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Tue, 25 Apr 2017
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Baseball-sized spider discovered down a mine in Baja California, Mexico

© San Diego Natural History Museum
Researchers at the San Diego Natural History museum recently discovered a new species and genus of spider in the hills of Baja California, called Califorctenus cacahilensis.
While traipsing through the a mine in the hills of Baja California, Michael Wall and Jim Berrian struck gold. Skittering across the abandoned mine shaft was a beast that would send most people running.

The entomologists instead ran toward the creature - a whopping spider the size of a baseball - and captured it for analysis. With juicy fangs, a hairy yellow abdomen and legs for miles, the arachnid was certainly a looker, but neither of the scientists could classify it.

Back in their lab at the San Diego Natural History Museum, the researchers had a eureka moment. Upon corroborating with Mexican entomologist and southern spider expert Maria Jimenez, the scientists confirmed that they had discovered a new species and genus. They named it Califorctenus cacahilensis, after the Sierra Cacahilas mountain ranges where it was first found.


Ancient literature can help predict future solar storms

© Philip McErlean/Flickr
Ancient Japanese and Chinese literature describing space weather phenomena in centuries past could help us prepare for the major solar storms of the future, scientists have found.

While solar flares from the Sun have the potential to cause widespread disruption on Earth, they don't leave much of a physical trace for scientists to study, which is why historical texts could be invaluable in uncovering their past existence.

Wondering if writers hundreds of years ago had noted events now beyond the reach of our scientific instruments, Japanese researchers studied two historical volumes - Meigetsuki ("The Record of the Clear Moon") and Song Shi ("History of Song") - covering the period from the 10th to the 14th centuries.

"Combining literature, tree ring dating, and space observation, we have uncovered clear patterns in solar activity and astronomical events," says one of the team, space scientist Hiroaki Isobe from Kyoto University in Japan.


I-Ternal: Interactive tombstones with video, photo content now available

© Info i-ternal/YouTube
A Slovenian company has created a virtual way to grieve, with digital interactive tombstones that play video and other digital content to mourners.

A prototype of the weatherproof and vandal-proof digital tombstone is set up at the Pobrezje cemetery on the outskirts of Maribor, Slovenia's second largest city. Created by Bioenergija, the 48-inch interactive screens can show pictures, video and other digital content of the deceased.

The tombstones look ordinary until someone stands in front of them for a few seconds. As soon as the sensor detects someone, the tombstone comes to life.

"The tombstone has a sensor so that when nobody is around it only shows the person's name and the years of their birth and death... This saves energy and the screen itself, and helps extend the tombstone's lifetime," Bioenergija's Saso Radovanovic said.


Octopuses have the unusual ability to edit their own RNA

© Sputnik/ V.Lebedev
New research shows that octopuses and other cephalopods have a tremendous capacity to alter and edit their own genes, which scientists believe to be the reason behind their shocking intelligence and ability to learn.

If you're an animal and you're intelligent, you probably aren't a mollusk. Humans of course, dolphins and whales and pigs and crows - they all have large, centralized brains and a spinal cord to send neural messages down.

But worms, bivalves, snails... none of these things are known for their smarts. But their fellow mollusks, the tentacled cephalopods, are different. Cuttlefish, squid and particularly octopuses are known for their exceptional intelligence.

An octopus really shouldn't be intelligent by all rights. Their brains have 1/20th the amount of neurons as humans, and it isn't centralized in their body. Instead, they have a miniature brain in the bases of their arms.

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Giant Frankenstein-like virus discovered in Austrian sewage plant

© F. Schultz, et al., Science 356, 6333 (7 APRIL 2017) AAS
Researchers detected this giant virus particle in Austrian sewage.
New giant viruses found at an Austrian wastewater treatment plant probably evolved from a smaller virus that picked up bits of genome from its hosts and incorporated it, Frankenstein-like, into its own genetic code.

The viruses — four species in a new group dubbed the Klosneuviruses — are a type of Mimivirus. The giant viruses in the Mimivirus group were discovered just in 2003. Giant viruses live up to their name: They can reach sizes of up to 500 nanometers in diameter, compared to a few dozen nanometers for typical viruses. Giant viruses also have more complicated genetic machinery than their tinier cousins.

One of the new Klosneuviruses, for example, is so big that it carries transfer ribonucleic acids (tRNA) that can translate the genetic code for 19 out of the 20 protein-building amino acids found in nature. (Translation is part of the process in which a gene's instructions are decoded and carried out. Viruses use tRNA in their replication process, but not all of them have their own tRNA; some hijack their hosts'.) That's impressive, even for a giant virus, scientists led by Tanja Woyke of the Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute reported April 6 in the journal Science.


