Science & Technology


US Intelligence agency trying to develop computers that think like humans

computer brain
© AFP Photo / Mauricio Lima
A little-known US intelligence research agency hopes to revolutionize the machine mind by finding firms capable of writing computer algorithms nearly identical to those implemented by the human brain.

The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), which operates under the Director of National Intelligence, will host a Proposers' Day conference for the Machine Intelligence from Cortical Networks (MICrONS) program on July 17, the agency said in a press release.

"The overall and specific goal of the MICrONS program is to create a new generation of machine learning algorithms derived from high-fidelity representations of cortical microcircuits to achieve human-like performance on complex information processing tasks," IARPA says.

In layman's terms, that means getting computers to operate and process information much like the human brain. For many information processing tasks, the brain employs algorithms - a step-by-step procedure for making calculations.

The reeducation of GI cells to potentially treat, cure type 1 diabetes

GI Cells
© Columbia University Medical Center
Human gastrointestinal cells from patients were engineered to express insulin (fluorescent green) in the lab.
Type 1 diabetes is caused by the body's immune system attacking its own natural insulin-producing cells to the point where the body cannot properly regulate blood sugar levels. Researchers have been pursuing therapies that could "re-train" the body's other cells to produce the proper amount of insulin necessary.

Now, researchers from Columbia University Medical Center have announced the ability to convert cells in the human gastrointestinal tract into insulin-producing cells by simply turning off a single gene, according to a new report in Nature Communications.

"People have been talking about turning one cell into another for a long time, but until now we hadn't gotten to the point of creating a fully functional insulin-producing cell by the manipulation of a single target," said study author Dr. Domenico Accili, a medical professor at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC).

The study team said their finding opens the door to the possibility of treating or curing type 1 diabetes through the reprogramming of existing cells, rather than through transplants or stem cells. Although insulin-producing tissue can be produced in the lab from stem cells, these cells do not yet possess all the capabilities of natural pancreatic beta cells.

Some scientists have instead tried to change present cells in a patient into insulin-producers. Prior research by Columbia scientists transformed mouse intestinal cells into insulin-producing cells; the new study indicates that this method also works in human intestinal cells. The team was able to instruct human gut cells to create insulin in reaction to physiologic conditions by turning off the cells' FOXO1 gene.

Gliese 832c: A potentially habitable Super-Earth 16 light-years away?

Gliese 832 c
© PHL / UPR Arecibo
Artistic representation of the potentially habitable exoplanet Gliese 832 c as compared with Earth.
A team of astronomers led by Dr Robert Wittenmyer of the University of New South Wales has discovered a super-Earth orbiting near the inner edge of the habitable zone of Gliese 832 (GJ 832), a red-dwarf star previously known to host a cold Jupiter-like exoplanet.

Gliese 832, also known as HD 204961 or LHS 3685, is a M1.5 dwarf located in the constellation Grus, about 16 light-years from Earth. It has about half the mass and radius of the Sun.

This star is already known to harbor Gliese 832b, a cold Jupiter-like planet discovered in 2009.

"With an outer giant planet and an interior potentially rocky planet, this planetary system can be thought of as a miniature version of our Solar System," said Prof Chris Tinney, an astronomer with the University of New South Wales and a co-author of the discovery paper accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal ( pre-print).

Biosafety and the 'Seralini affair': Systemic corruption of science and regulation

The forced retraction of a study that identified serious harm to rats fed on GMO maize and Monsanto's 'Roundup' reveals a deep and systemic corruption of science and regulation, writes Gilles-Eric Séralini. Urgent and far reaching reforms must now take place.

There is an ongoing debate on the potential health risks of the consumption of genetically modified (GM) plants containing high levels of pesticide residues.

