Science & Technology


Evolutionary war between microorganisms affecting human health, biologist says

© Cole Beeler
Bashey-Visser's research focuses on an insect-killing nematode in the genus Steinernema.
Health experts have warned for years that the overuse of antibiotics is creating "superbugs" able to resist drugs treating infection.

But now scientists at Indiana University and elsewhere are finding evidence that an invisible war between microorganisms may also be catching humans in the crossfire.

This conflict is discussed in a recent article from IU biologist Farrah Bashey-Visser in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

"Bacteria aren't just evolving to resist new drugs, they are also constantly evolving due to competition with other microorganisms," said Bashey-Visser, an assistant scientist in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Biology.

The result is that humans can be left trying to play catch-up.

The highly antibiotic-resistant bacteria MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, for example, has been shown to resist treatment in some cases due to competition with other microorganisms.

In the article, Bashey-Visser said a study recently conducted in Europe found a strain of MRSA became resistant to vancomycin after evolving within an infected host. A naturally occurring antibiotic reserved to fight the most serious infections, vancomycin was originally isolated by Eli Lilly and Co. in 1953 from soil collected by a missionary in Borneo.

The new mutant strain of MRSA in the overseas study overtook the original MRSA strain by producing a growth-inhibiting toxin. These toxins, called bacteriocins, are a common defense mechanism used by bacteria to compete against genetically similar microorganisms. However, in response to exposure to the bacteriocin, a third strain evolved resistance to the toxin and, coincidentally, to vancomycin.


Cassini probe spots 'geologically-young red streaks' on Saturn's Tethys moon

© JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute / NASA
Fresh, arc-shaped, reddish marks have been spotted streaking across the surface of Saturn's moon Tethys.
The international Cassini spacecraft has gotten some awesome footage of Tethys - one of the mysterious ice moons of Saturn. It yields several "unusual, arc-shaped reddish streaks" running along the entire surface. NASA is planning further studies.

The snaps were taken as Cassini flew by the giant planet on April 11, using its narrow-angle camera at an altitude of about 53,000km (33,000 miles) from the surface of Tethys. Cassini has been in orbit around Saturn since 2004.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), also responsible for designing the 6.8 meter-tall (22.3ft) spacecraft and its onboard gear, writes on its website that the photos were taken "using clear, green, infrared, and ultraviolet special filters... combined to create enhanced-color views" which underline the striking features that, otherwise would not have been visible to the naked eye.

Despite Cassini being around for longer than 10 years, these are the first quality color images showing Tethys's north face, taken in conditions necessary for seeing anything of the sort we're witnessing now. Seasons in the area change very slowly, so only in the past few years, as the Saturn system entered its northern-hemisphere summer, have the areas become much more illuminated.

Comment: Solar-system-wide climate change strikes again! Time and again astronomers are being surprised by how dynamic our part of the universe has become.


Windows 10: Unsettling privacy issues abound

© AFP Photo/Sam Yeh
Windows 10 has just arrived and there's a new Privacy Policy and Service Agreement from Microsoft coming swiftly in its wake.

The new policies take effect on 1 August and there are a few unsettling things nestling in there that you should be thinking about if you're using the company's services and software.

The Privacy Statement and Services Agreements combined come to 45 pages. Microsoft's deputy general counsel, Horacio Gutierrez wrote that they are "straightforward terms and polices that people can clearly understand." The reality is, you're probably not going to read them. So I did...

And, like so many other companies, Microsoft has grabbed some very broad powers to collect things you do, say and create while using its software. Your data won't be staying on your computer, that much is for sure.

Comment: See also: New Windows 10 comes complete with iris scans, facial recognition and fingerprint scanners


X-Ray reveals mysterious component of human hair

© Fabiano Emmanuel Montoro/LNNano, CNPEM
An electron microscopy image of a human hair cross section. The top region shows the external part of the hair strand (cuticle). The bottom shows the internal "macrofibrils" that exist in the cortex region.
A new and surprising component of human hair has just been discovered, according to research that will be presented today at the annual meeting of the American Crystallographic Association, held in Philadelphia.

Human hair has been extensively studied for decades, but until now, a complete understanding of its structure had proven elusive.

