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Thu, 08 Dec 2022
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Blue Planet

Oldest DNA reveals life in Greenland 2 million years ago

Greenland two million years ago
© Beth Zaiken/Handout/AP
This illustration provided by researchers depicts Kap Kobenhavn, Greenland, two million years ago. Scientists have analyzed 2-million-year-old DNA extracted from dirt samples in the area, revealing an ancient ecosystem unlike anything seen on Earth today.
Scientists discovered the oldest known DNA and used it to reveal what life was like 2 million years ago in the northern tip of Greenland. Today, it's a barren Arctic desert, but back then it was a lush landscape of trees and vegetation with an array of animals, even the now extinct mastodon.

"The study opens the door into a past that has basically been lost," said lead author Kurt Kjær, a geologist and glacier expert at the University of Copenhagen.

With animal fossils hard to come by, the researchers extracted environmental DNA, also known as eDNA, from soil samples. This is the genetic material that organisms shed into their surroundings — for example, through hair, waste, spit or decomposing carcasses.

Studying really old DNA can be a challenge because the genetic material breaks down over time, leaving scientists with only tiny fragments.

But with the latest technology, researchers were able to get genetic information out of the small, damaged bits of DNA, explained senior author Eske Willerslev, a geneticist at the University of Cambridge. In their study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, they compared the DNA to that of different species, looking for matches.


A dialogue with ChatGPT on Intelligent Design

chatGPT artificial intelligence open ai
© Open AI
Here is an interesting chat between me and OpenAI's ChatGPT on the topic of intelligent design. Interesting especially how it ended. Think of ChatGPT as a context-dependent natural language generator that tries to respond relevantly to textual prompts from human users to simulate conversation. The first of these conversation bots goes back to the 1960s with Joseph Weizenbaum's Eliza program. The current incarnation of these programs have become much more sophisticated, exploiting machine learning and big data.

Comment: LOL. Caught in an evolutionary dead end?


Researchers use ultrasound waves to move objects hands-free

Contactless manipulation method could be used in industries such as robotics and manufacturing.
Ultrasound to Move Things
© University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota Twin Cities researchers have discovered a new method to move objects using ultrasound waves. The research opens the door for using contactless manipulation in industries such as manufacturing and robotics, where devices wouldn't need a built-in power source in order to move.

Uni Researchers
© Photo by Olivia Hultgren.
University of Minnesota Twin Cities researchers have discovered a new method to move objects using ultrasound waves, opening the door for using contactless manipulation in industries such as robotics and manufacturing. In the above image, University of Minnesota students Matthew Stein, Yujie Luo, and Sam Keller interact with an object that has a metamaterial surface.
The study is published in Nature Communications, a peer-reviewed, open-access scientific journal.

While it's been demonstrated before that light and sound waves can manipulate objects, the objects have always been smaller than the wavelength of sound or light, or on the order of millimeters to nanometers, respectively. The University of Minnesota team has developed a method that can move larger objects using the principles of metamaterial physics.

Metamaterials are materials that are artificially engineered to interact with waves, like light and sound. By placing a metamaterial pattern on the surface of an object, the researchers were able to use sound to steer it in a certain direction without physically touching it.

"We have known for a while that waves and light and sound can manipulate objects. What sets our research apart is that we can manipulate and trap much bigger objects if we make their surface a metamaterial surface, or a 'metasurface,'" said Ognjen Ilic, senior author of the study and the Benjamin Mayhugh Assistant Professor in the University of Minnesota Department of Mechanical Engineering.

"When we place these tiny patterns on the surface of the objects, we can basically reflect the sound in any direction we want. And in doing that, we can control the acoustic force that is exerted on an object."


Surprise kilonova upends established understanding of long gamma-ray bursts

Long gamma-ray bursts can be generated by neutron star mergers, study finds.
© Aaron M. Geller/Northwestern/CIERA and IT Research Computing Services.
Artist’s impression of GRB 211211A. The kilonova and gamma-ray burst is on the right. The blue color represents material squeezed along the poles, while the red colors indicate material ejected by the two inspiralling neutron stars that is now swirling around the merged object. A disk of ejecta emitted after the merger, hidden behind the red and blue ejecta, is shown in purple. A fast jet (shown in yellow) of material punches through the kilonova cloud. The event occurred about 8 kiloparsecs from its host galaxy (left). 
For nearly two decades, astrophysicists have believed that long gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) resulted solely from the collapse of massive stars. Now, a new study upends that long-established and long-accepted belief.

