Scientists Control a Fly's Heartbeat With a Laser ( 12

the_newsbeagle writes: Researchers have demonstrated a laser-based pacemaker in fruit flies, and say that a human version is "not impossible."

The invention makes use of optogenetics, a technique in which the DNA that codes for a light-sensitive protein is inserted into certain cells, enabling those cells to be activated by pulses of light. Researchers often use this method to study neurons in the brain, but in this case the researchers altered flies' heart cells. Then they activated those cardiac cells using pulses of light, causing them to contract in time with the pulses (abstract). Voila, they had an optical pacemaker that worked on living adult fruit flies.

Don't worry, no one can control your heartbeat with a laser just yet. That would require inserting foreign DNA into your heart cells, and also finding a way to shine light through the impediment of your flesh and bones. But lead researcher Chao Zhou of Lehigh University is working on it.


Researchers Say Fukushima Child Cancer Rates 20-50x Higher Than Expected ( 100

New submitter JackSpratts writes: According to the Associated Press, "A new study says children living near the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer at a rate 20 to 50 times that of children elsewhere, a difference the authors contend undermines the government's position that more cases have been discovered in the area only because of stringent monitoring.

Most of the 370,000 children in Fukushima prefecture (state) have been given ultrasound checkups since the March 2011 meltdowns at the tsunami-ravaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. The most recent statistics, released in August, show that thyroid cancer is suspected or confirmed in 137 of those children, a number that rose by 25 from a year earlier. Elsewhere, the disease occurs in only about one or two of every million children per year by some estimates."


Complex Living Brain Simulation Replicates Sensory Rat Behaviour ( 49

New submitter physick writes: The Blue Brain project at EPFL, Switzerland today published the results of more than 10 years work in reconstructing a cellular model of a piece of the somatosensory cortex of a juvenile rat. The paper in Cell describes the process of painstakingly assembling tens of thousands of digital neurons, establishing the location of their synapses, and simulating the resulting neocortical microcircuit on an IBM Blue Gene supercomputer. “This is a first draft reconstruction of a piece of neocortex and it’s beautiful,” said Henry Markram, director of the Blue Brain Project at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. “It’s like a fundamental building block of the brain.”

How Analog Tide Predictors Changed Human History ( 36

szczys writes: You'd think Tide prediction would be quite easy, it comes in, it goes out. But of course it's driven by gravity between the moon and earth and there's a lot more to it. Today, computer models make this easy, but before computers we used incredible analog machines to predict the tides. The best of these machines were the deciding factor in setting a date for the Allies landing in Europe leading to the end of the second world war. From the Hackaday story: "In England, tide prediction was handled by Arthur Thomas Doodson from the Liverpool Tidal Institute. It was Doodson who made the tidal predictions for the Allied invasion at Normandy. Doodson needed access to local tide data, but the British only had information for the nearby ports. Factors like the shallow water effect and local weather impact on tidal behavior made it impossible to interpolate for the landing sites based on the port data. The shallow water effect could really throw off the schedule for demolishing the obstacles if the tide rose too quickly. Secret British reconnaissance teams covertly collected shallow water data at the enemy beaches and sent it to Doodson for analysis. To further complicate things, the operatives couldn’t just tell Doodson that the invasion was planned for the beaches of Normandy. So he had to figure it out from the harmonic constants sent to him by William Ian Farquharson, superintendent of tides at the Hydrographic Office of the Royal Navy. He did so using the third iteration of Kelvin’s predictor along with another machine. These were kept in separate rooms lest they be taken out by the same bomb.

What Happened To the Martian Ocean and Magnetic Field? ( 137

schwit1 writes with this story at The Atlantic that explores what may have destroyed the Martian atmosphere and ocean. The question of whether there is life on Mars is woven into a much larger thatch of mysteries. Among them: What happened to the ancient ocean that once covered a quarter of the planet's surface? And, relatedly, what made Mars's magnetosphere fade away? Why did a planet that may have looked something like Earth turn into a dry red husk? “We see magnetized rocks on the Mars surface,” said Bruce Banerdt, the principal investigator of the InSight mission to Mars, which is set to launch in March. “And so we know Mars had a magnetic field at one time, but it doesn't today. We would like to know the history—when that magnetic field started, when it may have shut down.”
United States

NSF Awards $74.5 Million To Support Interdisciplinary Cybersecurity Research ( 8

aarondubrow writes: The National Science Foundation announced $74.5 million in grants for basic research in cybersecurity. Among the awards are projects to understand and offer reliability to cryptocurrencies; invent technologies to broadly scan large swaths of the Internet and automate the detection and patching of vulnerabilities; and establish the science of censorship resistance by developing accurate models of the capabilities of censors. According to NSF, long-term support for fundamental cybersecurity research has resulted in public key encryption, software security bug detection, spam filtering and more.

