In the 1967 animated Disney film The Jungle Book, the feral boy Mowgli encounters a jazz-singing orangutan named King Louie, who implores Mowgli to teach him the secret of fire. King Louie presented a challenge for the producers of Disney’s live-action, CGI-enhanced remake of the film, opening April 15. “We had this notion that we would be as authentic as we could be to the region,” says producer Brigham Taylor. The problem: Orangutans are not native to India. In fact, King Louie himself is not native to Rudyard Kipling’s original stories. But instead of scrapping the character, the filmmakers got creative. While researching India’s wildlife, the film’s art department learned that a colossal ape named Gigantopithecus once roamed the region. Various species of Gigantopithecus lived in India, China and Southeast Asia from about 6.5 million years ago until as recently as a few hundred thousand years ago. The ape was truly gigantic — by some estimates, twice as big as a gorilla. So King Louie morphed from orangutan to Gigantopithecus. The switch was a “fun justification,” Taylor says, to keep the character and play up his size while still staying true to India’s fauna. (Yes, the ape is extinct, but this is a movie about talking animals. And fossil evidence does suggest that the ape at least mingled with the human ancestor Homo erectus.) Using the scientific information they could find on the Internet, visual effects artists imagined how the animal would look and move, Taylor says. The result: an ape that resembles an overgrown orangutan, Gigantopithecus’ closest living relative. The movie ape has shaggy hair, flaring cheeks and a saggy pouch that hangs from the throat like a double chin — and towers about 12 feet tall. It’s difficult to judge how accurate Disney’s rendering is. Despite possibly having been the largest primate ever to have lived, Gigantopithecus left behind few fossils. Scientists have just four lower jaws and over a thousand teeth, says biological anthropologist Russell Ciochon of the University of Iowa. That’s not much to go on, but Ciochon and colleagues made their own reconstruction a couple decades ago. The researchers took a jaw from China and made an outline of a skull that could fit such a jaw. Because most primate skulls scale to body size, Ciochon says, his group could estimate Gigantopithecus’ weight, 800 to 900 pounds, and height, about 9 feet from head to toe. (The species that lived in India was actually probably smaller.) Adding other details like hair to the animal is a matter of conjecture, Ciochon says. But the teeth do offer some solid details about the ape’s lifestyle. Wear patterns and microscopic debris stuck to the teeth indicate Gigantopithecus dined on fruits, leaves, shoots, roots and perhaps even bamboo. Last year, researchers confirmed those details after analyzing the ratios of carbon isotopes in teeth found in Southeast Asia. The analysis also determined that Gigantopithecus was a strict forest dweller, even though it also lived near grasslands in some areas. In fact, the researchers contend, Gigantopithecus’ reliance on forests and its big size — and therefore big appetite — may have been the animal’s undoing. As Southeast Asia’s jungles gave way to expanding grasslands during the last glacial period, Gigantopithecus may have been unable to cope. Perhaps if our ancestors had shared the secret of fire with Gigantopithecus, the giant ape would still be around today.
News Article | September 5, 2016
What could we do without fear? I, for one, could interface with more than one other human simultaneously without drinking all of the alcohol. That would be OK. I might be a better rock climber, though I might also be a more reckless, dangerous rock climber. I guess it would really be a big package deal, where fear and its anxiety kin just stop making sense. A lot of things would be more boring, I think. This isn't strictly a theoretical idea. In a famous case, a patient known as SM has managed to live most of her life with no fear thanks to a rare calcification of her amygdala, the region of the brain most associated with the emotion. Her actual identity is closely guarded, but NPR's Invisibilia managed a rare interview with her in an episode last season. It's worth listening to (see: "Fearless"). That episode is why some research published today in Nature Neuroscience especially caught my eye. It describes a "new pathway for fear." Neuroscientists have some understanding of the routes leading from the various sensory organs that converge in the amygdala, but less so about those running in the opposite direction. In other words, we know how information makes it from the outside world to the formation of fear-memories, but not so much how those fear-memories are accessed again as, well, fear. The new paper describes an opposing pathway running from the lateral amygdala (LA) to the auditory cortex (ACx), which was discovered by the researchers using electron microscopy and fear conditioning in mice. The circuit appears to have a role in the process of expressing learned defensive responses to sounds. We have fear-sounds, integrated into fear-memories, and we have learned defensive reactions to these sounds. This is where all of that comes from. The group behind the new paper, a large team based at the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences, further explored this using mice who had had their LA to ACx circuit limited either chemically or by using optogenetics (where light is able to control various brain functions via cells genetically-engineered to respond to it). "To determine the function of this previously uncharacterized LA–ACx pathway, the authors trained mice with auditory fear conditioning," explains Bo Li, a neuroscientist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, in a separate Nature Neuroscience commentary. "After the training, normal mice would freeze in response to the sound. However, in mice in which the LA–ACx pathway was specifically inhibited by either chemogenetics or optogenetics during the memory recall test, sound no longer induced freezing. In other words, the LA–ACx pathway is necessary for the recall of the aversive memory." What's weird is that this doesn't seem to work in the other direction. If you block the pathway leading from the auditory cortex to the amygdala, fear-inputs still manage to get through and form fear-memories. We're really just now starting to get a handle on all of this. In any case, it at least seems very likely that we will eventually be able to manipulate our fear machinery in useful ways. But SM, the fearless patient, is also an illustration of what fear even is. For one thing, as one of the many doctors studying her, the University of Iowa's Daniel Tranel, told NPR's Science Friday in 2010, fear is not the same as worry. And, thus, it is not necessarily the same thing as anxiety. "There's a very fundamental difference between fear and worry, and she does worry," Tranel explained. "Worry is more in the domain of anxiety and has a lot to do with something we humans do a lot of, which is the future, spending time in the future." And the future, it seems, is something we're stuck with.
More than 30 universities have banned or restricted hoverboards on their campuses in recent weeks, saying the two-wheeled, motorized scooters are unsafe. Beyond the risk of falls and collisions, colleges are citing warnings from federal authorities that some of the self-balancing gadgets have caught on fire. "It's clear that these things are potentially dangerous," said Len Dolan, managing director of fire safety at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. The public school of 14,000 students issued a campus-wide ban effective on Monday, telling students in an email that any hoverboards found on campus would be confiscated. "These things are just catching fire without warning, and we don't want that in any of our dorms," Dolan said. Outright bans also have been issued at schools such as American University and George Washington University, both in Washington, D.C. Other schools said they will forbid the scooters in dorm rooms or campus buildings, a policy adopted at colleges including Louisiana State University, the University of Iowa and the University of Arkansas. After banning hoverboards from dorms in December, officials at the University of Hartford in Connecticut are now considering a full ban because of concerns over how to store them safely, said David Isgu, a school spokesman. Some of the reported fires have occurred while the boards were being charged, authorities say. At Ohio State University and at Xavier University in Cincinnati, students were told they can bring a hoverboard only if it came with a seal showing that the board meets certain safety standards. Schools have issued bans as recently as Thursday, when the University of Connecticut announced that the devices aren't welcome on campus. The University of Alabama and the University of Kentucky declared bans on Wednesday as students prepare to return from break. "We are not willing to risk your safety and our community's safety," University of Kentucky Fire Marshal Greg Williamson told students in a statement. Bryce Colegrove, a sophomore at Shawnee State University in Ohio, got an email from his school on Tuesday telling students to leave their hoverboards at home after the holidays. It was bad timing for Colegrove, who had just received one as a gift from his girlfriend and had even plotted his new routes to class. "Honestly I was really disappointed," said Colegrove, 20. "I don't think it's right to ban them. I mean, it's a college campus; it's not a high school." Others took to social media to voice their frustration, with some saying they planned to bring their scooters to school anyway. Hoverboards, which are made by several brands, already have been banned by the three largest U.S. airlines, citing potential fire danger from the lithium-ion batteries that power them. The devices also are prohibited on New York City streets, and a new law in California requires riders to be at least 16 and wear a helmet in public. On Monday, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported that it's now investigating 28 fires in 19 states tied to the motorized scooters. Fire officials from New Jersey to California have blamed the boards for fires that damaged homes. The federal commission also said there have been serious injuries caused by falls. Colleges reported that even though the gadget has been gaining popularity, it's still relatively rare on campuses. Dolan, of Kean University, said he saw about six students riding the scooters last fall. News of swift sales over the holidays, plus the reports of fires, led him to propose the ban. "If that may inconvenience a couple dozen students, then that's what it's going to have to be," he said. Fire officials in several states have issued their own warnings about the devices, including in New Jersey, were authorities recommended that all public colleges ban them. Still, several colleges have suggested that they may allow hoverboards in the future. American University said its ban is temporary, but will last "until further notice." At Wellesley College near Boston, a policy bans the motorized scooters "until safety standards can be developed and implemented by the manufacturers." Explore further: U.S. colleges going smoke-free
In Lewis Carroll's book Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen tells Alice, "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place." Evolutionary biologists have drawn from the phrase to hypothesize that organisms engage in sexual reproduction to keep pace with an ever-changing world. They contend that male-female mating—factored over generations—produces offspring with enough genetic diversity to resist varied, evolving threats—from disease to changed climate. A team of biologists led by the University of Iowa further scrutinized the hypothesis by testing whether female New Zealand freshwater snails that reproduce sexually would be more resilient to outside perils than females that produce offspring by themselves. The researchers documented the concentration of sexual females and asexual females at multiple sites in the same lake and compared how their populations were affected by a parasitic worm commonly associated with the snails. The researchers found that in areas of the lake where the worm was prevalent, male snails were plentiful (indicating sexually reproducing female snails were present). They even found male snails roaming in areas where the parasite concentration was as low as four percent, as well as in higher numbers where parasite activity was heavier. The results offered another encouraging sign that sexually produced offspring are getting a genetic boost from mommy and daddy. For instance, the offspring get two genetic blueprints (one from each parent), rather than just their mother's genome, which they would if they were born to an asexual female. Viewed over generations, sexual reproduction can produce new gene combinations that are needed to deal with changing environments. "These results are consistent with the idea that there are advantages to sex related to the ability to produce diverse offspring," says Maurine Neiman, associate professor in biology at the UI and corresponding author on the paper published this week in the New Zealand Journal of Ecology. "Snails born with rare gene combinations would be harder to infect because the parasites have rarely, if ever, encountered those shuffled genetic combinations." Neiman and others in her field have been studying the freshwater snails for years, in large part because some females can bear offspring without males. The snails also are vulnerable to a well-documented threat—a parasitic worm (Microphallus livelyi) that lives within the snail as it awaits a chance to glom on to its final host: ducks that eat infected snails. Previous studies have shown an association between parasite concentration and the number of sexual female snails. Where parasite activity is low, sexual females are few; where parasite activity is high, sexual females are abundant. This study adds to other analyses linking parasite activity to sexual and asexual female populations within a small mountain lake, Lake Grasmere. This study is distinctive because the researchers found dramatic differences in the percentage of female sexual and asexual snails (using males' presence as a proxy) and parasite prevalence between sites as close as two football fields apart, "suggesting that these evolutionary links between sex and parasites can operate at a remarkably small scale," Neiman says. Neiman and her colleagues think the parasitic worm invades the snail by tricking its immune system into believing it's not a threat. Some diseases do the same with humans, fooling our immune system just enough to lodge themselves within our bodies and make us ill. Yet, over time, humans have inherited and passed down new gene combinations that protect better against those diseases. That's genetic diversity and natural selection at work. Like humans, the snails' best defense against the parasitic worm is to pass down gene combinations that are new to the parasite. That shuffling of genes is much more likely to occur through male-female mating than asexual reproduction, where the daughter inherits her mother's exact genetic makeup. The team visited Lake Grasmere in January 2014. There, 25 undergraduates from Carleton College, in Minnesota, assisted Neiman and the paper's first author, Carleton College biologist Mark McKone, by collecting 1,800 snails at 18 sites, either on foot or by kayak, and examining each under a microscope to catalog sex and infection rates. Five Carleton undergraduates are included as authors on the paper. "The students who took the lead on the project helped in all aspects of the research, including framing the experimental question, organizing data collection, analyzing the results, and ultimately submitting a manuscript for publication," McKone says. "It is rare for undergraduates to gain such broad exposure to the complete process of science." Explore further: Study finds role for parasites in evolution of sex
News Article | January 29, 2016
Here’s more good news for fuel cell electric vehicle fans: the California company HyperSolar, which has been developing a system for producing hydrogen with an assist from solar energy, has announced a new tweak that will help bump down the cost of its process. If all goes well the result will be a competitive price for hydrogen fuel with which to fuel up your new FCEV. CleanTechnica first took note of HyperSolar back in 2011, when it patented a process for making renewable hydrogen with solar energy. In 2012 we described the company’s vision for large scale solar farms that mimic photosynthesis and “split” water to produce hydrogen instead of veggies, but the company dropped off our radar after that. We should have been paying more attention because a lot has happened since then. Among the recent developments, earlier this month HyperSolar renewed its sponsored solar powered hydrogen production research program with the University of California – Santa Barbara for another six months. That follows on the heels of an announcement last December, in which the company noted some progress in developing a new solar powered water-splitting catalyst. The new catalyst eliminates the need for more expensive materials — namely, platinum — which is a key factor in the cost of solar powered hydrogen production. In its latest announcement, HyperSolar reports that test results have been promising: Test results indicate that this low cost catalyst will reduce overall voltage requirements, significantly increase photocurrents, improve hydrogen production efficiency, and further reduce the cost of the Company’s hydrogen production process. HyperSolar’s press materials are a bit thin on the details about that new catalyst, except to note that it was developed by Syed Mubeen Hussaini of the University of Iowa. We took a little stroll through the Intertubes to find out more so this is just a wild guess, but that could be the one described in a study published last year by the Electrochemical Society, authored with fellow University of Iowa researchers Wei Cheng and Alan M. Rassoolkhani under the title “Low-Cost Synthetic Routes for Fabricating Tandem/Multi-Junction Photoelectrochemical Devices.“ In the study, the authors note the efficiency limitations of water-splitting catalysts based on a single material. The use of combinations of materials (aka multi-junction) boosts efficiency, but results in an overly complex, expensive device. The solution they propose is a photoelectrochemical device that uses a low cost process to deposit an inexpensive, efficient metal oxide/sulfide onto a conventional silicon solar cell. The metal acts as an anode, and the solar cell itself acts as a cathode. Last fall HyperSolar renewed its research relationship with the University of Iowa to April 2016, so it looks like additional improvements are expected. Here’s the company’s rundown on the progress with both research partners as of last fall: The Company announced in September 2015 that it had surpassed 1.5 Volts (V), the practical voltage needed to effectively split water molecules to produce hydrogen in real world systems…The collaboration between the two Universities led to the rapid development of the technology, as the Company surpassed both the theoretical minimum (1.23 V) then the recent 1.55 V breakthrough, within one year. CleanTechnica has generally given hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles the stinkeye for a number of reasons, including the use of fossil natural gas to produce hydrogen fuel. Deploying solar energy to generate renewable hydrogen from water leaps over that hurdle, though it does raise the potential for water scarcity issues. On the other hand, potable water is not necessarily an issue for renewable hydrogen. HyperSolar is among a number of companies and research institutions that are developing solar-powered processes that can run efficiently on non-potable water, including water drawn directly from rivers and other natural sources as well as wastewater from industrial operations. Seawater is another potential source of hydrogen. Last year, for example, we noticed the US Navy’s interest in a transportable system that could be used to produce fuel on the go. The primary purpose is to capture carbon dioxide from seawater and convert it to a usable carbon-based fuel, but the contraption also produces hydrogen as a byproduct. As for fuel cell EVs, Toyota is a big fan, and the company has been exploring the “hydrogen economy” concept in Japan. Toyota has already rolled out its Mirai FCEV in California, thought there appears to be a glitch (we’re thinking a temporary one) in terms of hydrogen fuel station availability In addition, Switzerland is among several countries developing large scale power-to-gas systems that leverage renewable energy to produce hydrogen, and that deploy existing natural gas pipelines and storage facilities to distribute hydrogen. Follow me on Twitter and Google+. Image: via Hypersolar. Get CleanTechnica’s 1st (completely free) electric car report → “Electric Cars: What Early Adopters & First Followers Want.” Come attend CleanTechnica’s 1st “Cleantech Revolution Tour” event → in Berlin, Germany, April 9–10. Keep up to date with all the hottest cleantech news by subscribing to our (free) cleantech newsletter, or keep an eye on sector-specific news by getting our (also free) solar energy newsletter, electric vehicle newsletter, or wind energy newsletter.