Here’s a crazy chameleon fact: in order to get some satisfaction in their bellies – meaning insects for their lunch – they have the longest tongues compared to body length of any creature on earth. This most recent research from Christopher V. Anderson, a post-doctoral Research Associate at Brown University found that the smallest chameleons have the longest tongues, up to two and a half times their body length, in fact. Although Mick Jagger is famous for his long tongue, he would have to concede defeat to the chameleons.
The Curiosity rover has been playing in the sand dunes on Mars, and took the 360-degree photo below as part of it’s amazing mission on the red planet. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) published the astounding photo recently, and an informative article on their website provides great details about it:
This view of the downwind face of “Namib Dune” on Mars covers 360 degrees, including a portion of Mount Sharp on the horizon. The site is part of the dark-sand “Bagnold Dunes” field along the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. Images taken from orbit indicate that dunes in the Bagnold field move as much as about 3 feet (1 meter) per Earth year.
The component images of this scene were taken on Dec. 18, 2015, by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover during the 1,197th Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s work on Mars.
The bottom of the dune nearest the rover is about 23 feet (7 meters) from the camera. This downwind face of the dune rises at an inclination of about 28 degrees to a height of about 16 feet (5 meters) above the base. The center of the scene is toward the east; both ends are toward the west.
A color adjustment has been made approximating a white balance, so that rocks and sand appear approximately as they would appear under Earth’s sunlit sky. A brightness adjustment accommodates including rover hardware in the scene.
The mission’s examination of dunes in the Bagnold field, along the rover’s route up the lower slope of Mount Sharp, is the first close look at active sand dunes anywhere other than Earth.
There are certainly more astounding images that will be beaming back from Curiosity as the rover makes its way to Mount Sharp, so stay tuned!
Scientists at the Gladstone Institutes have announced that they have pioneered a breakthrough method for converting human skin cells to fully-functional, insulin-producing pancreatic cells. Amazingly, in the final test and confirmation of their success, the cells were transplanted into a diabetic mouse model and prevented the mice from developing diabetes.
A press release on EurekAlert! provides the exciting details:
Scientists at the Gladstone Institutes and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) have successfully converted human skin cells into fully-functional pancreatic cells. The new cells produced insulin in response to changes in glucose levels, and, when transplanted into mice, the cells protected the animals from developing diabetes in a mouse model of the disease.
The new study, published in Nature Communications, also presents significant advancements in cellular reprogramming technology, which will allow scientists to efficiently scale up pancreatic cell production and manufacture trillions of the target cells in a step-wise, controlled manner. This accomplishment opens the door for disease modeling and drug screening and brings personalized cell therapy a step closer for patients with diabetes.
“Our results demonstrate for the first time that human adult skin cells can be used to efficiently and rapidly generate functional pancreatic cells that behave similar to human beta cells,” says Matthias Hebrok, PhD, director of the Diabetes Center at UCSF and a co-senior author on the study. “This finding opens up the opportunity for the analysis of patient-specific pancreatic beta cell properties and the optimization of cell therapy approaches.”
In the study, the scientists first used pharmaceutical and genetic molecules to reprogram skin cells into endoderm progenitor cells–early developmental cells that have already been designated to mature into one of a number of different types of organs. With this method, the cells don’t have to be taken all the way back to a pluripotent stem cell state, meaning the scientists can turn them into pancreatic cells faster. The researchers have used a similar procedure previously to create heart, brain, and liver cells.
After another four molecules were added, the endoderm cells divided rapidly, allowing more than a trillion-fold expansion. Critically, the cells did not display any evidence of tumor formation, and they maintained their identity as early organ-specific cells.
The scientists then progressed these endoderm cells two more steps, first into pancreatic precursor cells, and then into fully-functional pancreatic beta cells. Most importantly, these cells protected mice from developing diabetes in a model of disease, having the critical ability to produce insulin in response to changes in glucose levels.
“This study represents the first successful creation of human insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells using a direct cellular reprogramming method,” says first author Saiyong Zhu, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease. “The final step was the most unique–and the most difficult–as molecules had not previously been identified that could take reprogrammed cells the final step to functional pancreatic cells in a dish.”
