News Article | March 16, 2017
Nanotechnology - What You Should Know Tardigrades, perhaps more commonly known as water bears, are tiny creatures that maintain such strange characteristics. These Muppet-like creatures are able to survive extreme conditions, including staggering amounts of radiation, temperatures 302 degrees Fahrenheit to almost absolute zero, and pressures that would beat those in the deepest ocean trenches. Water bears can also endure being dried up for up to a decade or even longer. In a new study, researchers found that they have special genes encoding for disordered proteins to help water bears survive near 100 percent water loss. Scientists previously assumed that this survival ability is due to a sugar called trehalose, which is what sea monkeys or brine shrimps use for preserving cells during desiccation. Trehalose levels, however, appeared much lower in water bears, so it couldn’t possibly be the key. The team of Thomas Boothby at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, discovered clues in the water bears’ genes. "The big takeaway from our study is that tardigrades have evolved unique genes that allow them to survive drying out. In addition, the proteins that these genes encode can be used to protect other biological material — like bacteria, yeast, and certain enzymes — from desiccation,” explained Boothby, a postdoc fellow and the study first author, in a statement. The team discovered that water bears produce a special kind of glassy substance holding their essential proteins and molecules in a suspended state until their bodies are rehydrated. The glass practically traps desiccation-sensitive molecules in a form of matrix and hinder them from breaking like they usually would without the glassy protection, Boothby told Christian Science Monitor. Proteins known as tardigrade-specific intrinsically disordered proteins (TDPs) are responsible for producing this “bioglass,” where the shapeless yet highly flexible rearrange into solid bioglass once extreme drying takes place. Once the water bears are exposed to water again, the bioglass melts, and the unique proteins return to their old random state. The researchers figured out that they could also maneuver other creatures to carry the same proteins and survive extreme desiccation. When they inserted the genes into living bacteria and yeast, they discovered that the proteins equipped them against extreme desiccation just like they did with water bears. TDPs in a test tube are deemed adequately protective of desiccation-sensitive molecules, physically barring their breakage or folding. These results offer the exciting possibility that TDPs could also work the same wonders on larger and more complex animals. Cellular biologist John Crowe told the Monitor that it’s a “convincing piece of research,” but he is hardly convinced that the disordered proteins are tardigrade-specific as suggested. The proteins may also turn up in other desiccation-tolerant organisms, he said. Potential real-world uses and applications of TDPs include protecting crops from drought as well as allowing medications to be stored at room temperature instead of constantly chilled conditions. The latter could be a good development for supplying important drugs in remote communities or those that lack refrigeration. In light of rising global temperatures and greater spread of disease, results like this may also spell greater chances of survival for a number of life forms. The findings were discussed in the journal Molecular Cell. © 2017 Tech Times, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.
News Article | March 5, 2017
Nanotechnology - What You Should Know A leaked memo reveals that U.S. President Donald Trump is planning to slash the budget of a major climate science agency by nearly a fifth. This, according to experts fearing the move, could cost lives worldwide. The White House document, a memo from the Office of Management and Budget, detailed the proposed budget cuts for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which undertakes climate change research. The plan also involves measures such as reducing funding for programs enabling U.S. coastal areas to survive extreme weather. The Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research could see its budget reduced by 26 percent or $126 million, while the satellite department could lose 22 percent or $513 million. “Cutting NOAA’s satellite budget will compromise NOAA’s mission of keeping Americans safe from extreme weather and providing forecasts that allow businesses and citizens to make smart plans,” former NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco told the Washington Post, which obtained the budget memo on March 3. Trump earlier expressed plans to increase U.S. military spending by $54 million. This would partly entail cutting environmental initiatives, including those from the Environmental Protection Agency. NOAA leads the country’s weather forecasting, weather satellite program, fisheries and ocean services, as well as climate monitoring. But how exactly would you bear the brunt of a reduced climate science budget? Here are some ways, as enumerated by Forbes. Poised for elimination in the White House proposal is the Sea Grant program, which offers research, education, and legal programs to coastal communities for responsible use of oceans, coastal areas, and Great Lakes resources. At least 33 states benefit from the program, which addresses practical issues such as “sunny day flooding” or saltwater intruding into human drinking water. The potential budget cuts involve eliminating a portion of the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Services, which also comprises important climate data at the National Center for Environmental Indicators. Weather satellites are critical for the public, industry, and military alike, acting like “smoke detectors” and including a fleet of low-Earth and geosynchronous orbiting satellites. Large satellite programs, Forbes reminded, need sustained, consistent research, development, and support, unless one accepts a modern version of a 1900 hurricane slamming into Galveston, Texas and killing up to 12,000 people. Christian Science Monitor also noted that in practice, NOAA works in collaboration with NASA, pooling their funds together and combining expertise. This could also endanger the work being done on the space agency’s Earth Science Division, or the operation of next-gen satellites such as JPSS-1. Advances such as smartphones, precision agriculture, GPS, and life-saving medicine stem from sustained R&D — just like advanced weather forecasting. Current capabilities have been borne out of research around satellite systems and models (including one recently announced by NOAA that’s significant upgrade of its main weather modeling system), along with headways in ocean science. Even one to four years of lags in research could cause long-term damage, experts feared, especially in the face of changing climate and steady warming trends in the United States and elsewhere around the world. © 2017 Tech Times, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.
