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Science & Technology

Microscope 1

Researchers develop method for reading the history and 'family trees' of cells

© Elowitz and Cai Labs/Caltech
MEMOIR enables the histories of cells to be recorded in their genomes and then read out using microscopy. Here, MEMOIR cells were variably activated, as seen by the bright cyan nuclear fluorescence in some cells. The cells recorded information in response to this signal with the help of a DNA-editing system called CRISPR. This recorded information can then be read out using a technique called seqFISH to visualize certain RNA transcripts in the cells (red dots).
Researchers have developed a new method for reading the history and "family trees" of cells. Called MEMOIR, or Memory by Engineered Mutagenesis with Optical In situ Readout, the technique can record the life history of animal cells -- their relationships with other cells, communication patterns, and the influential events that have shaped them.

"MEMOIR allows cells to record their histories in their genomes and allows us to read out that information using advanced microscopy methods," says Long Cai, assistant professor of chemistry at Caltech and a principal investigator of the new research, published November 21 in the journal Nature. Colead authors of the paper are postdoctoral scholars Kirsten Frieda and Sahand Hormoz, and research scientist James Linton.

"Normally, we can only see the state of a cell at the moment we look at it," says co-principal investigator Michael Elowitz, professor of biology and bioengineering at Caltech and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "But what we really want to know is, what is the history of that cell? Who are its sisters and cousins? Who did it talk to and when?"

The new study serves as a proof of principle, demonstrating that MEMOIR can read the histories of cells from mice. Ultimately, the researchers say the method will aid in the understanding of tissue and animal development, as well as in studies of the abnormal development of diseased tissues like tumors.

Fireball 5

Chelyabinsk meteor lit up U.S. Transportable Array

© Universe Today
The bolide that impacted the atmosphere over Chelyabinsk in Feb. 2013 detonated with the equivalent of 530 kilotons of TNT, injuring over 1,200 people.
The large meteorite that entered Earth's atmosphere above Chelyabinsk, Russia last month drew attention to the USArray Transportable Array (TA). Significant overpressure from the shock wave damaged structures in Chelyabinsk, blew in thousands of windows and injured over 1,000 people - mainly due to flying glass.

A preliminary study of seismic data shows this event generated not only very low amplitude body waves at high frequencies, but also high amplitude, long-period surface waves. This perhaps is not surprising due to the large footprint of the meteorite's shock wave. A large release of energy is believed to have come from an explosion of the disintegrating bolide that occurred at an altitude of ~30 km near the end of the ballistic entry path.

The shock wave from this explosion, or from the combined explosive and ballistic source, excited large Rayleigh waves that have been seen at GSN stations to 40°. The waves might have been detected at more distant stations if it were not for interference from surface waves excited by a Mw 5.8 earthquake in the Tonga Trench that occurred 18 minutes before the arrival of the meteorite.

Preliminary work indicates that the TA did not record the event seismically as it was located at epicentral distances of over 70°. However, air pressure and infrasound sensors recently added to the TA recorded the passage of a long wave train of infrasound signals. Although the entry and final burst of the meteorite occurred over a 16 second time span, the wave train seen crossing the TA lasted for over 50 minutes.

Comment: See also: Fireball explodes over Russian city: Widespread panic and structural damage, Thousand people injured

Microscope 1

Ultimate bad hair day: Genetic mutation found behind 'uncombable hair syndrome'

© University of Bonn
A child with uncombable hair syndrome.
"Bad hair" comes in all shapes, sizes, and severities. But for some people, the untamable tumbleweed atop their heads might actually be the result of a genetic mutation.

A particular variety of bad hair caught the attention of a geneticist at Germany's University of Bonn. "Uncombable hair syndrome," "spun glass hair," or "Struwwelpeter syndrome" (named for the fictional protagonist of Heinrich Hoffmann's cautionary fable, Der Struwwelpeter) exhibits several symptoms that differentiate it from the typical messy 'do. People with this disorder generally have frizzy, dry, often light blonde, and—obviously—impossibly uncombable hair.
© Wikipedia/Struwwelpeter Museum
Der Struwwelpeter, Struwwelpeter Museum, Frankfurt, Germany.
Professor Regina Betz, who specializes in the genetic causes of hair disorders, became interested in the condition after observing almost a dozen people with the same synthetic-looking, doll-like hair. Eventually, Betz was able to sequence their genes, and discovered something remarkable: mutations causing uncombable hair syndrome in three functionally related genes responsible for the formation and structure of hair.

"From the mutations found, a huge amount can be learned about the mechanisms involved in forming healthy hair, and why disorders sometimes occur," Betz said in a statement.