A Remarkable Number of People Think 'The Martian' Is Based On a True Story ( 361

MarkWhittington writes: The Martian is a smash hit movie that made $100 million worldwide during its first weekend. The science and engineering depicted was, with certain notable exceptions, near perfect. The cinematography and special effects were so well done that one could almost imagine that Ridley Scott sent Matt Damon and a film crew to Mars to shoot the movie. In fact, perhaps the film was a little too good. Buzzfeed took a stroll through social media and discovered that many people think that The Martian is based on a true story.
The Almighty Buck

Researchers Unable To Replicate Findings of Published Economics Studies ( 209

An anonymous reader writes: Federal Reserve economists Andrew Chang and Phillip Li looked at 67 papers in 13 reputable academic journals. Their findings were shocking. Without the help of the authors, only a third of the results could be independently replicated. Even with the author's help, only about half, or 49%, could. Business Insider reports: "It's a pretty massive issue for economics, especially given the impact that the subject has on public policy. Li and Chang use a well-known paper by Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff as an example. The study showed a significant growth drop-off once a country's national debts reached 90% of gross domestic product, but three years after being published the study was found to contain a significant Microsoft Excel error that changed the magnitude of the effect." With cancer studies and most recently psychology studies all having replication trouble, these economics papers have some company.

Privately Funded Lunar Mission Set a Launch Date For 2017 50

merbs writes: If all goes according to plan, the world's first private lunar mission will be launched just two years from now. SpaceIL, an Israeli nonprofit, has secured a launch contract with Spaceflight Industries, and will aim to land a rover on the moon in the second half of 2017. It's the first such launch contract to be verified by the $30 million Google Lunar XPrize competition. Another group called Moon Express has signed a deal with New Zealand-based company, Rocket Lab, to launch and put a lander on the lunar surface 2017.

The Mutant Genes Behind the Black Death 131

An anonymous reader writes: Each year, 4 million people visit Yosemite National Park in California. Most bring back photos, postcards and an occasional sunburn. But two unlucky visitors this summer got a very different souvenir. They got the plague. This quintessential medieval disease, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and transmitted most often by fleabites, still surfaces in a handful of cases each year in the western United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its historical record is far more macabre. The plague of Justinian from 541 to 543 decimated nearly half the population in the Mediterranean, while the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed one in every three Europeans.

Now researchers are beginning to reveal a surprising genetic history of the plague. A rash of discoveries show how just a small handful of genetic changes — an altered protein here, a mutated gene there — can transform a relatively innocuous stomach bug into a pandemic capable of killing off a large fraction of a continent.

The most recent of these studies, published in June, found that the acquisition of a single gene named pla gave Y. pestis the ability to cause pneumonia, causing a form of plague so lethal that it kills essentially all of those infected who don't receive antibiotics. In addition, it is also among the most infectious bacteria known. "Yersinia pestis is a pretty kick-ass pathogen," said Paul Keim, a microbiologist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. "A single bacterium can cause disease in mice. It's hard to get much more virulent than that."

2015 Nobel Prize In Chemistry Awarded To 3 For DNA Repair 20

An anonymous reader writes: Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar have earned the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discoveries about how DNA is repaired at the cellular level (PDF), and how genetic information is protected. "Each day our DNA is damaged by UV radiation, free radicals and other carcinogenic substances, but even without such external attacks, a DNA molecule is inherently unstable. Thousands of spontaneous changes to a cell's genome occur on a daily basis. Furthermore, defects can also arise when DNA is copied during cell division, a process that occurs several million times every day in the human body."

Tomas Lindahl first published work in this field back in 1974, when he found a bacterial enzyme that culled damaged remains of cytosines from DNA. He methodically worked out how base excision repair works, and even managed to recreate the process in vitro in 1996. Aziz Sancar's contribution has to do with how DNA repairs damage from ultraviolet light. After struggling to find a lab interested in his work, he went on to show how a group of enzymes identify and excise UV damage. Paul Modrich's focus was on how natural processes corrected base pair mismatches in DNA. He spent a decade laboriously mapping out how each enzyme interacted with this process — an important thing to know, since defects in the repair system can cause cells to turn cancerous.

Endocannabinoids Contribute To Runner's High 112

MTorrice writes: After a nice long bout of aerobic exercise, some people experience what's known as a "runner's high" — a feeling of euphoria coupled with reduced anxiety and a lessened ability to feel pain. For decades, scientists have associated this phenomenon with an increased level in the blood of beta-endorphins, which are opioid peptides thought to elevate mood. Now, German researchers have shown the brain's endocannabinoid system—the same one affected by marijuana's 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—may also play a role in producing runner's high, at least in mice.

Researchers Create 'Habitability Index' For Exoplanets 52

hypnosec writes: The Kepler Space Telescope has allowed astronomers to detect and catalog thousands of exoplanets and exoplanet candidates. With more powerful telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope scheduled for launch, scientists will be able to check if any of these exoplanets are habitable. But these space telescopes are expensive to create, and access time is coveted. This means simply pointing telescopes to random exoplanets isn't a practical proposition. That's why researchers have created what they call a "habitability index for transiting planets," with which astronomers will be able to prioritize the use of space telescopes for finding habitable planets. Their paper is available at the arXiv.

