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Tue, 21 Feb 2017
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Monkey Wrench

Avian biobank: Scientists say genetically modified 'surrogate hens' could lay eggs of rare chicken breeds

© Norrie Russell Roslin Institute
Some of the genetically modified chickens bred by scientists at the Roslin Institute.
Radical plan to maintain diversity of gene pool proposes use of genetically modified chickens as surrogate mothers

The Rumpless Game is squawky and, as its name suggests, lacks a tail, while the Burmese Bantam, has fantastically flared leg feathers and a head like a feather duster. But the true value of rare chicken breeds, according to a team of scientists working to save them from obsolescence, is not their decorative crests and plumage, but the diversity they bring to the chicken gene pool.

In a radical plan to preserve rare varieties such as the Nankin, Scots Dumpy and Sicilian Buttercup, scientists at the the University of Edinburgh's Roslin Institute have bred genetically modified chickens designed to act as surrogates that would be capable of laying eggs from any rare breed.

Speaking to journalists at the AAAS conference in Boston, Mike McGrew, who is leading the project, said: "These chickens are a first step in saving and protecting rare poultry breeds from loss."

Beaker

Modern-day alchemy: Harvard researchers claim to have turned hydrogen into metal

At the beginning of the last two centuries, if somebody had predicted it possible to turn hydrogen into a metal, the scientific community would most likely have responded that it would involve pseudo-scientific methods.

Alchemy, which is the medieval forerunner of chemistry, concerned with the transmutation of matter, in particular, with attempts to convert base metals into gold or find a universal elixir, would have fit into the process of turning hydrogen into a metal. Although modern day chemistry developed from alchemy, it is considered a pseudo-science because of its seemingly magical process of transformation.

Robert Boyle produced hydrogen gas in 1671 while he was experimenting with iron and acids, but it wasn't until 1766 that Henry Cavendish recognized it as a distinct element, according to Jefferson Lab. The element was named hydrogen by the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier.

Magnify

Biologists find cave with weird life that may be 50,000 years old

© Penny Boston via AP
This image provided by Penny Boston shows a red wall in a cave with butterfly crystal. In a Mexican cave system so beautiful and hot that it is called both Fairyland and hell, scientists have discovered life trapped in crystals that could be 50,000 years old. The bizarre and ancient microbes were found dormant in caves in Naica, Mexico, and were able to exist by living on minerals such as iron and manganese, said Penny Boston, head of NASA's Astrobiology Institute.
In a Mexican cave system so beautiful and hot that it is called both Fairyland and hell, scientists have discovered life trapped in crystals that could be 50,000 years old.

The bizarre and ancient microbes were found dormant in caves in Naica, Mexico, and were able to exist by living on minerals such as iron and manganese, said Penelope Boston, head of NASA's Astrobiology Institute. .

"It's super life," said Boston, who presented the discovery Friday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston.

Microscope 1

Swedish & Russian scientists slow down mice aging with synthetic antioxidant

© Adam Gault / Getty Images
A new experiment conducted by a joint team of Russian and Swedish scientists has produced groundbreaking results in slowing down the ageing process of mice, raising hopes of the potential creation of an "anti-age" drug.

A group of scientist from Moscow State University in cooperation with their Swedish colleagues managed to dramatically slow down the aging process of genetically-modified mice, according to an article published in the Aging journal.

The research focused on the role of intracellular powerstations — mitochondria - and the role of these organelles in the aging of mammals. The scientists tried to slow down the process with help of SkQ1 - a synthetic antioxidant, protecting from the reactive oxygen - the main "byproduct" of damaged mitochondria, which severely damages cells.

Galaxy

Dwarf planet Ceres could harbor life, NASA mission finds

© NASA / Reuters
The dwarf planet Ceres.
NASA's Dawn mission to the dwarf planet Ceres has discovered evidence of organic material on the mysterious icy world which could be signs of microbial life.

Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt and lies between Earth's closest planetary neighbor, Mars, and gas giant Jupiter. The organic material was detected on the dwarf planet's northern hemisphere in and around a crater known as Ernunet.

Such organic compounds are, according to NASA, "necessary, though not sufficient, components," of life on Earth.

Telescope

Particles from outer space wreak low-grade havoc on personal electronics

© Bharat Bhuva, Vanderbilt University
Estimated failure rates from single event upsets at the transistor, integrated circuit and device level for the last three semiconductor architectures.
You may not realize it but alien subatomic particles raining down from outer space are wreaking low-grade havoc on your smartphones, computers and other personal electronic devices.

When your computer crashes and you get the dreaded blue screen or your smartphone freezes and you have to go through the time-consuming process of a reset, most likely you blame the manufacturer: Microsoft or Apple or Samsung. In many instances, however, these operational failures may be caused by the impact of electrically charged particles generated by cosmic rays that originate outside the solar system.