1st direct-to-consumer tests for genetic risk of disease gets ok from FDA

© Oleksiy Maksymenko / www.globallookpress.com
Americans may soon be sidestepping their doctors with an at-home DNA test by 23andMe that determines genetic risks for diseases like late-onset Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, thanks to a historic approval by the FDA.

For the first time Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved direct-to-consumer disease risk tests by the Silicon Valley-based genetic testing company 23andMe. The 11-year-old biotech company will now be allowed to market their Personal Genome Service Genetic Health Risk (GHR) genetic tests for 10 diseases and conditions.

The test kits are able to isolate DNA from saliva samples to test for more than 500,000 genetic variants that could increase risk for certain diseases. With GHRs, a person can bypass their doctor and test their predisposition to develop certain medical diseases or conditions without obtaining a prescription.

"This is an important moment for people who want to know their genetic health risks and be more proactive about their health," Anne Wojcicki, 23andMe co-founder and CEO, said, according to a press release.

Comment: What is not being mentioned are the privacy dangers inherent in amassing such a genetic database.


Race for space: Amazon CEO selling $1B stock to fund space flights for wealthy travelers

© Isaiah J. Downing / Reuters
The Blue Origin New Shepard rocket booster
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said he is annually selling nearly $1 billion worth of the online retailer to finance his aerospace corporation Blue Origin, which aims to send wealthy travelers to space as early as next year.

"My business model right now for Blue Origin is I sell about a billion a year of Amazon stock, and I use it to fund Blue Origin. So, the business model for Blue Origin is very robust," Bezos said Wednesday at the annual US Space Symposium in Colorado.

Blue Origin initially planned to test 11-minute space rides with passengers this year, but that probably will not happen until 2018, according to the company's founder.


Circle of life: Sea snails feast on the carcasses of dead blue jellyfish

© jeffayliffe/Instagram
Eerie footage of sea snails feeding on the carcasses of dead blue jellyfish on a South African beach has gone viral, creeping out netizens the world over.

National Geographic photographer Keith Ladzinski posted the creepy alien-esque scene to the nature magazine's Instagram account on Wednesday.

In roughly 24 hours, the video has amassed over 540,000 likes and generated an animated discussion with more than 10,000 netizens commenting on the strange phenomenon.

In the post, Ladzinski explains that he happened upon the plough snails' feeding frenzy while travelling along South Africa's picturesque Garden Route, a stretch of coast along the southwest of the country.


Astronomers close in on first direct view of a supermassive black hole

© Getty Images
If Avery Broderick's wishes come true, the next 10 days will bring something new to humanity's view of the universe. For the first time, the University of Waterloo physicist says, there could be "visceral, direct evidence that there are monsters in the night."

The monsters Dr. Broderick has in mind are supermassive black holes: terrifying giants that lurk in the hearts of galaxies, including our own, where they can devour stars and interstellar gas like cosmic vacuum cleaners.

Fortunately, Earth is in no danger of encountering such a lethal entity. The nearest one is at least 25,000 light years away from our solar system's quiet celestial suburb. But astronomers have long known that something very dark and heavy is sitting at the galactic centre. Indirect evidence points to a black hole that is more than 30 times the sun's diameter and a staggering 4.3 million times the sun's mass. The extreme gravity of such a dense object would be enough to trap light as well as matter. Falling into it would be a one-way trip, even for a laser beam. (Hence the term "black hole.")

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Beyond designer babies: Epigenetic modification may be the next game-changer - but we would be wise to go slow

Horror, eager anticipation, and every sentiment in between swirl around the prospect of designer babies. The most recent spate of articles, TED Talks, and conferences about the subject has been triggered by the discovery, announced in 2015, of a potent new method for modifying DNA — the CRISPR/Cas9 pathway. Biologists are elated about its heady potential for precisely modifying the genomes of organisms ranging from plants and animals to, yes, humans themselves. But while they're elated, many of them are also wary because many of these modifications would be heritable; this innovation, they argue, may therefore warrant a moratorium so that societal and moral implications can be fully assessed.

Ongoing efforts at self-regulation among leading scientists in the field certainly deserve our respect and support. But what seems to have gone relatively unnoticed over the last decade is the development of a separate but equally potent pathway for genetically engineering — and thus redesigning — human bodies and minds: epigenetics. Over the coming decades, altering our kids' DNA may not be the most appealing way to proceed. In fact, if the cutting-edge field of epigenetics fulfills its promise, the hoopla over designer babies may end up being misplaced. "Designer adults," created through epigenetic modification, may instead be the real game-changer. In such a world, bioenhancement tools used by today's "body hackers" like Peter Thiel and Ray Kurzweil — transfusions of youthful blood, elaborate daily regimens of pills and potions — would seem as crude and quaint as the leeches of yesteryear.