Betz and an international team of scientists published their results in the American Journal of Human Genetics, claiming to be the first to link uncombable hair syndrome to genetic alterations.

Gold Bar

Modern alchemy: Russian scientists building facility to extract gold from coal

© Sergey Guneev / Sputnik
Researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences' Far East branch say they are building a facility to make gold out of coal.

Although the science is no fairy tale, to the dismay of business owners, the process is not as productive as they might hope - burning a ton of coal yields one gram of gold, tops.

At present, the scientists are setting the bar even lower, expecting a yield of 0.5 grams, or 1,500 rubles, per ton.


New study finds that California's San Andreas Fault could actually rupture along its entire 800-mile length

© Getty
A recent study found that California's San Andreas Fault could actually rupture along its entire 800-mile length. It was previously believed that "The Big One" could only occur in confined segments, and this new information is now being used by insurers to make some unnerving predictions.

For years, the scientific consensus was that a statewide earthquake couldn't occur in California. But a 2014 study by federal, state and academic researchers determined that a quake that begins at either end of the fault could zip up the line for hundreds of miles.

Morgan Page, a USGS research geophysicist who participated in the 2014 study tells the Wall Street Journal, "Scientists weren't really sure if you could have a rupture through the creeping section of the San Andreas. Now we think it's not very probable, but it is possible."

That means insurers have to figure out their potential payouts in the event that the worst case scenario comes true. CoreLogic Inc. is a real-estate analytics firm in Irvine, California, that has now crunched the numbers. It's safe to say that premiums could be rising. The Wall Street Journal summarizes some of the CoreLogic findings:
As many as 3.5 million homes could be damaged in an 8.3-magnitude quake along a roughly 500-mile portion of the fault—compared with 1.6 million homes damaged if only the northern part of the fault were to break, or 2.3 million if the southern piece ruptured.

The damage to homes alone could total $289 billion, compared with a previous range of $137 billion on the southern portion of the fault and $161 billion in the north, according to the CoreLogic analysis.
One of the best points of reference for an earthquake this size is the 9.0 earthquake that hit Tohoku, Japan in 2011. It's believed that an 8.0 or higher is likely to hit California every 2,500 years. Maiclaire Bolton, a seismologist and senior product manager for CoreLogic, emphasized, "We are talking about very rare earthquakes here."

Source: Wall Street Journal


Polluted city air identified as means of transmission for antibiotic resistant bacteria

© bizoo_n / Fotolia
Polluted city air has now been identified as a possible means of transmission for resistant bacteria. Researchers in Gothenburg have shown that air samples from Beijing contain DNA from genes that make bacteria resistant to the most powerful antibiotics we have.

"This may be a more important means of transmission than previously thought," says Joakim Larsson, a professor at Sahlgrenska Academy and director of the Centre for Antibiotic Resistance Research at the University of Gothenburg.

Comment: See also: Study finds airborne matter from factory farms contains antibiotics, bacteria and antibiotic-resistant DNA

Arrow Down

Glass solar roofing - What's that Musky smell?

Well, the man who has made billions with a "b" by sponging off of your taxpayer dollars, the man you can always find face-down at the government trough, is at it again.

© Watts Up with That
Elon Musk now says that his whiz-bang glass solar roofing shingles will be, get this, cheaper than a "normal" roof, viz:
Musk told the crowd that he had just returned from a meeting with his new solar engineering team. Tesla's new solar roof product, he proclaimed, will actually cost less to manufacture and install than a traditional roof—even before savings from the power bill. "Electricity," Musk said, "is just a bonus."

If Musk's claims prove true, this could be a real turning point in the evolution of solar power. The rooftop shingles he unveiled just a few weeks ago are something to behold: They're made of textured glass and are virtually indistinguishable from high-end roofing products. They also transform light into power for your home and your electric car.

"So the basic proposition will be: Would you like a roof that looks better than a normal roof, lasts twice as long, costs less and—by the way—generates electricity?" Musk said. "Why would you get anything else?"

Make no mistake: The new shingles will still be a premium product, at least when they first roll out. The terra cotta and slate roofs Tesla mimicked are among the most expensive roofing materials on the market—costing as much as 20 times more than cheap asphalt shingles.

Much of the cost savings Musk is anticipating comes from shipping the materials. Traditional roofing materials are brittle, heavy, and bulky. Shipping costs are high, as is the quantity lost to breakage. The new tempered-glass roof tiles, engineered in Tesla's new automotive and solar glass division, weigh as little as a fifth of current products and are considerably easier to ship, Musk said.
First off, glass is heavy. I'm not buying for one minute that they would be cheaper to ship than asphalt shingles, for example. And I can guarantee you that the "quantity lost to breakage" will be greater than with asphalt shingles. If our cell phones have taught us anything, it is that even the toughest "Gorilla Glass" is still ... well ... glass. So the first conclusion is that for Elon, a "normal" roof is either slate or terra-cotta tile ... hey, he's one of the elite, cut him some slack, he likely hasn't lived in a house with an asphalt shingle roof or an aluminum roof in a while ...