News Article | May 8, 2017
"Investors with more than $15 trillion of assets under management urged governments led by the United States to implement the Paris climate accord to fight climate change despite U.S. President Donald Trump's threats to pull out. "As long-term institutional investors, we believe that the mitigation of climate change is essential for the safeguarding of our investments," according to the letter signed by 214 institutional investors and published on Monday. "We urge all nations to stand by their commitments to the Agreement," it said. Signatories of the letter included the California Public Employees Retirement System and other pension funds from Sweden to Australia." "Inside the White House War Over the Paris Climate Treaty" (InsideClimate News) "Worries Over US Pullout To Dominate UN Climate Talks" (BBC News) "Worried World Urges Trump Not To Pull Out Of Paris Climate Agreement" (Guardian) "Should US Exit The Paris Climate Deal? Some Fossil-Fuel Firms Say No." (Christian Science Monitor) "As US, EU Step Back, Climate Talks Could Signal Geopolitical Shift" (Daily Climate)
News Article | May 3, 2017
"White House officials are leaning towards taking the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, people familiar with the deliberations say. While some in the Trump administration have warmed in recent days to the idea of staying in the non-binding pact while potentially changing the United States’ commitment, top officials are now leaning the other way, sources said Tuesday. Trump could announce as soon as next week his plans to pull out. The Huffington Post and New York Times reported on the developments earlier Tuesday." Timothy Cama reports for The Hill May 2, 2017. "In the Trump White House, the Momentum Has Turned Against The Paris Climate Agreement" (Washington Post) "White House Leaning Toward Exiting Paris Agreement By Next Week, Sources Say" (Huff Post) "German Minister To Try To Persuade U.S. To Remain In Climate Pact" (Reuters) "Debate Over Paris Climate Deal Could Turn on a Single Phrase" (New York Times) "Trump’s Lawyer Raises Concerns About Remaining In Paris Climate Accord, Sources Say" (Politico) "Should US Exit The Paris Climate Deal? Some Fossil-Fuel Firms Say No." (Christian Science Monitor) "Paris Agreement: Trump Says Other Nations Contribute 'Nothing.' He's Wrong" (ClimateWire) "Paris Climate Deal Backers Fear Trump Is Heading For The Exit" (Axios)
News Article | February 21, 2017
A combination photograph shows the beginning (top L) to the end (top L to bottom R) of a total solar eclipse as seen from the beach of Ternate island, Indonesia, on March 9, 2016. —Do you want to be a filmmaking star? Or at least make a film of a star? The University of California needs your help. As the clock ticks closer to this summer’s total solar eclipse, UC Berkeley and Google are partnering to carry out what they're calling the Eclipse Megamovie Project. By combining footage from over 1,000 cameras in the path of the eclipse, they hope to create a 90-minute “megamovie” that captures the phenomenon in a way no human being could alone. When the moon passes directly between the Earth and the sun on August 21, the center of its shadow will trace out a diagonal trail from Oregon to South Carolina. Observers located at the exact center of this “path of totality” may be able to see the total eclipse for as long as 2 minutes and 40 seconds as the shadow flies over the ground at up to 1,500 miles per hour. The Eclipse Megamovie Project hopes to choose and train over 1,000 volunteers to record as much of the eclipse as they are able, after which the terabytes of video data will be stitched together to generate a complete, high-resolution record of the eclipse as viewed from the ground. “We want everyone to know about the natural wonder, scientific importance and social impact of viewing a live total solar eclipse,” Laura Peticolas, a physicist who oversees the educational component of the Eclipse Megamovie Project, said in a press release. “It is truly a transformative, life-changing experience and we want to prepare people for that.” The Eclipse Megamovie Project will also release an app this summer that will let anyone contribute to the effort with their smartphone. This footage will be used to create a second, lower