Sheng Ding, PhD, a senior investigator in the Roddenberry Stem Cell Center at Gladstone and co-senior author on the study, adds, “This new cellular reprogramming and expansion paradigm is more sustainable and scalable than previous methods. Using this approach, cell production can be massively increased while maintaining quality control at multiple steps. This development ensures much greater regulation in the manufacturing process of new cells. Now we can generate virtually unlimited numbers of patient-matched insulin-producing pancreatic cells.”
Does this portend the beginning of the end of diabetes? It very well could, and of course the research now needs to be applied to preventing diabetes in humans. Stay tuned, this exciting, breakthrough research holds a lot of promise!
Stanford Professor Justin Stonnenburg has been researching a topic that requires a lot of guts. Pardon the pun, and on a serious note, he’s done a breakthrough study on the gut micobiome that shows definitively that the microbes in our intestines have a direct effect on our weight.
This video gives all the details:
Our thanks to the Retro Report YouTube channel for this insightful video.
The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), which verifies claims of newly discovered elements, has announced that four new super-heavy elements have cleared the verification process and are now officially recognized.
The recognition of these four new elements completes the 7th row of the Periodic Table of the Elements, a table which most people studied in their high school chemistry class. Researchers consider the discovery and verification of new elements to be an honor greater than winning an Olympic gold medal, given that it is such a rare occurrence. In fact, researchers are already hard at work attempting to create elements in the lab that would begin an 8th row of the Periodic Table.
Teams from around the globe had created all four of these elements using particle accelerators to smash atoms together. None of them are stable elements, decaying into lighter particles almost instantly after their creation.
A press release from IUPAC provides the details of the announcement:
The fourth IUPAC/IUPAP Joint Working Party (JWP) on the priority of claims to the discovery of new elements has reviewed the relevant literature for elements 113, 115, 117, and 118 and has determined that the claims for discovery of these elements have been fulfilled, in accordance with the criteria for the discovery of elements of the IUPAP/IUPAC Transfermium Working Group (TWG) 1991 discovery criteria. These elements complete the 7th row of the periodic table of the elements, and the discoverers from Japan, Russia and the USA will now be invited to suggest permanent names and symbols. The new elements and assigned priorities of discovery are as follows:
Element 113 (temporary working name and symbol: ununtrium, Uut)
The RIKEN collaboration team in Japan have fulfilled the criteria for elementZ=113 and will be invited to propose a permanent name and symbol.
Elements 115, 117, and 118 (temporary working names and symbols: ununpentium, Uup; ununseptium, Uus; and ununoctium, Uuo)
The collaboration between the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California, USA; and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, USA have fulfilled the criteria for element Z=115, 117 and will be invited to propose permanent names and symbols.
The collaboration between the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California, USA have fulfilled the criteria for element Z=118 and will be invited to propose a permanent name and symbol.
The priorities for four new chemical elements are being introduced simultaneously, after the careful verification of the discoveries and priorities. The decisions are detailed in two reports by the Joint Working Party (JWP), which includes experts drawn from IUPAC and IUPAP (the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics). These reports will be published in an early 2016 issue of the IUPAC journal Pure and Applied Chemistry (PAC).The JWP has reviewed the relevant literature pertaining to several claims of these new elements. The JWP has determined that the RIKEN collaboration have fulfilled the criteria for the discovery of element with atomic numbers Z=113. Several studies published from 2004 to 2012 have been construed as sufficient to ratify the discovery and priority.
In the same PAC report, the JWP also concluded that the collaborative work between scientists from the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia; from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California, USA; and from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, USA (the Dubna-Livermore-Oak Ridge collaborations), starting in 2010, and subsequently confirmed in 2012 and 2013, have met the criteria for discovery of the elements with atomic numbersZ=115 and Z=117.
Finally, in a separate PAC article the Dubna–Livermore collaboration started in 2006 is reported as having satisfied the criteria for discovery of element Z=118.
“A particular difficulty in establishing these new elements is that they decay into hitherto unknown isotopes of slightly lighter elements that also need to be unequivocally identified” commented JWP chair Professor Paul J. Karol, “but in the future we hope to improve methods that can directly measure the atomic number, Z“.
“The chemistry community is eager to see its most cherished table finally being completed down to the seventh row. IUPAC has now initiated the process of formalizing names and symbols for these elements temporarily named as ununtrium, (Uut or element 113), ununpentium (Uup, element 115), ununseptium (Uus, element 117), and ununoctium (Uuo, element 118)” said Professor Jan Reedijk, President of the Inorganic Chemistry Division of IUPAC.
The discoverers now have the opportunity to propose permanent names that conform to IUPAC’s guidelines, so sometime later in 2016 the new official Periodic Table will be published with those newly named elements. See the press release on the IUPAC website for additional details.
We wait in anticipation of droughts and floods when El Niño and La Niña are forecast but what are these climatic events?
The simplest way to understand El Niño and La Niña is through the sloshing around of warm water in the ocean.
The top layer of the tropical Pacific Ocean (about the first 200 metres) is warm, with water temperatures between 20C and 30C. Underneath, the ocean is colder and far more static. Between these two water masses there is a sharp temperature change known as the thermocline.
Winds over the tropical Pacific, known as the trade winds, blow from east to west piling the warm top layer water against the east coast of Australia and Indonesia. Indeed, the sea level near Australia can be one metre higher than at South America.
Warm water and converging winds near Australia contribute to convection, and hence rainfall for eastern Australia.
In a La Niña event, the trade winds strengthen bringing more warm water to Australia and increasing our rainfall totals.
In an El Niño the trade winds weaken, so some of the warm water flows back toward the east towards the Americas. The relocating warm water takes some of the rainfall with it which is why on average Australia will have a dry year.
In the Americas El Niño means increased rainfall, but it reduces the abundance of marine life. Typically the water in the eastern Pacific is cool but high in nutrients that flow up from the deep ocean. The warm waters that return with El Niño smother this upwelling.
Have El Niño and La Niña always been around?
El Niño and La Niña are a natural climate cycle. Records of El Niño and La Niña go back millions of years with evidence found in ice cores, deep sea cores, coral and tree rings.
El Niño events were first recognised by Peruvian fisherman in the 19th century who noticed that warm water would sometimes arrive off the coast of South America around Christmas time.
Because of the timing they called this phenomenon El Niño, meaning “boy child”, after Jesus. La Niña, being the opposite, is the “girl child”.
Predicting El Niño and La Niña
Being able to predict an El Niño event is a multi-million, possibly billion dollar question.
Reliably predicting an impending drought would allow for primary industries to take drought protective action and Australia to prepare for increased risk of dry, hot conditions and associated bushfires.
Unfortunately each autumn we hit a “predictability barrier” which hinders our ability to predict if an El Niño might occur.
In autumn the Pacific Ocean can sit in a state ready for an El Niño to occur, but there is no guarantee it will kick it off that year, or even the next.
Nearly all El Niños are followed by a La Niña though, so we can have much more confidence in understanding the occurrence of these wet events.
A variety of events
Predictability would be even easier if all El Niños and La Niñas were the same, but of course they are not.
Not only are the events different in the way they manifest in the ocean, but they also differ in the way they affect rainfall over Australia – and it’s not straightforward.
The exceptionally strong El Niños of 1997 and 1982 have now been termed Super El Niños. In these events the trade winds weaken dramatically with the warm surface water heading right back over to South America.
Recently a new type of El Niño has been recognised and is becoming more frequent.
This new type of El Niño is often called an “El Niño Modoki” – Modoki being Japanese for “similar, but different”.
In these events the warm water that is usually piled up near Australia heads eastward but only makes it as far as the central Pacific. El Niño Modoki occurred in 2002, 2004 and 2009.
Australian rainfall is affected by all its surrounding oceans. El Niño in the Pacific is only one factor.
As a general rule though, the average rainfall in eastern and southern Australia will be lower in an El Niño year and higher in a La Niña. The regions that will experience these changes and the strength are harder to pinpoint.
