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Wed, 20 Feb 2019
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Scientists concerned about microplastic contamination on farmlands

© Supplied: Mark Browne
Microplastics are particles smaller than five millimetres.
Focus on the impacts of microplastics has almost entirely been on the world's oceans, but researchers say an even bigger problem could be hiding under our feet.

Microplastics are particles smaller than five millimetres. About 800,000 to 2.5 million tonnes of these tiny pieces of plastic are estimated to end up in oceans each year, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

However, not much is known about the damage these particles cause to landscapes as they make their way to the sea.

Comment: The underestimated threat of land-based microplastic pollution


Groundbreaking research: AI just discovered a new human species

Nneanderthal family
© Reuters / Nikola Solic
An exhibit shows the life of a neanderthal family in a cave.
It appears even archaeologists aren't safe from the 21st century takeover, after an artificially intelligent algorithm traced a previously unknown human species using DNA from present-day Asian people.

The groundbreaking research, recently published in the journal Nature Communications, suggests the existence of a now-extinct mystery hominid interbred species of Neanderthals and Denisovans, and cross bred with 'Out of Africa' modern humans in Asia.

The discovery was made by an AI algorithm developed by researchers at several European institutions using DNA from modern-day people with Asian ancestry.

The breakthrough marks the first time deep learning has been used to better understand human evolution, and could add archaeologists to the growing list of soon-to-be defunct professions.


Key protein in the production of insulin discovered by researchers


The crucial hormone insulin needs help acquiring the right structure. A protein that assists in the process of insulin folding has just been discovered in a new study conducted by researchers at the Department of Biomedical Sciences, University of Copenhagen. They hope the new research results can be used to develop treatments for conditions such as increased level of insulin in the blood known as hyperinsulinemia.
© University of Copenhagen
Even though researchers have been familiar with and studied the hormone insulin for more than a hundred years, especially in connection with diabetes, they still make new discoveries concerning the hormone. Now researchers from the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen have uncovered a hitherto unknown process in the production of insulin. The new research results have just been published in the scientific journal Diabetes.

Insulin is produced in the beta cells of the pancreas. The hormone is produced as a precursor called proinsulin. For proinsulin to mature into functional insulin, it needs to be folded and processed correctly to acquire the right structure with assistance from proteins that are termed chaperones. The researchers have now discovered and identified such a chaperone. A proinsulin chaperone termed glucose-regulated protein GRP94.

'Even though proinsulin has a relatively short sequence, it still needs help acquiring the right structure to become mature, functional insulin. However, several other studies have shown that proinsulin can be folded without help from proteins in artificial cell-free conditions. Yet, our study conducted in live cells shows that proinsulin is not folded correctly and does not acquire the right structure without help from GRP94,' says last author of the study, Associate Professor Michal Tomasz Marzec from the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen.

Evil Rays

Using lasers to transmit audible messages to specific people

Directed Lasers
© Phys Org
Washington - Researchers have demonstrated that a laser can transmit an audible message to a person without any type of receiver equipment. The ability to send highly targeted audio signals over the air could be used to communicate across noisy rooms or warn individuals of a dangerous situation such as an active shooter.

In The Optical Society (OSA) journal Optics Letters, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory report using two different laser-based methods to transmit various tones, music and recorded speech at a conversational volume.

"Our system can be used from some distance away to beam information directly to someone's ear," said research team leader Charles M. Wynn. "It is the first system that uses lasers that are fully safe for the eyes and skin to localize an audible signal to a particular person in any setting."


Unintelligent? Plants can both 'smell' and 'hear'

planet experiment
© Udi Segev
Plant assessing surroundings: In an experiment, Potentilla reptans grows tall, wide, or shade-tolerant, depending on what neighbors (simulated by varying stripes) do
How? Smell: From ScienceDaily:
Plants detect a class of odor molecules known as volatile organic compounds, which are essential for many plant survival strategies, including attracting birds and bees, deterring pests, and reacting to disease in nearby plants. These compounds also give essential oils their distinctive scents.

Touhara's team exposed tobacco cells and 4-week-old tobacco plants to different volatile organic compounds. They discovered that odor molecules change gene expression by binding to other molecules called transcriptional co-repressors that can turn genes on or off.

In plants, the odor molecules must move into the cell and accumulate before they affect plant behavior. In animals, odor molecules are recognized by receptors on the outside of cells in the nose and immediately trigger a signaling pathway to recognize the odor and change behavior.

"Plants can't run away, so of course they react to odors more slowly than animals. If plants can prepare for environmental change within the same day, that is probably fast enough for them," said Touhara.

Speed is unnecessary for plants, but they may be able to recognize a much greater variety of odor molecules.

"Humans have about 400 odor receptors. Elephants have about 2,000, the largest number in animals. But based on how many transcription factor genes are in plants, plants may be able to detect many more odors than animals," said Touhara.
One wonders whether plants could be used to detect CO or other toxic gases and send signals accordingly. But would they be fast enough?

Comment: In other words, plants are complex information processors, like other animals. Perhaps that is even the best definition of intelligence. But what is the link between intelligence and consciousness (i.e., awareness)? Is there any? And if so, are plants aware on some level, in addition to being intelligent? Panpsychists would argue the answer is yes.