resolution video. While compiling the videos themselves is exciting, the team hopes to use them to answer some scientific questions, too. Of particular interest is the corona, the wispy filaments of plasma extending far beyond the solar surface. Generally hidden against the brilliance of the sun, the corona can normally be studied using a device called a coronagraph, which physically blocks out the sun’s disk. It turns out the moon makes a great natural coronagraph. Another point of interest is what’s called “Baily’s Beads,” little twinkles that appear around the rim of the moon as the sun shines through craters and gets blocked by peaks. Cellphone footage of these bright and dark spots can help astronomers map lunar features. The team will be putting the crowdsourcing system through its paces this week during an annular eclipse in Patagonia, and those who miss their chance to participate this summer may have a second shot during the next US total solar eclipse in April 2024. The Eclipse Megamovie Project is the latest in the recent trend of using so-called “citizen astronomers,” astronomy enthusiasts with little or no formal training who help the professionals sift through their data. Modern instruments often collect far more data than scientists can handle, and when it comes to many kinds of analysis, current computer programs still can’t beat good old-fashioned eyes and human attention. NASA recently invited citizen astronomers to help comb through images of nearby interstellar space to search for dim objects, such as an undiscovered planet or dwarf star, that might trick their computer software. “There are just over four light-years between Neptune and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and much of this vast territory is unexplored,” lead researcher Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a press release. “Because there’s so little sunlight, even large objects in that region barely shine in visible light. But by looking in the infrared, WISE may have imaged objects we otherwise would have missed.” For any discoveries that lead to published work, the citizen astronomer will share credit, a point that can complicate the emerging field of collaboration between the public and scientists, as The Christian Science Monitor reported last fall: Citizen scientists interested in contributing their time and their cameras to the study of our sun and moon during this summer's eclipse can sign up for updates on the Eclipse Megavideo Project’s website.
News Article | February 14, 2017
—Live birth: Most mammals do it, some lizards and snakes do it, but archosaurs – a reptilian group that includes crocodiles and birds – don't... or so biologists thought. When a long-necked, marine archosauromorph died some 245 million years ago in what is now China, she was pregnant, according to a paper published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications. And now paleontologists are hailing this fossil as evidence that archosaurs might not have always been strict egg-layers. "We commonly think of these aspects of animal biology as static or 'fixed' throughout evolutionary time, and cases like this demonstrate just how labile the evolution of animal form and biology can be," Dr. Nathan Smith, an associate curator at the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, who was not involved in the study of this new specimen, writes in an email to The Christian Science Monitor. Egg-laying, or oviparity, is thought to be the ancestral reproductive strategy, with live birth, or viviparity, evolving later in some lineages. Viviparity isn't just the placenta-nourished embryonic development of mammals. It has also frequently evolved independently among lizards and snakes in a variety of forms, sometimes with babies hatching from eggs incubated inside their mothers. So viviparity was known in mammals and lepidosaurs (the vertebrate group including lizards and snakes), explains study co-author Michael Benton, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol in Britain. But "nobody had ever discovered, in any of the living or fossil forms, any evidence that archosaurs could adopt live birth." When the new specimen was first discovered and the researchers saw the small bones preserved within the larger animal's ribcage, they didn't