Will Elon's roof be lighter than terracotta? Perhaps ... but at this point we only have his word. But in any case, I greatly doubt that the largest cost of a slate roof is shipping ... digging the slate out of the ground is a major cost.

Next, he's conveniently omitted the cost of the batteries you'd need to make the system work, as well as the inverter. His 14KWhr "BerlinWall" batteries, or whatever they're called, are far from cheap at $5,500 a pop ... even if you can get by with only one battery, it is still more expensive by itself than a 40-year asphalt shingle roof. And if he is worried about breakage when shipping terra-cotta, shipping those babies won't be either cheap or easy.


Microfossil terrestrial ecosystem: Life in Earth's soils may be older than we think

© totajla / Fotolia
Karijini National Park, Australia. The ancient soils from Australia's Pilbara region (west of Karijini National Park) are similar to those found recently by the Mars rover Curiosity.
Advanced imaging and analyses techniques have opened a new window into microfossils of ancient landscapes in Australia, scientists report. Way before trees or lichens evolved, soils on Earth were alive, as revealed by a close examination of microfossils in the desert of northwestern Australia, reports a team of University of Oregon researchers.

These tiny fossils require a microscope to see and probably represent whole organisms. The 3,000 million-year-old Australian rocks have long been thought to be of marine origin. However, "a closer look at the dusty salt minerals of the rocks suggests they had to have experienced evaporation on land," said UO paleontologist Gregory Retallack, lead author on a study in the December issue of the international journal Gondwana Research.

Other mineral and chemical tracers found in the rocks also required weathering in soils of the distant geological past, he said. "Life was not only present but thriving in soils of the early Earth about two thirds of the way back to its formation from the solar nebula," Retallack said. The origin of the solar system -- and Earth -- occurred some 4.6 billion years ago.

Microscope 2

Containment: Store carbon dioxide underground by turning it into rock

© American Chemical Society
A core sample from a carbon storage project in Washington state showed that carbon dioxide injected deep underground into basalt rock turned into the carbonate mineral ankerite in less than two years.
In November, the Paris Climate Agreement goes into effect to reduce global carbon emissions. To achieve the set targets, experts say capturing and storing carbon must be part of the solution. Several projects throughout the world are trying to make that happen. Now, a study on one of those endeavors, reported in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, has found that within two years, carbon dioxide (CO2) injected into basalt transformed into solid rock.

Lab studies on basalt have shown that the rock, which formed from lava millions of years ago and is found throughout the world, can rapidly convert CO2 into stable carbonate minerals. This evidence suggests that if CO2 could be locked into this solid form, it would be stowed away for good, unable to escape into the atmosphere.

But what happens in the lab doesn't always reflect what happens in the field. One field project in Iceland injected CO2 pre-dissolved in water into a basalt formation, where it was successfully stored. And starting in 2009, researchers with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Montana-based undertook a pilot project in eastern Washington to inject 1,000 tons of pressurized liquid CO2 into a basalt formation.

After drilling a well in the Columbia River Basalt formation and testing its properties, the team injected CO2 into it in 2013. Core samples were extracted from the well two years later, and Pete McGrail and colleagues confirmed that the CO2 had indeed converted into the carbonate mineral ankerite, as the lab experiments had predicted. And because basalts are widely found in North America and throughout the world, the researchers suggest that the formations could help permanently sequester carbon on a large scale.


Great valley discovered on Mercury, the shrinking of a one-plate planet

© NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
A high-resolution digital elevation model derived from stereo images obtained by NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft has revealed Mercury's great valley shown here in this 3D perspective view.
Scientists have discovered a new large valley on Mercury that may be the first evidence of buckling of the planet's outer silicate shell in response to global contraction. The researchers discovered the valley using a new high-resolution topographic map of part of Mercury's southern hemisphere created by stereo images from NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft. The findings were reported in a new study published in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

The most likely explanation for Mercury's Great Valley is buckling of the planet's lithosphere -- its crust and upper mantle -- in response to global contraction, according to the study's authors. Earth's lithosphere is broken up into many tectonic plates, but Mercury's lithosphere consists of just one plate. Cooling of Mercury's interior caused the planet's single plate to contract and bend. Where contractional forces are greatest, crustal rocks are thrust upward while an emerging valley floor sags downward.