"Hair traditionally has been constituted of three regions: medulla (central part of the hair), cortex (biggest volume fraction of the hair) and the cuticle (external part of the hair)," project leader Vesna Stanic, a scientist working at the Brazilian Synchrotron Light Source, told Discovery News.

"We discovered a new intermediate zone, which is in between the cuticle and cortex," she added.

Stanic and her team made the discovery by combining an ultra powerful submicron X-ray beam with cross-sectional geometry. The original goal was to just study materials used in hair treatments, and how they affect hair. While doing this, Stanic wondered about the diffraction patterns of hair.

Diffraction is the bending of waves around obstacles and openings. X-ray diffraction patterns of a given material can therefore reveal the local arrangement of both molecular and atomic structures.

Diffraction patterns of human hair have been documented before, but they usually involved pointing the X-ray beam perpendicular to the hair fiber axis. Stanic and her team decided to do something different.


Russian scientist: Slowdown in Earth's rotation means we're on the verge of major climatic upheaval


The 2011 tsunami in Japan was just part of the warm-up routine. The Really Big Show has yet to begin in earnest...
The world geological community is warning that today's seismic activity on our planet is nothing compared with what's to come.

Over the past three years, Pakistan, for example, has been hit by dozens of earthquakes. In March 2005, 80,000 people died under the rubble there. On October 30, the last time nature went on the rampage, there were hundreds of victims. Tens of thousands of people drowned during an overwhelming Asian tsunami at the end of 2004. China and Afghanistan have been rocked by quakes again more recently.

These natural disasters, which have swept our planet in recent years, indicate that the world has entered an era not only of a political, but also of climatic instability. Most scientists - biologists and environmentalists - tend to blame the human race for the catastrophic climate change on the Earth. No doubt, the greenhouse effect due to industrial activity plays a considerable role in global warming, but there are other reasons worth considering.

The Earth is rotating around its own axis slower. The International Earth Rotation Service has regularly added a second or two to the length of a 24-hour day in recent years.

Comment: An intriguing article, and very much in line with's research over the years. It makes us wonder if Russian-Chinese plans to develop the relatively uninhabited Eurasian interior are being made with this kind of research in mind?

As for the overall model put forward by this Russian scientist, 'Earth-as-electrical-machine' suggests that all planets in the solar system together form a circuit. And, indeed, we observe 'Earth changes' on our nearest neighbours.

In between galactic influences and local geomagnetic influences on natural cyclical climate change, there are intermediary factors to consider, such as the role played by comets, cosmic ray flux, and the solar-system mechanism that 'sets the motor running'.

And don't forget that while there may be 'phases' to the process of climate shift, it is now believed to be far more abrupt than previously thought:
Ice Ages start and end so suddenly, "it's like a button was pressed," say scientists


Study: Changing storm dynamics causing greater risk of flooding; nearly 40% of U.S. population at risk

© Adrees Latif/Reuters
Changing storm dynamics are causing a greater risk of flooding than they were 50 years ago, particularly on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, putting nearly 40 percent of the US population in harm's way, according to a new study from a Florida university.

In the study, Florida researchers used records of rainfall, sea levels and hurricanes for more than 30 American cities along the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts to assess the relationship between heavy rainfall on land and abnormal rises in water levels occurring during a storm or storm surge.

For both the East and West coasts, they found that, currently, weather events blowing water towards the coast are more likely to cause heavy rainfall over the land and lead to flooding than weather events that took place in the 1950s.


Younger Dryas climate episode due to cosmic impact say researchers

© YDB Research Group
The researchers studied the impact spherules in 18 sites in nine countries on four continents for this study.
At the end of the Pleistocene period, approximately 12,800 years ago—give or take a few centuries—a cosmic impact triggered an abrupt cooling episode that earth scientists refer to as the Younger Dryas.

New research by UC Santa Barbara geologist James Kennett and an international group of investigators has narrowed the date to a 100-year range, sometime between 12,835 and 12,735 years ago. The team's findings appear today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers used Bayesian statistical analyses of 354 dates taken from 30 sites on more than four continents. By using Bayesian analysis, the researchers were able to calculate more robust age models through multiple, progressive statistical iterations that consider all related age data.

"This range overlaps with that of a platinum peak recorded in the Greenland ice sheet and of the onset of the Younger Dryas climate episode in six independent key records," explained Kennett, professor emeritus in UCSB's Department of Earth Science. "This suggests a causal connection between the impact event and the Younger Dryas cooling."


