Science & Technology


Crumb of mouse brain reconstruction in full detail

Digital reconstruction of mouse brain fragment.
Six years might seem like a long time to spend piecing together the structure of a scrap of tissue vastly smaller than a bead of sweat. But that is how long it has taken a team led by cell biologist Jeff Lichtman from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to digitally reconstruct a tiny cube of mouse brain tissue.

The resulting three-dimensional map is the first complete reconstruction of a piece of tissue in the mammalian neocortex, the most recently evolved region of the brain.

Covering just 1,500 cubic microns, it is still a far cry from reconstructing all 100 billion or so cells that make up the entire human brain. But Christof Koch, president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington, notes that the various technologies involved will speed up "tremendously" over the next decade: "I would call this a very exciting promissory note," he says.

Comment: So who or what is the IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity)? It operates under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence as a collaborator or facilitator of research for IC customers for operational application. (Interesting how many colleges and universities take the bait.)

Anyone care to speculate where the IARPA/MICrONS (Machine Intelligence from Cortical Networks) program is going with the tiny mouse 'build-a-brain' project? Try this:

Augmented Humans. A "sentient data" solution that will allow soldiers to transmit data to other soldiers and electronic systems without conscious thought through an implant, this idea of a "man-machine partnership" offers soldiers of the future a close, personal relationship with the Internet of Things. And, provide humans with superhero-like powers, precision targeting and an actual force field. (Bet you can't wait.)

Bizarro Earth

Oklahoma quakes increase in lock-step with fracking activity

Several earthquakes shook Oklahoma on Monday as the state experiences a sharp increase in the frequency of tremors linked to wastewater disposal from gas and oil drilling, including from fracking, state and federal officials said. Three of Monday's quakes measured above a magnitude 4.0, with a 4.5 earthquake centered just north of Crescent, roughly 45 miles (72 km) north of Oklahoma City, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said. The largest tremor, logged a "significant earthquake" by the USGS, could be felt as far away as Wichita, Kansas, about 160 miles north, broadcaster KOTV reported. There were no reports of damage. The rate of earthquakes in Oklahoma has increased by about 50 percent since 2013, greatly increasing the chance for a damaging quake, according to the USGS.

Noticeable quakes - above magnitude 3.0 - now hit the state at a rate of two per day or more, compared with two or so per year prior to 2009. During the past seven days, Oklahoma has experienced about 40 earthquakes, according to the USGS. Scientists say the seismic activity is triggered by the injection of wastewater from booming oil and gas drilling operations into deep geological formations. The state's oil and gas regulator released a directive this month expanding "Areas of Interest," parts of the state that have been worst-hit by the quakes, and adding restrictions for 211 disposal wells. In March, the regulator - the Oklahoma Corporation Commission - also directed 347 wells to reduce their injection depths to above the Arbuckle formation. High-volume injections into the Arbuckle, the state's deepest formation, have the highest potential for seismic activity, according to the USGS. Twenty-one of Oklahoma's 77 counties are under the order, and oil and gas drilling operators have until Aug. 14 to comply with reducing injection depth.

Via Yahoo News

Comment: The fracking business has put huge regions of the US and other countries in danger, not only from creating geologic instability, but poisoning groundwater supplies.


Brown dwarf 18 light-years away observed to have auroral activity

© Chuck Carter and Gregg Hallinan, Caltech
Artist's conception of an aurora over the polar region of a brown dwarf.
For the first time, astronomers have detected an aurora erupting beyond the solar system, giving us a profound glimpse at the magnetism surrounding a brown dwarf, or "failed star."

Until now, the only aurorae astronomers have witnessed have been located on planets within our own star system. The sun produces a steady stream of electrically charged particles, called ions, that wash throughout the solar system as the solar wind and intermittent coronal mass ejections. These ions go on to interact with planetary magnetic fields and atmospheres to generate beautiful lightshows.

In the case of Earth, powerful geomagnetic storms can be triggered when the sun's magnetic field, loaded with ions, interacts with our global magnetosphere. Should this happen, ions from the sun are funneled into higher latitudes, which then interact with our atmosphere, generating Northern and Southern Lights — the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis, respectively.

Likewise, aurorae have been observed on Jupiter, Saturn and other planets in the solar system that possess a magnetic field and atmosphere.


Astronomers discover secret planetary system in Cassiopea, reminiscent of our own solar system

© JPL-Caltech / NASA
Hot, Rocky World This artist's rendition shows one possible appearance for the planet HD 219134b, the nearest rocky exoplanet found to date outside our solar system. The planet is 1.6 times the size of Earth, and whips around its star in just three days. Scientists predict that the scorching-hot planet -- known to be rocky through measurements of its mass and size -- would have a rocky, partially molten surface with geological activity, including possibly volcanoes.
Astronomers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and members of the NCCR PlanetS have teased out a secret planetary system hiding in the arms of Cassiopea, just 21 light years away from us. The remarkable system, named HD219134, hosts one outer giant planet and three inner super-Earths, one of which transits in front of the star. The transiting super-Earth has a density similar to the Earth's. It is by far the closest transiting planet known today. It provides the ideal candidate for follow-up studies and a deeper understanding of planetary formation, internal composition, and atmospheres. The system is so close that astronomers already dream about taking pictures of the new "Stars."

HARPS-N, the northern twin sister of the famous planet hunter HARPS, designed and built by an international consortium led by researchers at the Geneva University and installed at the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo on the La Palma island, just unveiled an exceptional planetary system around HD219134. The star, a 5th magnitude K dwarf, slightly colder and less massive than our Sun, is so bright that we can follow her with a naked eye from dark skies, next to one leg of the W-shape Cassiopeia constellation, all year round in our boreal hemisphere. The cortege of planets is composed of three mostly rocky super-Earths and an outer giant planet, a configuration reminiscent of our own Solar System.

Comment: A curious development. See also:


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.