Planetary collision that formed the moon made life possible on Earth

planetary formation
© Image courtesy of Rajdeep Dasgupta
A schematic depicting the formation of a Mars-sized planet (left) and its differentiation into a body with a metallic core and an overlying silicate reservoir. The sulfur-rich core expels carbon, producing silicate with a high carbon to nitrogen ratio. The moon-forming collision of such a planet with the growing Earth (right) can explain Earth's abundance of both water and major life-essential elements like carbon, nitrogen and sulfur, as well as the geochemical similarity between Earth and the moon.

Study: Planetary delivery explains enigmatic features of Earth's carbon and nitrogen

Most of Earth's essential elements for life -- including most of the carbon and nitrogen in you -- probably came from another planet.

Earth most likely received the bulk of its carbon, nitrogen and other life-essential volatile elements from the planetary collision that created the moon more than 4.4 billion years ago, according to a new study by Rice University petrologists in the journal Science Advances.

"From the study of primitive meteorites, scientists have long known that Earth and other rocky planets in the inner solar system are volatile-depleted," said study co-author Rajdeep Dasgupta. "But the timing and mechanism of volatile delivery has been hotly debated. Ours is the first scenario that can explain the timing and delivery in a way that is consistent with all of the geochemical evidence."


Freak wave recreated in laboratory mirrors famous Hokusai's 'Great Wave'

Hokusai's 'Great Wave'
A team of researchers based at the Universities of Oxford and Edinburgh have recreated for the first time the famous Draupner freak wave measured in the North Sea in 1995.

The Draupner wave was one of the first confirmed observations of a freak wave in the ocean; it was observed on the 1st of January 1995 in the North Sea by measurements made on the Draupner Oil Platform. Freak waves are unexpectedly large in comparison to surrounding waves. They are difficult to predict, often appearing suddenly without warning, and are commonly attributed as probable causes for maritime catastrophes such as the sinking of large ships.

The team of researchers set out to reproduce the Draupner wave under laboratory conditions to understand how this freak wave was formed in the ocean. They successfully achieved this reconstruction by creating the wave using two smaller wave groups and varying the crossing angle - the angle at which the two groups travel.

Comment: See also:

Gold Bar

Earthquakes make gold veins in an instant

gold vein

Gold-quartz vein from Red Mountain Mining District, Ouray County ,Colorado, USA
Pressure changes cause precious metal to deposit each time the crust moves. Scientists have long known that veins of gold are formed by mineral deposition from hot fluids flowing through cracks deep in Earth's crust. But a study published in Nature Geoscience1 has found that the process can occur almost instantaneously - possibly within a few tenths of a second.

The process takes place along 'fault jogs' - sideways zigzag cracks that connect the main fault lines in rock, says first author Dion Weatherley, a seismologist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

When an earthquake hits, the sides of the main fault lines slip along the direction of the fault, rubbing against each other. But the fault jogs simply open up. Weatherley and his co-author, geochemist Richard Henley at the Australian National University in Canberra, wondered what happens to fluids circulating through these fault jogs at the time of the earthquake.

Comment: See also:


Undiscovered tiny capillaries may exist inside bones

Capillaries in Bones
© Nature Video/Youtube
Researchers discovered a previously unknown network of capillaries called trans-cortical vessels (lines extending outward in the photo) in mouse bones.
Our bones may be filled with previously undiscovered networks of microscopic tunnels, a new study finds.

These tiny tunnels - spotted in lab mice and traces of it in one inquisitive researcher - may be vital for transporting immune cells out of bones, where they are made.

In the study, researchers found hundreds of previously unknown capillaries - the tiniest blood vessels in the body - in the leg bones of mice. The discovery of something in mice, however, doesn't necessarily mean it exists in humans, and there can often be a long period between an animal discovery and confirmation of the findings in humans.

Not so in this case: One of the (human) researchers decided to jump-start the human studies, so he stuck his leg in an MRI machine and spotted evidence that the tiny bone tunnels might also exist in humans.

The study was published yesterday (Jan. 21) in the journal Nature Metabolism.


Declassified UFO docs reveal Pentagon's tech wishlist: Warp drives, invisibility cloaks, manipulating extra dimensions and more

nasa laser
This photograph shows the Laser Ranging Facility at the Geophysical and Astronomical Observatory at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The observatory helps NASA keep track of orbiting satellites. DIA research explored other ways of tracking and defeating unknown objects in space, including using lasers.
Space is a hostile environment. Most of the hostility is inherent - a void cannot itself be accommodating to humans, and the projects that do sustain human life in orbit do so by creating tiny livable pockets, encased in proverbial tin cans. That space could be a vector for other threats became clear from the dawn of the space race.

A missile that can carry a satellite into orbit could carry a much deadlier payload to somewhere else on Earth. And so space became both a place to put early warning systems and the path by which weapons would pass through on their way to doomsday. In order to prepare for new threats from or through the great beyond, the Pentagon spent $22 million between 2007 and 2012 researching a number of speculative threats under an "Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program."

How speculative? One of the studies was called "Warp Drive, Dark Energy, and the Manipulation of Extra Dimensions."

On Jan. 16, 2019, the Defense Intelligence Agency released a list of 38 research titles funded by the "Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program," which includes the above title on warp drives, one on invisibility cloaking, and another about stargates. All three are technologies that have found a home in fiction, powering the spaceships of the Star Trek universe, the in-fiction specific weapons of the Romulans and Klingons, as well as the entire "Stargate" franchise. The research papers were just one part of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, which also looked at unidentified flying objects, included recovered alloys of unknown origin.

Comment: See also: