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Sat, 21 Apr 2018
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Cells use light to communicate

light in the body
"Your body is woven from the light of Heaven." ~Rumi
Have you ever wondered what makes the difference between a living and non-living process? What makes us "alive" instead of just machines or robots acting out commands? What is the life force, or what ancient philosophers called the "animus"? It is light, and this is the fundamental method by which your cells and DNA communicate.

After all, a cell contains the same components when it is alive and when it is dead. The same molecules and structures are there, but what gives the cell life? What allows an average human being to become the accumulation of 10 trillion cells communicating in a precise way every second to every molecule in our bodies?



Hybrid swarm of 'mega-pests' threatens crops worldwide, scientists warn

Hybrids of two major pest species, cotton bollworms and corn earworms, could be a major threat to global agriculture

New strain could be significant biosecurity risk and has potential to go 'completely undetected'

A pair of major agricultural pests have combined to produce a "mega-pest" that could threaten crops around the world.

Losses from the original pest species, cotton bollworms and corn earworms, already amounts to billions of dollars worth of food.

But a hybrid of the two, shows signs of rapidly developing resistance to pesticides and it scientists fear it could cross international boundaries undetected, wiping out all the crops it comes across.

Bollworms and earworms are closely related. The bollworm has its origins in Africa, Asia and Europe while the earworm is a native of the Americas.

Both are in fact moth caterpillars and they feed on more than 100 plant species including vital crops like corn, cotton, tomato and soybean.

A team of Australian scientists who discovered the hybrid mega-pests think the combination of international species could be creating a new strain with unlimited geographical boundaries.

It is impossible to tell which individuals are hybrids just by looking at them, meaning by the time the hybrids have been detected it may be too late.

"A hybrid such as this could go completely undetected should it invade another country," said Dr Paul De Barro, a biosecurity expert at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

The scientists studied nine from Brazil and found that every one was a hybrid.


5 times artificial intelligence revealed sexist and racist biases

brain scan
© John Lamb/Getty
Modern life runs on intelligent algorithms. The data-devouring, self-improving computer programmes that underlie the artificial intelligence revolution already determine Google search results, Facebook news feeds and online shopping recommendations. Increasingly, they also decide how easily we get a mortgage or a job interview, the chances we will get stopped and searched by the police on our way home, and what penalties we face if we commit a crime, too.

So they must be unimpeachable in their decision-making, right? Wrong. Skewed input data, false logic or just the prejudices of their programmers mean AIs all too easily reproduce and even amplify human biases - as the following five examples show.


Researchers find huge solar 'tornadoes' don't spin after all

solar prominance eruption
An erupting solar prominence on Aug. 31, 2012, imaged by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Credit:
Giant plasma "tornadoes" raging across the surface of the sun don't actually spin like astronomers once thought, new research shows.

Massive solar tornadoes, formally known as tornado prominences, which were first observed about 100 years ago, seemed to bear a striking resemblance to tornadoes on Earth. These gigantic structures - each one several times the size of Earth - are made of hot, flowing gas and tangled magnetic field lines, ultimately driven by nuclear reactions in the solar core.

However, using a method known as the Doppler effect, scientists have precisely measured the speed of the moving plasma, as well as its direction, temperature and density, revealing that twisters on the sun do not rotate like earthbound tornadoes do, according to a statement from the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science (EWASS) conference.


New geological evidence suggests Nile River is at least 31 million years old

Nile River
© George Chan / Nature PL
The Nile had become a major river by around 31 million years ago.
The source of the Nile river remained a mystery to Europeans for thousands of years. Now another puzzle has finally been solved: the source of the river in deep time.

The Nile had become a major river by around 31 million years ago, reports the first team of geologists to put a firm date on its origin. "The Nile's the longest river in the world, and being able to figure out when it started is, for me, really exciting," says Yani Najman at Lancaster University, UK, who led the team.

Rivers carry sediment from their source down to the sea. So comparing the minerals in a river's sediment deposits with the rocks found upstream reveals where its waters started out from in the past.

The Nile's story has remained elusive because its most ancient deposits are buried beneath thousands of metres of Nile delta sediment, says Najman. Only oil companies have drilled to such depths in the area and they don't like to share their findings.

Solar Flares

Has solar cycle 25 begun? Solar cycle 24 was one of the shortest and weakest ever

oil tanker at sunset
© Jean-Paul Pelissier / Reuters

Evidence of a Cycle 25 sunspot found

In our previous post: Solar activity crashes - the Sun looks like a cueball,

Our resident solar physicist, Dr. Leif Svalgaard commented and provided a link to something reported by his colleagues, something that likely would not have been possible without the fantastic solar observations of NASA's Solar Dynamic Observeratory (SDO). He said:
Cycle 25 has already begun

It looks to me that SC25 will be a bit stronger than SC24, so probably no Grand Minimum this time
(ignore the 2014 in the top line - it is just a place holder).

Comment: This is important, because whatever the sun does will affect Earth's climate. See:


NASA's infrared 3D video reveals Jupiter's menacing cyclones

3D flyover of Jupiter reveals planet’s menacing
The mesmeric swirling mass atop our solar system's largest planet is laid bare in all its turbulent glory in an incredible 3D flyover 'tour' video from NASA. The imagery offers an intriguing peak beneath Jupiter's clouds.

The animation shows Jupiter's north pole and the "engine" powering its magnetic field in never-before-seen and highly-textured detail. The churning surface looks almost menacing in the video which illustrates the polar region's central storm and the eight cyclones - ranging in diameter from 2,500 to 2,900 miles (4,000 to 4,600 kilometers) - that encircle it.

The 3D tour was built using data collected by the Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) instrument aboard NASA's Juno spacecraft during its fourth flyover of the enormous planet. The infrared cameras measure the atmospheric temperature some 30 to 34 miles from Jupiter's cloud tops, and offer some insight into the gas giant's powerful cyclones.

Comment: See Also:


Scientists look at genetic markers to see if memories can be unlocked after death

© Getty
Our memories leave a clear and unique genetic mark on our brains. That's the remarkable discovery of scientists in Israel who say these genetic markers could be used to unlock memories after people die
Our memories leave a clear and unique genetic mark on our brains.

That's the remarkable discovery of scientists in Israel who say these genetic markers could be used to unlock memories after people die.

The technology opens the door to strange scenarios, similar to those portrayed in the series 'Black Mirror', where investigators can record and playback the memories of suspected criminals.

It could even lead to a future in which police are able to read and replay memories of murder victims to help them piece together the events leading up to their death.


Not junk after all - Scientists discover a role for 'junk' DNA

Junk DNA?
© Smart Graphic
Researchers at the University of Michigan Life Sciences Institute and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have determined how satellite DNA, considered to be "junk DNA," plays a crucial role in holding the genome together.

Their findings, published recently in the journal eLife, indicate that this genetic "junk" performs the vital function of ensuring that chromosomes bundle correctly inside the cell's nucleus, which is necessary for cell survival. And this function appears to be conserved across many species.

This pericentromeric satellite DNA consists of a very simple, highly repetitive sequence of genetic code. Although it accounts for a substantial portion of our genome, satellite DNA does not contain instructions for making any specific proteins. What's more, its repetitive nature is thought to make the genome less stable and more susceptible to damage or disease. Until fairly recently, scientists believed this so-called "junk" or "selfish" DNA did not serve any real purpose.

"But we were not quite convinced by the idea that this is just genomic junk," said Yukiko Yamashita, research professor at the LSI and lead author on the study. "If we don't actively need it, and if not having it would give us an advantage, then evolution probably would have gotten rid of it. But that hasn't happened."

Yamashita and her colleagues decided to see what would happen if cells could not use this pericentromeric satellite DNA. Because it exists in long, repetitive sequences, the researchers could not simply mutate or cut the entire satellite DNA out of the genome. Instead, they approached the question through D1, a protein known to bind to satellite DNA.

Better Earth

Hyper-saline lakes discovered in Canadian Arctic - could provide window into life beyond Earth

salty lakes under arctic
© Anja Rutishauser
Two subglacial lakes were discovered below the surface of the Devon Ice Cap. They're believed to be hypersaline, or extremely salty.
'I didn't expect them to be there,' says University of Alberta scientist

Scientists from the University of Alberta have accidentally discovered the first two subglacial lakes found in the Canadian Arctic - and their unique conditions could help scientists in their search for life beyond Earth.

The two lakes were found underneath the ice cap, below between 550 and 750 metres of ice.

The discovery was made by Anja Rutishauser, a PhD student in radio glaciology, who was studying the bedrock conditions underneath the Devon Ice Cap, one of the largest ice caps in the Canadian Arctic.