes in the Upper Midwest - Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario - are the perfect size and in the perfect location to maximize the impact of this annual snow bonanza.

As prevailing winds are most commonly from the north and west, the southern and eastern shores of each respective lake are known as the "snowbelt" because they take the brunt of most heavy lake effect snow events.

Comment: The articles below show the effects of nature's snow machine on Buffalo, NY this week:


Tapeworm lives 4 years in British man's brain

© Reuters / Kim Kyung-Hoon
A British man has become the first person in the country to be diagnosed with a rare tapeworm in his brain. The worm was discovered after the 50-year-old man complained about headaches and strange smells.

The rare type of parasitic worm had burrowed its way from one side of the man's brain to the other, and had been there for four years. Doctors treating the man were puzzled by the ring-like patterns moving through the patient's brain.

A series of scans revealed the 1cm worm had been slowly tunneling through the man's brain. It was extracted during a biopsy at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge.

Experts identified the parasite as Spirometra erinaceieuropaei; an extremely rare tapeworm.

According to the health service tapeworms are parasites that can live in a person's intestine (bowel). They don't always cause symptoms and when they do they are often mistaken for another illness.

Parasitic worms are most common in developing countries and are rare in the UK.

Tapeworms can be caught be touching or consuming anything containing contaminated feces, or by eating raw contaminated pork, beef or fish, and can grow up to 9 meters in length.

Han purple, a 2,000 year old pigment that can propagate waves in only two dimensions, eliminating third dimension

Terracotta Army
© David Castor
Terracotta Army
Han purple is an ancient pigment that wasn't reconstructed by modern chemists until 1992. After the chemists got done with it, it was the physicists' turn. Han purple, they found, eliminates an entire dimension. It makes waves go two-dimensional!

The Chemistry of Han Purple

You'll see Han purple on the famous terracotta warriors surrounding the tomb of the first emperor of China, or on ancient pottery and other works of art. Where you won't see it is on anything made between 220 A.D. and 1992, because after the pigment disappeared it took 1700 years to re-discover it. Elisabeth FitzHugh, a conservator at the Smithsonian, pinned down the chemical composition of the pigment and announced it was a barium copper silicate. (The paper describing the discovery is a fun read. It starts by pointing out the inferiority of other ancient purple pigments, which tended to be closer to red than purple. It also stresses that Tyrian purple, made from sea snails, was a textile dye, not a pigment, and that it could range anywhere from "reddish-blue to purplish-violet." Take that, Phoenicians!)
Cloud Lightning

Electric universe? "Spooky" alignment of quasars across billions of light-years

quasar alignments
© ESO/M. Kornmesser
This artist's impression shows schematically the mysterious alignments between the spin axes of quasars and the large-scale structures that they inhabit
The large-scale structure is shown in blue and quasars are marked in white with the rotation axes of their black holes indicated with a line.
New observations with ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile have revealed alignments over the largest structures ever discovered in the Universe. A European research team has found that the rotation axes of the central supermassive black holes in a sample of quasars are parallel to each other over distances of billions of light-years. The team has also found that the rotation axes of these quasars tend to be aligned with the vast structures in the cosmic web in which they reside.

Comment: A preprint of the paper "Alignment of quasar polarizations with large-scale structures" by D. Hutsemékers et al., to appear in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics" can be read here