DARPA Jolts the Nervous System With Electricity, Lasers, Sound Waves, and Magnets 34

the_newsbeagle writes: DARPA is sinking some cash into the buzzy new research field of "electroceuticals," which involves stimulating nerves to control the activity of organs or bodily systems. The newest techniques have little in common with electroshock therapy, which sends a strong current broadly through the brain tissue; today's cutting-edge methods can target individual neurons, and turn them "on" and "off" with great precision. Under DARPA's new ElectRx program, seven research teams will explore different ways to modulate activity of the peripheral nervous system. Some will stimulate neurons directly with electricity, while others will take more roundabout routes involving light, acoustics, and magnetic fields.

Team Constructs Silicon 2-qubit Gate, Enabling Construction of Quantum Computers ( 92

monkeyzoo writes: A team at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney has made a crucial advance in quantum computing. Their advance, appearing in the journal Nature (abstract), demonstrated a two-qubit logic gate — the central building block of a quantum computer — and, significantly, did it in silicon. This makes the building of a quantum computer much more feasible, since it is based on the same manufacturing technology as today's computer industry. Until now, it had not been possible to make two quantum bits 'talk' to each other — and thereby create a logic gate — using silicon. But the UNSW team — working with Professor Kohei M. Itoh of Japan's Keio University — has done just that for the first time. The result means that all of the physical building blocks for a silicon-based quantum computer have now been successfully constructed, allowing engineers to finally begin the task of designing and building a functioning quantum computer.

Neutrino 'Flip' Discovery Earns Nobel For Japanese, Canadian Researchers 58

Dave Knott writes with news that the 2015 Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded to Takaaki Kajita (of the University of Tokyo in Japan) and Arthur McDonald (of Queens University in Canada), for discovering how neutrinos switch between different "flavours." As the linked BBC article explains: In 1998, Prof Kajita's team reported that neutrinos they had caught, bouncing out of collisions in the Earth's atmosphere, had switched identity: they were a different "flavour" from what those collisions must have released. Then in 2001, the group led by Prof McDonald announced that the neutrinos they were detecting in Ontario, which started out in the Sun, had also "flipped" from their expected identity. This discovery of the particle's wobbly identity had crucial implications. It explained why neutrino detections had not matched the predicted quantities — and it meant that the baffling particles must have a mass. This contradicted the Standard Model of particle physics and changed calculations about the nature of the Universe, including its eternal expansion.

Space Travel For the 1%: Virgin Galactic's $250,000 Tickets Haunt New Mexico Town 233

The Real Dr John writes: The Guardian has an article about Virgin Galactic's proposed launch site, Spaceport America, which broke ground in southern New Mexico's high desert in 2009 with almost a quarter of a billion dollars from taxpayers, $76m of which came from the two local counties. Truth or Consequences, population 6,000 and home to the Spaceport America Visitor Center, is one of the poorest places in the state. The increased taxes, adopted across impoverished Sierra County, contributed to about $5m as of 2014. Since 2009, state school budgets have been cut and an estimated $26m in necessary repairs to the town's water system has been put on hold. There's no more money to pay for it. The average annual income of residents is just $15,000 per year, one third of residents live below the poverty line, and just 20% over the age of 25 have obtained a bachelor's degree.

Study Finds Humans Are Worse Than Radiation For Chernobyl Animals 139

derekmead writes: A study published today in Current Biology shows that wildlife in the Chernobyl exclusion zone is actually more abundant than it was before the disaster. According to the authors, led by Portsmouth University professor of environmental science Jim Smith, the recovery is due to the removal of the single biggest pressure on wildlife—humans. "The wildlife at Chernobyl is very likely better than it was before the accident, not because radiation is good for animals, but because human occupation is much worse,” Portsmouth University professor of environmental science Jim Smith says. “We were trying to emphasize that this study is a remarkable illustration of an obvious, but important message,” he said. “It is ordinary human habitation and use (farming, forestry, hunting) of land which does most ecological damage.”

DNA Vaccine Sterilizes Mice, Could Lead To One-Shot Birth Control For Cats, Dogs 153

sciencehabit writes: Animal birth control could soon be just a shot away. A new injection makes male and female mice infertile by tricking their muscles into producing hormone-blocking antibodies. If the approach works in dogs and cats, researchers say, it could be used to neuter and spay pets and to control reproduction in feral animal populations. A similar approach could one day spur the development of long-term birth control options for humans.

Review: The Martian Screenshot-sm 240

I was both pleased and disappointed, as always, when I heard that a book I enjoyed was being made into a movie. Andy Weir's The Martian was the best new book I'd read in years. It was written for nerds, by a nerd — by somebody with an obvious love for NASA, science, and spaceflight. How could it possibly be condensed into the format of a Hollywood blockbuster? Well, director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard figured out how. The Martian is an excellent film, well worth watching. Read on for my review (very minor spoilers only), and feel free to share your own in the comments.