want to jump to any conclusions. After all, this could have simply been this animal's last meal. As the team examined the fossil, they realized that the two animals were indeed the same species. But it still could have been a case of cannibalism, Dr. Benton says in a phone interview with the Monitor. The researchers are pretty sure that Dinocephalosaurus, as this animal is called, fed on fish because it has a small mouth and a long, thin neck, perfect for gulping down the long, slippery bodies of fish. Swallowing a chunky baby of its own species would have been quite the feat. Not only that, but the little bones didn't display any evidence of acid digestion, as would be expected for such a meal. Furthermore, what Benton says is "quite strong evidence" against cannibalism is the position of the little animal within the bigger one. The big Dinocephalosaurus likely would have had to swallow the baby head first so it went down easily, but the little animal is oriented the wrong way. Finding a little version of the bigger animal in the abdominal region "is about as close as you can get in the fossil record to direct evidence of reproductive mode," Christian Sidor, a paleobiologist at the University of Washington who was not involved in the research, says in a phone interview with the Monitor. Daniel Blackburn, a biologist at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., whose own research has focused on viviparity in reptiles, is convinced. "Based on the state of development of the embryo and its position in the body of the adult, it almost certainly is a developing fetus," he writes in an email to the Monitor. "Given the absence of any trace of an eggshell, as well as its advanced state of development, the embryo seems unlikely to be laid as an egg. Thus, the adult specimen is almost certainly a pregnant female with a developing fetus." "Viviparity has previously been documented in only a few groups of extinct reptiles, notably ichthyosaurs, the giant mosasauroid lizards, and plesiosaurs," Dr. Blackburn says. "The authors' analysis extends live-bearing habits to an entirely new reptilian group, one in which it had not previously been suspected." That may not be entirely true, says Xiao-chun Wu, a palaeobiologist at the Canadian Museum of Nature who was not involved in the new research. In 2010, Dr. Wu and colleagues reported evidence of viviparity in a choristoderan reptile. But there has been some debate around whether the choristoderans are lepidosauromorphs or archosauromorphs, he explains. And Wu asserts that these reptiles actually belong among the archosaurs. Still, Wu says, this finding is significant because it increases the diversity of reproductive patterns among this group of reptiles. And, Dr. Sidor says, even if choristoderan reptiles are viviparous archosaurs, Dinocephalosaurus is still the oldest example of live birth in an archosauromorph, as the choristoderans lived tens of millions of years later. This pregnant Dinocephalosaurus could help corroborate a dominant idea about what makes a reptile stop laying eggs and start birthing live young: that viviparity is an adaptation necessary for reptiles to move to a fully aquatic lifestyle. "Because eggs of reptiles (and birds) cannot be laid in water, aquatic reptiles have two choices: they either must come to land to lay their eggs (like sea turtles) or they must be viviparous (like ichthyosaurs and certain sea snakes)," Blackburn explains. "Dinocephalosaurus is highly specialized for aquatic life and probably could not come onto the land to lay its eggs." "It's nice to see that we've got a pattern developing," Sidor says. According to that pattern, it fits that Dinocephalosaurus gave birth to live young. "It's nice to see that the fossil record is giving us glimpses of what we expected," he says. And, Sidor adds, "it's nice to see a fossil like this come along that reminds us that evolution has developed this feature many times, and it's not something that is particularly special to [placental and marsupial] mammals." Benton expects this discovery of live birth in archosauromorphs to open up many broad questions about why some groups have evolved to lay eggs and others give birth to live young. This might even lead to questions like why don't humans lay eggs, he says with a laugh.
News Article | March 2, 2017
—Computer engineers have created some amazingly small devices, capable of storing entire libraries of music and movies in the palm of your hand. But geneticists say Mother Nature can do even better. DNA, where all of biology's information is stored, is incredibly dense. The whole genome of an organism fits into a cell that is invisible to the naked eye. That's why computer scientists are turning to molecular biology to design the next best way to store humanity's ever-increasing collection of digital data. With every new app, selfie, blog post, or cat video, the hardware to store the world's vast archive of digital information is filling up. But, theoretically, DNA could store up to 455 exabytes per gram. In other words, you could have 44 billion copies of the extended versions of all three of The Lord of the Rings movies on the tip of your finger. (For reference, watching all those movies would take more than 164 million years.) George Church, a geneticist at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, first used DNA as storage for digital information in 2012, which he reported in a paper published in the journal Science. At the time, he revealed his success during an interview on the Colbert Report by showing Stephen Colbert a tiny piece of paper on which there was a small spot that contained millions of copies of Dr. Church's book, "Regenesis," in the form of DNA. Church and his colleagues were focused on proving that digital information could indeed be encoded in DNA at the time. But since then, teams of engineers and biologists have expanded on this proof-of-concept and worked to squeeze more and more data into DNA, eyeing the vast storage Church had predicted possible. A team at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) in Hinxton, Britain, reported that they had made the largest DNA archive ever in 2013, putting 739 kilobytes worth of computer files into DNA strands. (Church's book had required about 650 kilobytes.) In July 2016, a team of Microsoft and University of Washington researchers announced that they had reset that record, storing 200 megabytes of data in DNA. Now, researchers at the New York Genome Center and Columbia University have ramped up the density of data stored in DNA molecules. They were able to reach a density of 214 petabytes per gram of DNA, according to a paper published Thursday in the journal Science – which is over eight times as dense as previous work. "This is a huge leap forward," says Church, who was not involved in the new research. Although he had calculated that this high data density was possible in his own work, Church and his team hadn't actually made it work. "They've proven a hypothetical," he says in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. From DVDs to DNA: How does it work? Digital data in its simplest form is just 0s and 1s, Yaniv Erlich, lead author of the new study, explains in a phone interview with the Monitor. Any file, be it a computer program or a movie, is made up of a series of 0s and 1s. Similarly, DNA has its own series of letters, A, C, G, and T. Those letters represent the nucleotides – adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine – that are the basic structural units of DNA. So to convert digital data to DNA, Dr. Erlich's team and others have essentially translated 0s and 1s into As, Cs, Gs, and Ts. Then, the resulting DNA sequence is sent to a company that prints synthetic DNA, in this case San Francisco-based Twist Bioscience. What they receive back is a vial about half the size of a thumb that looks like it just has a little liquid in it. But there's actually DNA in there. To access the data stored in it, the team sequences the DNA and translates it back into 0s and 1s. In this case, the researchers encoded and then retrieved a full computer operating system, an 1895 French film, "Arrival of a train at La Ciotat," a $50 Amazon gift card, a computer virus, a Pioneer plaque, and a 1948 study by information theorist Claude Shannon. As one of the tests of the data, Erlich used the computer operating system to play the game Minesweeper. The genetic material is not extracted from any animal or plant. "DNA is just a hardware here," Erlich writes in a follow-up email to the Monitor. "It is not related to anything that is living and is not even derived from anything that was alive before. The synthesis, copying, and sequencing process are purely chemical." Turning digital data into DNA may seem as simple as coming up with a code for 0s and 1s, and As, Cs, Gs, and Ts. But it's a bit more complicated than that. First of all, Erlich says, not all DNA sequences are robust. For example, a string of all the same nucleotides, say, AAAAAAAAAAAA, is particularly fragile and difficult to read correctly. But the same isn't true for computer code. In addition, not all DNA molecules will survive the sequencing and retrieval process. And the scientists can't risk losing key pieces of the code. To resolve these problems, Erlich used what is known in computing as a fountain code to act as sort of gatekeeper that provided clues to the code rather than the code itself. Because DNA Fountain, as he calls the algorithm, can provide an unlimited amount of clues, if a few get lost in the process they will still be able to decode the DNA sequence in the end. In addition to this method to make the translation more robust, Erlich wanted to see if the data-filled DNA could be replicated without error. The process of sequencing the DNA includes removing some molecules from the sample. So to preserve the data and be able to access it, scientists