El Niño and climate change
It is not yet clear how climate change will affect El Niño and La Niña. The events may get stronger, they may get weaker or they may change their behaviour in different ways.
Some research is suggesting that Super El Niños might become more frequent with climate change, while others are hypothesising that the recent increase in El Niño Modoki is due to climate change effects already having an impact.
Because climate change in general may decrease rainfall over southern Australia and increase potential evaporation (due to higher temperatures) then it would be reasonable to expect that the drought induced by El Niño events will be exacerbated by climate change.
Given that we are locked into at least a few degrees of warming over the coming century, it’s hard not to fear more drought and bushfires for Australia.
Normally, deep ocean hydrothermal vents are made of sulphide minerals, but in strange twist, oceanic researchers from the University of Southampton have found vents in the Caribbean that are unlike anything that has been discovered before. These vents are made of talc.
Researchers analyzed samples from active vents in the Von Damm Vent Field (VDVF), a vent field south of the Cayman Islands discovered by scientists and crew on board the RRS James Cook in 2010. Their findings appear in the journal Nature Communications.
“This vent site is home to a community of fauna similar to those found at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the Atlantic Ocean, but the minerals and chemistry at the Von Damm site are very different to any other known vents,” says Matthew Hodgkinson, a postgraduate research student at the National Oceanography Centre Southampton at the University of Southampton.
“The discovery of this new class of vent system serves to demonstrate our limited understanding of the ocean floor and the importance of and role for ‘discovery science’ in the oceans,” says Steve Roberts, professor of geology.
Hydrothermal vents form in areas where the Earth’s tectonic plates are spreading. At these sites, circulating seawater is heated by magma below the seafloor and becomes more acidic—leaching metals from the surrounding rocks and redepositing them as the hot water spews out of vents or ‘chimneys’ at the seabed and hits the cold seawater.
The Von Damm Vent Field system, however, is highly unusual compared to the typical hydrothermal vent that scientists are familiar with, besides the fact that they are made of talc. Continue to the next page to see what else has surprised the researchers about these vents…
In a time when it is so crucial that we discover new sources of antibiotics to combat bacteria that have become resistant to our common antibiotics, it turns out that one of the most mysterious forms of life, Archaea, could be a rich and untapped source of antibacterial drugs.
The family of single-celled organisms thrives in environments like boiling hydrothermal pools and smoking deep-sea vents, which are too extreme for most other species.
“It is the first discovery of a functional antibacterial gene in Archaea,” says Seth Bordenstein, the associate professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University who directed the study.
“You can’t overstate the significance of the antibiotic resistance problem that humanity is facing. This discovery should help energize the pursuit for new antibiotics in this underexplored group of life.”
JUMPING AROUND THE ‘TREE OF LIFE’
Until the late 1970s, biologists thought that Archaea were just weird bacteria, but then a landmark analysis of their DNA showed that they represent an independent branch on the tree of life that stretches back more than three billion years.
The realization that Archaea could be a source of novel pharmaceuticals emerges from a study of widespread horizontal gene transfer between different species conducted by a team of scientists from Vanderbilt University and Portland State University in Oregon.
The researchers were investigating a gene that produces a type of enzyme found in tears, saliva, milk, and mucus called a lysozyme. This particular lysozyme possesses broad-spectrum antibacterial action and remarkably jumped from bacteria to all major branches of life.
They discovered it in an extremely unlikely source: an Archaea microorganism that inhabits deep sea areas surrounding jets of superheated mineral water spewing from hydrothermal vents.
The paper that describes this discovery was published online in eLife.
“We found that this Archaea lysozyme kills certain species of firmicutes bacteria, a large group of bacteria that contains the classic drug resistant bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, Bacillus anthracis, which causes anthrax, and the gut infection Clostridium difficule,” says Bordenstein.
Before now scientists had largely ignored Archaea as a source of drugs because they don’t cause any diseases in humans and experts thought they didn’t interact much with the other forms of life because they were limited to extreme environments.
Archaea themselves are not limited to such environments but also live in milder environments, such as within marine algae and in mammalian guts.
“The fact that Archaea are interacting with other forms of life a lot more than we thought means that they are competing for resources,” says coauthor Jason Metcalf, who is pursuing an MD/PhD at Vanderbilt.
“And, if they are competing for resources, then they are creating chemicals to attack and defend against other organisms: compounds that could be effective against bacteria resistant to our current antibiotics.”
WHERE THIS GENE SHOWS UP
The scientists first encountered this antibacterial gene, a GH25-muramidase, in a bacteriophage virus that attacks Wolbachia, a bacterial parasite that infects insects and other invertebrates worldwide. It is a member of a family of enzymes that are common in bacteria, which use them to remodel their cell walls. Bacteriophages use the same enzymes to invade bacteria by chewing holes in their cell walls.
In addition, the gene’s presence in an insect, the pea aphid, had previously been reported. But when they examined its evolutionary history, the researchers were surprised to find that the gene also popped up in an ancient lineage of plants (Selaginella moellendorffii) and many species of fungi including Aspergillus oryzae, a mold used in Asian cooking to make soy sauce, miso, and alcoholic beverages like sake.
“That was completely unexpected,” says Metcalf. “But the weirdest occurrence was in anArchaea species Aciduliprofundum boonei that lives in hydrothermal vent communities. Why in the world would it need such an enzyme?”
We explore the surprising answer to that intriguing question on the next page….
An abrupt change about 6,000 years ago in how terrestrial plant and animal species coexisted occurred at right about the time human populations were ballooning and agriculture was spreading around the world.
These findings suggest that human activity had reached a tipping point where hunting and farming were affecting the natural world in irreversible ways—changes that have continued to increase to this day.
As reported in Nature, scientists looked at fossil data on how species coexisted over the past 307 million years, specifically how often a particular pair of plant or animal species is found within the same community. Out of all possible combinations of two species in a certain region and time interval, the proportion of pairs of species that co-occurred remained relatively stable until 6,000 years ago. At that time, the chances of co-occurrence dropped significantly, suggesting that humans were creating some barrier to the dispersal of plants or animals.
“This tells us that humans have been having a massive effect on the environment for a very long time,” says lead author S. Kathleen Lyons, a paleobiologist in the Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystems program at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.
Analyses of modern communities of plants and animals have found that for most pairs of species, the presence of one species within a community does not influence whether the other is present or absent. For pairs where there is an association, most occur within the same community less frequently than expected, suggesting some influence keeps them apart.
But when the team investigated the composition of ancient communities using fossil data, they found exactly the opposite. Their analysis showed that from 307 million years ago, the time known as the Carboniferous period, to about 6,000 years ago, in the Holocene epoch, there was a pattern of pairs of species occurring together within communities rather than being segregated.
“The proportion of co-occurring species pairs was relatively stable from the late Paleozoic until 6,000 years ago, even during periods of major climate change and mass extinction and despite the appearance of many new players in the terrestrial ecosystems, such as mammals and flowering plants,” says Cindy Looy, an assistant professor of integrative biology at University of California, Berkeley.
“The decline of coupled species pairs in the Holocene also cannot be explained by the transition from the last glacial to the current interglacial at the end of the Pleistocene, as this happened too early. Instead, it is more likely caused by an increase in human population size and the resulting land use and agriculture.”
Around the time co-occurrence patterns changed, humans were becoming increasingly dependent on agriculture, a cultural shift that physically altered the environment and would have introduced artificial barriers to dispersal never seen before.
Even at low levels of agriculture and other human impacts, there was a detectable shift in co-occurrence structure, indicating that species were not able to migrate as easily as they did for the previous 300 million years.
“Almost all frogs in the world—more than 6,000 species—have external fertilization, where the male grips the female in amplexus and releases sperm as the eggs are released by the female,” says Jim McGuire, associate professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley.
“But there are lots of weird modifications to this standard mode of mating. This new frog is one of only 10 or 12 species that has evolved internal fertilization, and of those, it is the only one that gives birth to tadpoles as opposed to froglets or laying fertilized eggs.”
Next we go to the ocean to discover the aliens living among us…