Currently, no regulatory authority requests mandatory chronic animal feeding studies to be performed for edible GMOs and formulated pesticides. This fact is at the origin of most of the controversies. Only studies consisting of 90-day rat feeding trials have been conducted by manufacturers for GMOs.
Comet 2

New Comet: C/2014 L5 (Lemmon)

Discovery Date: June 9, 2014

Magnitude: 20.1 mag

Discoverer: R. A. Kowalski (Mt. Lemmon)

C/2014 L5 Lemmon
© Aerith Net
Magnitudes Graph
The orbital elements are published on M.P.E.C. 2014-M57.

Scientists control muscle movement with light

light controls muscles
© Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT
MIT neuroscientists inhibit muscle contractions by shining light on spinal cord neurons.

For the first time, MIT neuroscientists have shown they can control muscle movement by applying optogenetics - a technique that allows scientists to control neurons' electrical impulses with light - to the spinal cords of animals that are awake and alert.

Led by MIT Institute Professor Emilio Bizzi, the researchers studied mice in which a light-sensitive protein that promotes neural activity was inserted into a subset of spinal neurons. When the researchers shone blue light on the animals' spinal cords, their hind legs were completely but reversibly immobilized. The findings, described in the June 25 issue of PLoS One, offer a new approach to studying the complex spinal circuits that coordinate movement and sensory processing, the researchers say.

In this study, Bizzi and Vittorio Caggiano, a postdoc at MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research, used optogenetics to explore the function of inhibitory interneurons, which form circuits with many other neurons in the spinal cord. These circuits execute commands from the brain, with additional input from sensory information from the limbs.

Previously, neuroscientists have used electrical stimulation or pharmacological intervention to control neurons' activity and try to tease out their function. Those approaches have revealed a great deal of information about spinal control, but they do not offer precise enough control to study specific subsets of neurons.

Optogenetics, on the other hand, allows scientists to control specific types of neurons by genetically programming them to express light-sensitive proteins. These proteins, called opsins, act as ion channels or pumps that regulate neurons' electrical activity. Some opsins suppress activity when light shines on them, while others stimulate it.

"With optogenetics, you are attacking a system of cells that have certain characteristics similar to each other. It's a big shift in terms of our ability to understand how the system works," says Bizzi, who is a member of MIT's McGovern Institute.

Science's unshakable 'truths'? Five insights challenging the status quo

If you thought dying of loneliness was just an old wives' tale, or that genetic inheritance is fixed - think again. Michael Brooks on science's most unexpected findings

1. Lifestyle can change genes

methyl groups
© Science Photo Library
Methyl groups, which affect our genes, often come from what we eat. Photograph:
We have come to think that if something is "in our genes", it is our inevitable destiny. However, this is a gross oversimplification. We have each inherited a particular set of genes, but the outcome of that inheritance is not fixed. Our environment, diet and circumstance flood our bodies with molecules that switch the genes on or off. The result can make a huge difference to our destiny - and that of our descendants.

One example of these "epigenetic" changes occurs when a bundle of carbon and hydrogen atoms known as a methyl group attaches itself to the DNA and changes the way its instructions are carried out. The degree of the effect depends on the exact shapes into which the DNA in cells is coiled; sometimes certain genes become more or less exposed to external influences. But it can have major effects: the effect of methyl groups on DNA can make the difference between a foetus being healthy or stillborn.

Methyl groups often come from what we eat. Lack of food seems to have an epigenetic effect, too. A study of Dutch women starved by the Nazis during the second world war - the British actress Audrey Hepburn was among them - has found elevated levels of schizophrenia, breast cancer and heart disease. The data suggest that the alterations to which genes are turned on or off survive at least two generations: the one that suffered in the womb during the famine, and their children.

They may go much further. A 2011 study published by researchers at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, demonstrated epigenetic mutations that lasted for at least 30 generations in plants. So far, we haven't proved such long-term changes in humans but there are hints that epigenetics cascades through the generations.

A 2001 study traced the long-term effects of nutrition - and malnutrition. Controlling for socioeconomic factors, a boy approaching puberty who overate at the beginning of the last century generally reduced his grandson's life expectancy by a whopping 32 years. Other studies show that if boys start smoking before the age of 11 their sons will be significantly more overweight by age nine than their peers with fathers who only took up smoking later. The only way this can happen is if the act of smoking tobacco triggers some epigenetic change in the way DNA is activated in their sperm.

Standard biological thinking says that the body strips away molecules such as a methyl group from sperm and eggs so that they are "reset" to their default state. However, a study published by Cambridge researchers last year showed that approximately 1% of the changes get through the erasure process unscathed. What you eat, what your mother ate, the age when your grandfather started smoking, the amount of pollution in your neighbourhood - these factors have all been linked to epigenetic changes that get passed down through the generations. Armed with this new insight, we can take far more control of our health - and the health of future generations.

Is Linux leaving Microsoft in the technological dust?

© John Vetterli, CC BY
Linux is already at your party
Linux, the most widely used open source operating system in the world, has scored a major publicity coup in the revelation that it is used on 94% of the world's top 500 supercomputers.

Every operating system has technical issues and Linux has not been faultless. But some key technological milestones have been passed in recent years that have made it possible for Linux to quietly assert dominance in the fight for popularity and custom.

Apart from the fact that it is free and has been since its creation in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, Linux has many technological advantages that mean other operating systems just can't beat it.

Millions of people all over the world use Microsoft operating systems but how many describe themselves as enthusiasts? Linux users are often really passionate about the open source cause and this is boosting uptake. They argue that it is more secure than main rivals Apple and Microsoft, with technical features that win hands down. The fact that the most powerful and expensive computers in the world are using it is potentially the best reference you could want.
2 + 2 = 4

Physicist suggests speed of light might be slower than thought

Supernova 1987a
© ESA/Hubble & NASA
SN 1987A through the Hubble Space Telescope.
Experimental observations from Supernova 1987a showed that the first neutrinos arrived approximately 7.7 h before the first photons.
Physicist James Franson of the University of Maryland has captured the attention of the physics community by posting an article to the peer-reviewed New Journal of Physics in which he claims to have found evidence that suggests the speed of light as described by the theory of general relativity, is actually slower than has been thought.

The theory of general relativity suggests that light travels at a constant speed of 299,792,458 meters per second in a vacuum. It's the c in Einstein's famous equation after all, and virtually everything measured in the cosmos is based on it - in short, it's pretty important. But, what if it's wrong?

Comment: In fact, general relativity predicts that the velocity of light would be reduced by a gravitational potential, the author proposes a correction by using a first approximation effect of a gravitational field in the framework of the quantum electrodynamics theory. Light velocity is constant in the theory of special relativity where no interaction fields are involved.

Comment: Space is not empty, and while the author tries to introduce a gravitational field to quantum electrodynamics equations, it could be argued that the presence of charged matter along with electromagnetic fields across large distances in space may indeed be more straightforward source of light velocity slowing and spectral shifts (notably red shifts). Only time will tell if theoretical physicists will pursue the matter further.

Fireball 5

New kind of meteorite found

Meteor Shower
© argus/Shutterstock
Illustration of a meteor shower.
For 50 years, scientists have wondered what annihilated the ancestor of L-chondrites, the roof-smashing, head-bonking meteorites that frequently pummel Earth.

Now, a new kind of meteorite discovered in a southern Sweden limestone quarry may finally solve the mystery, scientists report. The strange new rock may be the missing "other half" from one of the biggest interstellar collisions in a billion years.

"Something we didn't really know about before was flying around and crashed into the L-chondrites," said study co-author Gary Huss of the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

The space rock is a 470-million-year-old fossil meteorite first spotted three years ago by workers at Sweden's Thorsberg quarry, where stonecutters have an expert eye for extraterrestrial objects. Quarriers have plucked 101 fossil meteorites from the pit's ancient pink limestone in the last two decades. [Photos: New Kind of Meteorite Found in Sweden]

Researchers have nicknamed the new meteorite the "mysterious object" until its formal name is approved, said lead study author Birger Schmitz, of Lund University in Sweden and Chicago's Field Museum. It will likely be named for a nearby church, the Österplana, he said.