Led by Northwestern University, a team of astrophysicists has uncovered new evidence that at least some long GRBs can result from neutron star mergers, which were previously believed to produce only short GRBs.

After detecting a 50-second-long GRB in December 2021, the team began searching for the long GRB's afterglow, an incredibly luminous and fast-fading burst of light that often precedes a supernova. But, instead, they uncovered evidence of a kilonova, a rare event that only occurs after the merger of a neutron star with another compact object (either another neutron star or a black hole).

In addition to challenging long-established beliefs about how long GRBs are formed, the new discovery also leads to new insights into the mysterious formation of the heaviest elements in the universe.

The research was published today (Dec. 7) in the journal Nature.


Irreparable vaccine-induced harm: Open Letter to the New Zealand government

COVID-19 vaccine surveillance and pharmacovigilance data
covid passports
In my past professional life - probably a decade ago, I had a client named Dr. Charlton Brown. Dr. Brown, at the time, was CEO and co-innovator at Immune Targeting Systems Ltd (UK). I always enjoyed working with Charlton, as we share a certain curiosity for science/knowledge and a dry wit. It turns out that Charlton has been part of the medical freedom resistance and has been working to get the word out about the risks of mRNA vaccines. Up until his email to me earlier this week, I had no idea.

This isn't the first time that people from my "former" professional life have emailed me to let me know that they are supportive of what I have been doing. In fact, I had a former colleague from my time at the Salk Institute in the 1980s write to me to express their support for me this week. These emails always lift my spirits as sometimes this seems like a very lonely fight, although the people writing in the comments section of this Substack also let me know that Jill and I are not alone - and this community often saves me from my own dark musings about the state of the world.

I have no idea how many scientists and physicians are quietly, sometimes secretly, questioning the public health policies in this country and globally. But I do know that dissidents of the new normal are slowly finding their voice and are speaking out.


Giant mantle plume reveals Mars is more active than previously thought

Orbital observations unveil the presence of an enormous mantle plume pushing the surface of Mars upward and driving intense volcanic and seismic activity.
Mars Crater
© ESA/DLR/FU Berlin
This image taken by the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter shows an oblique view focusing on one of the fractures making up the Cerberus Fossae system. The fractures cut through hills and craters, indicating their relative youth.
On Earth, shifting tectonic plates reshuffle the planet's surface and make for a dynamic interior, so the absence of such processes on Mars led many to think of it as a dead planet, where not much happened in the past 3 billion years.

In a study published in Nature Astronomy, scientists from the University of Arizona challenge current views of Martian geodynamic evolution with a report on the discovery of an active mantle plume pushing the surface upward and causing earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The finding suggests that the planet's deceptively quiet surface may hide a more tumultuous interior than previously thought.

"Our study presents multiple lines of evidence that reveal the presence of a giant active mantle plume on present-day Mars," said Adrien Broquet, a postdoctoral research associate in the UArizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and co-author of the study with Jeff Andrews-Hanna, an associate professor of planetary science at the LPL.

Mantle plumes are large blobs of warm and buoyant rock that rise from deep inside a planet and push through its intermediate layer - the mantle - to reach the base of its crust, causing earthquakes, faulting and volcanic eruptions. The island chain of Hawaii, for example, formed as the Pacific plate slowly drifted over a mantle plume.

"We have strong evidence for mantle plumes being active on Earth and Venus, but this isn't expected on a small and supposedly cold world like Mars," Andrews-Hanna said. "Mars was most active 3 to 4 billion years ago, and the prevailing view is that the planet is essentially dead today."

"A tremendous amount of volcanic activity early in the planet's history built the tallest volcanoes in the solar system and blanketed most of the northern hemisphere in volcanic deposits," Broquet said. "What little activity has occurred in recent history is typically attributed to passive processes on a cooling planet."


Scientists just discovered that ants make milk

Ant species
© Jasius via Getty Images
Ant species across five subfamilies exchange milk-like substances.
Scientists have observed ants feasting on a nutrient-rich substance released by other ants.

Pupae, ants in the last stage of ant metamorphosis before they become adults, secrete the liquid. Both adult ants and ant larvae consume it, and this exchange appears vital for survival.

"We identified a mechanism that unites the colony, binding ants across developmental stages — adults, larvae and pupae — into a coherent entity, the superorganism," Orli Snir, first author of the study and a biologist at the Rockefeller University, tells Nature News' Miryam Naddaf.

"It is a really neat study, because it is identifying a new type of social transfer that no one had even really noticed before," Adria LeBoeuf, who studies fluid exchange between ants at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland and did not contribute to the study, tells The Scientist's Viviane Callier.

The findings were published November 30 in the journal Nature.


Researchers discover what causes some icicles to form with ripples

icicle formation ripples
© J. Ladan and S. W. Morris
An icicle cross section under polarized light, showing the crystal structure of the ice shot through with dark regions of unfrozen, impure water.
Experimental physicists at the University of Toronto are closer to understanding why some icicles form with ripples up and down their outsides, while others form with smooth, slick, even surfaces.

By growing icicles from water samples with different contaminants like sodium chloride (salt), dextrose (sugar) and fluorescent dye, the researchers discovered that water impurities become entrapped within icicles as they form and subsequently create chevron patterns that contribute to a ripple effect around their circumferences.

The findings were described in a study published recently in Physical Review E.

Grey Alien

Extraterrestrial signal search is underway using the southern hemisphere's biggest radio telescope

MeerKAT telescope in South Africa,
© Danielle Futselaar / Breakthrough Listen / SARAO
Artist’s impression of the MeerKAT telescope in South Africa, and the Breakthrough Listen compute cluster, scanning the sky for possible signals (represented as binary codes) from extraterrestrial intelligence. One of the first targets to be observed by the new instrument will be the Alpha Centauri system, represented as the three stars towards the top right of the image.
Vanderbijlpark, South Africa - Breakthrough Listen - the initiative to find signs of intelligent life in the universe - announced today, at a conference organized by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), the start of observations using a powerful new instrument deployed to the MeerKAT radio telescope in the remote Karoo region of South Africa. The new search for technosignatures - indicators of technology developed by extraterrestrial intelligence - expands the number of targets searched by a factor of 1,000.

The astronomers and engineers on the Breakthrough Listen team have spent the last three years developing and installing the most powerful digital instrumentation ever deployed in the search for technosignatures, and integrating the equipment with the MeerKAT control and monitoring systems in cooperation with SARAO engineers. The new hardware complements Listen's ongoing searches using the Green Bank Telescope in the USA, the Parkes Telescope in Australia, and other telescopes around the world. But while Listen's programs at the GBT and Parkes involve moving these thousand-ton-plus dishes to point at targets all over the sky, the program on MeerKAT usually won't mechanically move the antennas.

"MeerKAT consists of 64 dishes, which can see an area of the sky 50 times bigger than the GBT can view at once," explained Breakthrough Listen Principal Investigator Dr. Andrew Siemion. "Such a large field of view typically contains many stars that are interesting technosignature targets. Our new supercomputer enables us to combine signals from the 64 dishes to get high resolution scans of these targets with excellent sensitivity, all without impacting the research of other astronomers who are using the array."

Cloud Lightning

Why does lightning zigzag? At last, we may have an answer to the mystery

© Douglas M. Paine
Everyone has seen lightning and marvelled at its power. But despite its frequency - about 8.6 million lightning strikes occur worldwide every day - why lightning proceeds in a series of steps from the thundercloud to the earth below has remained a mystery.

There are a few textbooks on lightning, but none have explained how these "zigzags" (called steps) form, and how lightning can travel over kilometres. My new research provides an explanation.

The intense electrical fields in thunderclouds excite electrons to have enough energy to create what are known as "singlet delta oxygen molecules". These molecules and electrons build up to create a short, highly conducting step, which lights up intensely for a millionth of a second.