"This is a really big problem, but it is mostly invisible to the public," said Bharat Bhuva, professor of electrical engineering at Vanderbilt University, in a presentation on Friday, Feb. 17 at a session titled "Cloudy with a Chance of Solar Flares: Quantifying the Risk of Space Weather" at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.

When cosmic rays traveling at fractions of the speed of light strike the Earth's atmosphere they create cascades of secondary particles including energetic neutrons, muons, pions and alpha particles. Millions of these particles strike your body each second. Despite their numbers, this subatomic torrent is imperceptible and has no known harmful effects on living organisms. However, a fraction of these particles carry enough energy to interfere with the operation of microelectronic circuitry. When they interact with integrated circuits, they may alter individual bits of data stored in memory. This is called a single-event upset or SEU.

Since it is difficult to know when and where these particles will strike and they do not do any physical damage, the malfunctions they cause are very difficult to characterize. As a result, determining the prevalence of SEUs is not easy or straightforward. "When you have a single bit flip, it could have any number of causes. It could be a software bug or a hardware flaw, for example. The only way you can determine that it is a single-event upset is by eliminating all the other possible causes," Bhuva explained.

Eye 1

The spy in your living room: Samsung confirms smart TV's capture all nearby conversations and transmit to a third party

Samsung has confirmed that its "smart TV" sets are listening to customers' every word, and the company is warning customers not to speak about personal information while near the TV sets.

The company revealed that the voice activation feature on its smart TVs will capture all nearby conversations. The TV sets can share the information, including sensitive data, with Samsung as well as third-party services.

The news comes after Shane Harris at The Daily Beast pointed out a troubling line in Samsung's privacy policy: "Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party."

Comment: Total surveillance: Your smart devices can now spy on your every move


Microscope 2

Scientists plan to use gene-editing to 'de-extinct' the woolly mammoth

© Jonathan Blair / Getty Images
Research from Harvard University is exciting some scientists about the prospects of being able to recreate the long extinct woolly mammoth. The ice age mammal's DNA could potentially be spliced with an Asian elephant to create a hybrid.

Harvard Geneticist Professor, George Church, briefed the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) about the progress his team has made in the past two years of trying to "de-extinct" the mammoth.

"Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo," said Church. "Actually, it would be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits. We're not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years."

Beaker

New science says that DNA is not the all powerful molecule biologists make it out to be

Test your understanding of the living world with this simple question. What kind of biomolecule is found in all living organisms? If your answer is "DNA", you are incorrect. The mistake is very forgiveable though. The standard English-language biology education casts DNA (DeoxyriboNucleic Acid) as the master molecule of life, coordinating and controlling most, if not all, living functions. This master molecule concept is popular. It is plausible. It is taught in every university and high school. But it is wrong. DNA is no master controller, nor is it even at the centre of biology. Instead, science overwhelmingly shows that life is self-organised and thus the pieces are in place for biology to undergo the ultimate paradigm shift.

The mythologising of DNA

Highly respected scientists make very strong claims for the powers of DNA. In his autobiography, Nobel Laureate Kary Mullis called it "The King of molecules" and "The big one". Maybe he read DNA: The Secret of Life, a popular science book that calls DNA the molecule that "holds the key to the very nature of living things". Its author should know. He is Nobel Laureate, James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. Even institutions have strong opinions when it comes to DNA; the website of the US National Institutes of Health claims "Genes are at the center of everything that makes us human".

My edition of The Secret of Life features on its back cover Eric Lander. Lander is the celebrated brains behind modern human genetics. He is also the head of the Broad Institute at MIT. In his blurb, Lander endorses "The secret of life" trope. Just below him on the jacket is Professor of genetics Mary-Claire King. She writes: "This is the story of DNA and therefore the story of life, history, sex, money, drugs, and still-to-be-revealed secrets." According to Prof. King, DNA is life.

The Watson view of genetics dominates education too. The standard US high school biology textbook "Life", of which we own the 1997 edition, frames the entirety of biology around DNA, thereby giving it the biochemical status of life's centrepiece.

Info

New Zealand may be part of a submerged continent

© GSA Today
Zealandia, according to scientists, includes New Zealand and New Caledonia.
Scientists say they have identified a new continent, and called it Zealandia.

In a new paper, a team of 11 geologists have proposed that a region of the Pacific Ocean east of Australia and containing New Zealand and New Caledonia, be considered a continent.

Geographically speaking, six continents are recognised: Africa, Antarctica, Australia, Eurasia, North America, and South America. Eurasia is the geographical landmass that includes Europe and Asia.

At 4.9 million square kilometres, Zealandia would be Earth's smallest continent.

It is also the "youngest, thinnest and most submerged" of the continents, as 94 per cent of the landmass is submerged, the geologists wrote.

In the paper, titled Zealandia: Earth's Hidden Continent, the geologists argue that Zealandia has all four attributes necessary to be considered a continent.