have to be able to make copies, Erlich explains. So he made 25 copies, and copies of the copies, and copies of the copies of the copies, and so on nine times. And even in the most copied copies, he says, "we were able to perfectly retrieve this information. It's very robust." Are we entering the age of DNA-computers? Despite these strides to move digital data from hard drives to DNA and back, don't expect your next computer or smartphone to contain DNA. "This is still the early stages of DNA storage. It's basic science," Erlich says. "It's not that tomorrow you're going to go to Best Buy and get your DNA hard drive. And we don't envision that this will be in some hard drive that people will buy." "I think the more immediate use is for archiving," Church says. The method lends itself to archiving vast amounts of data that doesn't need to be accessed regularly, like video surveillance, for example, he says. Besides density, one reason DNA data storage would be advantageous over, say, a massive warehouse full of hard drives, Erlich says, is that it doesn't need to be kept cool. Furthermore, DNA doesn't degrade like other data storage tools. Paleoanthropologists have sequenced DNA from Neanderthals and other ancient humans, so Erlich isn't concerned about the longevity of this sort of data storage. The Microsoft researchers see the applications of DNA data storage more broadly. "Any organization or individual who needs long-term archival storage of large amounts of data would benefit from a DNA storage option," write Karin Strauss of Microsoft and Luis Ceze of the University of Washington in an email to the Monitor. "For example, hospitals need to store clinical information for all their patients for a long time, research institutions have massive amounts of data from research projects that need to be preserved, and the emerging virtual reality industry needs high-capacity storage solutions for very large video files. In addition, consumers could benefit from DNA storage via the cloud, especially following the advent of highly portable video cameras and the demand to store personal video online." Currently, the cost and time required for this process is somewhat prohibitive for consumer applications. It cost $7,000 to synthesize the DNA Erlich developed and another $2,000 to read it. The synthesis process took two weeks and the sequencing took about a day. That's not to say that DNA data storage won't touch consumers' everyday life. Church's team has worked with Technicolor to use the new data storage method to preserve the company's many old films. During a media tour in 2016, Jean Bolot, vice-president for research and innovation at Technicolor, showed off a vial containing a million copies of the 1902 French silent film "A Trip to the Moon." He said, "This, we believe, is what the future of movie archiving will look like." [Editor's note: An earlier version of this article erroneously suggested that the Columbia University researchers broke the Microsoft/University of Washington 200-megabyte milestone. An earlier version of the headline of this mistakenly conflated molecular biology with microbiology.]
News Article | February 28, 2017
A new body outline of the bird-like, feathered dinosaur Anchiornis, using laser-stimulated fluorescence data. Colored areas represent different fossil specimens and black areas are approximated reconstructions. —The combination of dinosaurs and lasers may sound like the next blockbuster science fiction movie. But for paleontologists, the two together might mean finding hard evidence of what the prehistoric beasts actually looked like. Dinosaur fossils are mostly bone because that's what preserves best over millions of years, but the dinosaurs themselves were also flesh, blood, skin, and feathers when they lived. Now, scientists are pointing laser beams at fossils to flesh out our view of the long-extinct animals. "This is a new way to actually see the dinosaur, besides the bone. If you want to see one, we can show you one," says Thomas Kaye, who pioneered this technique for analyzing fossils. The powerful lasers actually make the fossils glow, allowing scientists to snap pictures of the specimens that contain more detail than can be spotted with the naked eye or other existing techniques, and reveal the fleshy body outline of the animal. In a new study, Mr. Kaye and a team of paleontologists have turned their lasers on the fossils of a four-winged, feathered dinosaur that sits in a key evolutionary position among the early relatives of birds. "Anchiornis is especially suited for this study because its contribution to understanding avian and flight origins has not been fully realized," the scientists write in a paper published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications. The new laser-created snapshots of Anchiornis revealed that the animal once had drumstick-shaped legs, a slender tail, and birdlike arms. The lasers also revealed that remarkably birdlike footpads were also well-preserved in some of the 160-million-year-old specimens. These key similarities suggest that paleontologists aren't wrong to draw comparisons between modern birds and the fossil specimens, Kaye explains in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. One big question about Anchiornis is whether it could fly or glide – or neither. Although that question is still far from settled, the lasers did reveal an intriguing clue. In modern birds, a flap of flesh in the elbow of their wings, called the propatagium, is thought to be necessary for flight. The lasers lit up flesh in just that spot in the Anchiornis fossils. This "drives home just how bird-like some of these feathered dinosaurs were," Stephen Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh who was not involved in the research, writes in an email to the Monitor. "But at the same time, the wings were slightly different – the feathers were arranged more chaotically instead of in an ordered fashion," Dr. Brusatte adds. "So it seems like Anchiornis had a somewhat more primitive wing than modern birds. Maybe that type of wing was an intermediate stage in the evolution of the modern bird wing, or maybe it was a totally separate experiment in dinosaur flight," he says Although the propatagium wasn't visible without the lasers, the new technology just confirmed what paleontologists expected to see. "They're not changing our view or our understanding of avian evolution or the evolution of flight," says Peter Makovicky, associate curator of dinosaurs at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, who was not involved in the research. But the new research does contribute something vital, he says in a phone interview with the Monitor. "Those things went from being inferences to being observations now, which is very important." Like hard evidence to convict a suspect in a crime, Kaye adds, paleontologists need physical proof, and the lasers are revealing it. How exactly do lasers shine a new light on these old bones? The technique, called laser-stimulated fluorescence (LSF) imaging, harnesses the intensity of lasers to get fossils to fluoresce. Photons, or light particles, interact with different atoms and molecules differently. When a photon hits a molecule, it is re-emitted in a different color depending on the make-up of that molecule. It's kind of like bouncing a ball against the ground, Kaye explains. Different rocks, dirt, flooring, cement, or other materials will make the ball bounce back at different speeds. In a fossil, different types of preserved tissue will cause the laser's light to re-emit at different wavelengths, making it glow in spectacular colors. So the scientists point a laser at a fossil in a dark room, use a specially-outfitted camera to snap a picture, then look to see where the fossil is glowing in different colors. "It doesn't tell you exactly what it is," Kaye says, "but it tells you that it's different," identifying a spot in the fossil where paleontologists can take a closer look using other techniques. "It's a technical leap forward," Dr. Makovicky says. Paleontologists have bathed fossils in normal ultraviolet light to try to find intriguing fluorescence for more than a century, he says, "but these guys have taken it to the next level by applying a laser and gotten even more signal out of the data than we could before." Brusatte agrees that LSF takes this kind of analysis of fossils to the next level. "It's like if there was a new type of Mars Rover with an ultra-powerful camera that can take the best images of Mars that we've ever seen," he says. "That's the equivalent here with dinosaurs." Kaye has been working with lasers for years, but says the technology to use them on fossils has only recently emerged. Lasers were initially in red light, which wasn't powerful enough to make the specimens glow. Then they became green light, then blue, and now violet, he says, so now they're ready to be added to paleontologists' toolboxes. Currently, Kaye and colleagues are working their way through specimens that have already been collected and are exceptionally preserved. "It's pretty cool," he says. "We actually walk through a museum at night with the lasers. Very sci-fi." The researchers shine their lasers at fossils through glass cases and see what lights up. If anything looks intriguing, they'll ask curators to take a closer look. The next step, Kaye says, is to set up the lasers for fieldwork. "We're going to fly one on a drone pretty soon," he says.
News Article | February 27, 2017
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket disappears into clouds after it lifted off on a supply mission to the International Space Station from historic launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Feb 9. —Two private citizens have booked a trip around the moon scheduled for 2018, according to a SpaceX announcement Monday afternoon. Yes, you read that right. The commercial spaceflight company that has yet to fly any crewed missions into space plans to send two non-astronauts beyond Earth's orbit next year. Is that really possible? "My guess is that 2020 is more realistic," Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, says in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. There's still a lot that has to be done before the space tourists can depart on their adventure. First, the equipment needs to be tested. According to SpaceX's announcement, the two space travelers will ride in the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft, or version 2 of its current Dragon capsule that carries supplies to the International Space Station. But the Crew Dragon isn't scheduled for an initial uncrewed test flight until later this year, with the goal of launching its first crewed test flight by mid-2018. And the rocket that Crew Dragon is supposed to fly atop, Falcon Heavy, hasn't been tested yet either. It's due for a test launch this summer. It's not impossible to shoot the SpaceX craft around the moon and back on that timeline, Dr. McDowell says, but one small delay could throw it all off. And there are always delays, he says. SpaceX has been criticized before for failing to leave room for such delays in its "punishing schedule," as Scott Pace, a former NASA official and director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, put it in an interview with The New York Times in September 2016. This criticism came after one of SpaceX's semi-reusable rockets exploded during a routine test. Dr. Pace expressed concern that people working for the company might be run ragged by the demands, leading to human errors. That's a significant concern when talking about sending millions of dollars of equipment up to the International Space Station, but the stakes become much higher with humans, especially non-astronaut humans, on board. The lunar mission isn't the only major SpaceX mission set for 2018. The company aims to send an uncrewed spacecraft to Mars the same year as part of its long-term goal of colonizing the Red Planet. Having a circumlunar piloted flight by 2020 would be "an impressive achievement," McDowell says. That's not to say it won't happen, he says. "SpaceX has a great record of doing exactly what they say they're going to do but always several years later than they said they were going to do it. So I have full confidence that this will happen, but on 'Elon time'," McDowell says, referring to SpaceX's chief executive officer and founder Elon Musk. The passengers' trip would take about a week and they would travel about 300,000 to 400,000 miles, The Verge reported. The spacecraft would zoom by the surface of the moon, fly out farther into deep space, and then loop back to Earth. This would be the first time ever that space tourists fly beyond Earth's orbit, McDowell says. American businessman Dennis Tito, was the first private citizen to buy a ticket to the great unknown. On April 28, 2001, he flew aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station. SpaceX isn't the only spaceflight organization considering a flight to the moon. NASA, too, has been considering a next generation rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), to send a capsule on a trip around the moon. Although the path would be similar, NASA's capsule would not contain people and the goal would be for it to fly in 2019. If SpaceX can meet the goal of sending a crewed capsule around the moon in 2018, beating NASA, McDowell points out, this could change the dialogue at the space agency from whether to build their own vessels or just to pay SpaceX for a ride.
News Article | March 1, 2017
A new technique harnessing high-powered lasers is probing dinosaur fossils and helping unmask the prehistoric creature’s transition from being a small feathered dinosaur into an actual flying bird. Scientists used the method on fossils of the dinosaur Anchiornis, a four-winged, feathered dino that was located in China around 160 million years earlier. The laser beams fleshed out a novel view of the long-extinct animals, revealing their drumstick-shaped legs, bird-like arms, and a long and slender tail. This Jurassic creature is not exactly classified as a bird, but it maintained a number of skeletal and soft tissue qualities found in bird and lived around the time birds diverged from their closely resembling dinosaur predecessors. The Archaeopteryx, lived around 150 million years ago, has been long deemed the earliest-living bird. The technique, known as laser-stimulated fluorescence (LSF), directed high-powered laser at the fossils in a dark place to bring out a glow in concealed soft tissues such as skin. It successfully created the first detailed body figure of the dinosaur — a “real landmark in our understanding of avian origins,” said co-lead author and University of Hong Kong paleontologist Michael Pittman in a Reuters report. Dinosaur fossils are largely made up of bones, which are the ones best preserved over millions of years. But the fossil analysis method offered a new possibility. “This is a new way to actually see the dinosaur, besides the bone,” reported the technique’s pioneer, Thomas Kaye. Light particles or photons interact with atoms and molecules in different ways. Once they hit a molecule, they are emitted back in a different color based on the molecule’s makeup. In the case of fossils, various fossilized tissue types will cause laser light to re-emit at different wavelengths, producing a glow in varying colors. Kaye said the glow does not dictate what the exact part is, but clearly notes that it is different — paleontologists can then investigate more closely using other methods. Apart from the animal’s leg and arm characteristics, the laser-initiated probe also showed astoundingly bird-like footpads as well as a shallow site of soft tissue fronting the elbow, known as the propatagium. The latter is important in bird flight, thus it is a piece of the puzzle of whether the Anchiornis could fly, glide, or neither. “So it seems like Anchiornis had a somewhat more primitive wing than modern birds,” Kaye told Christian Science Monitor. “Maybe that type of wing was an intermediate stage in the evolution of the modern bird wing, or maybe it was a totally separate experiment in dinosaur flight.” For the authors, the creature probably maintained some aerodynamic ability. Some scientists thought it could glide, while other disagreed due to its flight feathers not being well-suited for flight. While the new findings may not necessarily change scientists’ current view of avian evolution, Kaye believes that they provided new observations from actual physical evidence. The next step for them, he shared, is to fly the lasers on a drone for new discoveries. The findings were discussed Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications. © 2017 Tech Times, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.