Parasitic flatworms may hold keys for understanding global biodiversity patterns

© HealthDay
The odds of being attacked and castrated by a variety of parasitic flatworms increases for marine horn snails the farther they are found from the tropics. A Smithsonian-led research team discovered this exception to an otherwise globally observed pattern—usually biodiversity is greatest in the tropics and decreases toward the poles. The study, published in Ecology, makes a case for using host-parasite relationships as a tool to understand why there are typically more species—and more interactions between species—in the tropics than anywhere else in the world.

"Unlike free-living species, parasites must use hosts as their habitats," said co-author Osamu Miura, former postdoc at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and associate professor at Kochi University in Japan. "Wide-ranging hosts provide a nearly constant habitat for the parasites, regardless of latitude."

Such host-parasite systems are thus particularly useful for testing hypotheses about global biodiversity trends. Generations of scientists have tried to explain why biodiversity decreases from the tropics to the poles—a pattern known as the latitudinal diversity gradient. Suggested hypotheses include greater seasonal stability, more complex food webs, faster speciation rates and lower extinction rates in the tropics relative to higher latitudes. Because many of these variables influence each other, it is hard to test the effects of one factor independent of the rest.

Comment: For more on the bizarre world of parasites, check out:


Texbooks due for a rewrite? New discovery of blood, collagen in dinosaur bones

© Reuters / Vincent West
Tyrannosaurus Rex
An amazing discovery could rewrite textbooks, after a paleontologist accidentally found blood and soft tissue preserved in tattered dinosaur fossils. If proven, science expects answers to age-old questions, including: "Can we resurrect dinosaurs?"

The red blood cells and collagen fibers were discovered by chance when Imperial College London's Sergio Bertazzo and Susannah Maidment were examining the buildup of calcium in human blood vessels. Bertazzo wanted to perform a few tests using electronic microscopes and ended up asking the Natural History Museum for some fossils to test his findings, according to the IB Times.

They received eight pieces, all estimated at 75 million years old.

What the pair found could prove we've consistently been looking at dinosaurs in the wrong way: it suggests that nearly every fossil science studied in the past century could contain similarly well-preserved blood and tissue samples, answering questions on dinosaur evolution, physiology, behavior, and whether their DNA could also be intact. From there on in, we're entering sci-fi territory.

The accompanying study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Most of the fossils studied by the pair were very poorly-preserved fragments, including toes and claws from what could be several different species.


Spain and Chile will host the world's most powerful gamma-ray observatory by 2016

The Cherenkov Telescope Array
Sites in Spain and Chile have been chosen to host the Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA) - a huge, very high energy gamma-ray observatory 10 times more sensitive than existing instruments, which will study supernova explosions, binary star systems and active galactic nuclei. Astronomers working on the project expect they will get approval at the end of the year to start building the arrays. It is hoped that the CTA will begin taking data at both locations by the end of 2020, with full operations by 2023.

© Wikipedia
Cherenkov radiation glowing in the core of the Advanced Test Reactor.
High-energy gamma rays are generated in the most energetic events in the universe, and studying these messengers can reveal important information about the violent processes that created them. When a gamma ray interacts with a particle in the Earth's atmosphere, it produces a shower of lower-energy particles. These particles travel through the atmosphere faster than the speed of light in the atmosphere, creating a cone of blue light akin to a sonic boom. Telescopes on the ground collect this Cherenkov radiation, which scientists then analyse to determine the energy of the original gamma ray and from what direction it came.
On IOP Physicsworld, a user cdib posted the following comment to this article:

The Cherenkov radiation itself is actually visible light [blue], so it travels at the speed of light in the medium (air in this case). What must travel faster than the speed of light in air is the charged particle that generates the Cherenkov radiation. Typically these charged particles are electrons.
The CTA will consist of two arrays. The smaller array - consisting of 15 telescopes 12 m in diameter and four at 23 m - will study the northern sky from the Spanish island of La Palma, which is off the Atlantic coast of North Africa. The larger observatory will have 70 telescopes at 4 m diameter, 25 at 12 m and four at 23 m. It will look toward the southern sky from Paranal in Chile's Atacama Desert, and the first few small telescopes are likely to be deployed to the Chile site in mid-2016.

Comment: See also: