1. Highlight of the week: Interactive feature: the human body in 3D. Explore the different systems, probe the different organs, and rotate the images. Click away! It’s fun and informative. It is in our AU library here.
2. We need more participants for the Animal Trivia Quiz Thread. Come and post a question, any question related to animals and let the other participants guess the answer WITHOUT cheating and googling the answer. It is fun and a great learning experience!
Look for eye candy photographs in this fantastic post on our expanding universe and very distant galaxies. See Hubble telescope photos of galaxies whose light is "only" about 10 billion years old. But wait, our universe is about 13.7 billion years old; can we see a galaxy whose light has been travelling for as long as our universe has been in existence? Thanks to the Hubble Ultra Deep Field team, they've gone deeper into the Universe than ever before, and managed to pull out a galaxy whose light has been traveling to us for 13.2 billion years. According to General Relativity, the space between these galaxies is expanding. As light travels through this space, the wavelength of that light gets longer, causing it to shift towards the red end of the spectrum. The red sphere is growing ever larger, but the Universe is expanding faster than that. Admittedly, we're fine for billions of years longer, but that is our eventual fate, as far as we know it. Lucky for us that we live now, in a Universe full of galaxies, near and far.
A British diver, Alex Mustard, dived 80ft into the crevice between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates near Iceland to capture spectacular photos. The area is riddled with faults, valleys, volcanoes and hot springs, caused by the plates pulling apart at about one inch per year. A must see!
PALEOANTHROPOLOGY: Neandertals and us: no contact in Europe?
An interesting brand new paper using newer technology to data Neandertal bones suggests that perhaps our Homo sapiens ancestors only met and interbred with Neanderthals ~80,000 years ago when Homo sapiens first left Africa to reach the Middle East, as suggested by DNA analysis published about a year ago, but not again when H. sapiens reached Europe. The new and improved radiocarbon dating technique removes contamination by more recent carbon, utilizing a process called “ultra-filtration”, has been used by a research team led by Thomas Higham, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of Oxford, UK, to measure the age of Neandertal bones from a single cave in western Russia, called Mezmaiskaya, and in the future other Neandertal bones from European locations further West need to be examined in order to extend these observations. The new dating pushes the age of the bones at almost 10,000 years older than the previous date of 30,000 years ago. The finding is controversial, since paleoanthropologists had previously dated Neandertal bones from Gibraltar as only 24,000 years old.
PSYCHOLOGY: Underestimating the unconscious
Intuitively, it feels right that we have many more unconscious processing than we think we do; it makes sense because these processes can be faster than bringing stuff into consciousness. Up until now, many psychologists and cognitive neurosciences thought that to integrate knowledge, we need consciousness; but new research by Israeli scientists, clever experiments in which each eye of test subjects was being fed different information, in order to create distractions, suggests that unconscious processes may be detecting incongruous events or objects and then recruiting conscious processes to integrate them. One of the researchers, Liad Mudrik, says that these findings have implications for daily life. “These findings give us information about the resources we allocate to everyday actions. Say you are driving and talking on a cell phone. What we’ve shown is that you are doing some unconscious processing; we can perform many quite sophisticated actions at one time".
EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY and MYCOLOGY: A whole new Phylum for the Kingdom of Fungi?
This may be for the strictly nerdy natural history lover, but it is nevertheless very exciting. It is not everyday that a whole new phylum is discovered! A team of UK scientists has stumbled upon an entire new branch of fungi, very common but previously undiscovered, by looking at fungi in a pond in their university campus and sequencing their DNA; the DNA of these new fungi is very different that from any other know type of fungi. This new type of fungi is so diverse from all other fungi that they believe they belong in a different Phylum. The named them "cryptomycota" ("hidden fungus") because somehow they managed to remain cryptic to this day. Cryptomycota lack chitin in their cell walls. Chitin, found also in insect exoskeletons, is a hallmark of fungal evolution. The research team therefore suggest that the cryptomycota have separated from all other fungi a long time ago and that they represent an ancient branch.
ZOOLOGY: Masters of camouflage: cuttlefish
Ed Yong has a wonderful post about cuttlefish, relatives of squid and octopus, and how the use camouflage to blend against virtually any background. Interestingly enough, they do not appear to be able to see colors. Camouflage is their main defense against predators, since they are favorite prey for many species because of their soft bodies. Their skin is very flexible and it allows the cuttlefish to change not only color or color patterns but also texture and shape. They use their tentacles to mimic plants or even stripes in artificial backgrounds that do not exist in nature! Watch the video to admire the fantastic disguises!
LAST, BUT NOT LEAST: Category “Homemade Science”: Science in the kitchen: extracting banana DNA
This is a little project, which is great for people with kids, and also for curious adults who want to see what DNA looks like, with the naked eye. I've extracted so much DNA in my life, that the novelty of seeing DNA strands precipitate with alcohol wore off, but I guarantee you that you'll get a kick out of it, and kids, even more! When my kids were little we extracted DNA from an onion (the procedure is a little different) and they absolutely loved it. All you need is common household stuff. I would love for someone here to commit to doing the experiment and then post pictures here of the different steps of the process. Have fun!
Science bits and news from other sites:
A new kind of laser captures light by imitating the way colorful bird feathers do it. The device mimics the nanoscale structure of colorful feathers to make high-intensity laser light with almost any color. Physicist Hui Cao of Yale and colleagues tried an arrangement of holes that looks random from afar but has pockets of order up close. This is similar to the setup of air pockets in bird feathers. Their results are published May 6 in Physical Review Letters. Lasers work by bouncing photons back and forth between mirrors. In recent years, physicists have built lasers from slabs of specialized glass with air holes drilled in them. Light can get trapped on a particular path between the holes, and bounce around long enough to make laser light. Physicists have tried arranging the holes in both tightly ordered and completely random patterns. But both of those options had drawbacks — ordered lasers only work at one wavelength and are expensive to build, and random lasers aren’t very efficient. But observing nature has paid off. The feathers of some brightly colored birds have a “not-quite-random” arrangement of air pockets. Wavelengths of light that are related to the distance between the air pockets get scattered and built up more than others, giving the feathers their characteristic colors. “After we learned this, we said, ‘Oh, that’s a smart idea!’” Cao said. “Can we use this to improve our lasers? Maybe we can use short-range order to enhance light confinement and make lasing more efficient.” Her team drilled holes in a semiconductor sheet, spaced between 235 and 275 nanometers apart. The material included a layer of equally spaced quantum dots, which emit light when struck by a photon. When the researchers lit up the tiny wafer, it produced laser light much more efficiently than random lasers. Changing the spacing between the holes can change the wavelength of the laser light. “Just like the birds, which can tune their short-range order to get different color from their feathers. We can do the same thing,” Cao said. Her laser is much cheaper and easier to build than previous models. “We can have control, and it doesn’t have to be perfect,” she said. “That’s what we learned from nature.”
That has to be the best blog headline I’ve seen in a long time, straight from the dry wit of Ed Yong. The saliva of vampire bats releases an enzyme called desmoteplase, or DSPA, into the bloodstream, which causes blood to flow more readily; this enzyme may also help stroke victims by breaking down blood clots. Dubbed Draculin, this anti-coagulant enzyme has now entered a phase 2 studying which scientists are currently comparing Draculin with traditional anticoagulants to see if it increases the three-hour window doctors have to treat post-stroke blood clots. Draculin was first tested on humans in a 2006 study that found that the drug was not only safe, but patients also tolerated it. If effective, Draculin would help prevent ischemic strokes, a type of stroke caused when blood clots block blood flow to the brain. On a cautionary note, most failed drugs fail during the Phase II trials, when researchers discover drugs often don’t work as planned, so we have to wait and see.
Sea Monster Battle Seen in Prehistoric Bite Marks
A scarred fossil skull recovered in Australia is yielding a rare glimpse into the behaviors of dinosaur-era, battle-ready sea beasts. The skull of the nearly 20-foot-long (6-meter-long) predator, an Ichthyosaur, that lived ~ 120 million years ago, bears deep gouges and scratches on its slender snout. But the beast that attacked this ichthyosaur did not succeed in killing the huge dolphin-like reptile, since the wounds show signs of healing. The narrow bite pattern on the study fossil suggests the assailant was actually another ichthyosaur; suggesting ichthyosaurs have fought over carcasses, territory, etc.
Corals Find an Effective Way to Spawn Despite Being Cemented in Place
Because coral polyps are not mobile, they do not reproduce by mating, but they rely on the simultaneous release of sperm and eggs that drift up to the ocean surface, where they meet to form larvae and float away to form new coral reefs. The polyps in a coral reef will “blow” their eggs and sperm simultaneously in quick frenzies for just one, or maybe a few, consecutive nights a year, and they usually do so shortly after sunset on evenings closely following a full moon. But polyps have no central nervous system, so how do they coordinate the release of gametes? Alison Sweeney, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, suspected that a hue shift in the twilight sky away from red, toward blue, was the polyps’ cue. Prior to a full moon, the moon reaches the sky before sunset and, reflecting the ruddy light of the setting sun, makes the whole sky slightly redder. Just after a full moon, when sunset precedes moonrise, the moon is no longer there to reflect the pinkish tint, so twilight turns bluer. To test her hypothesis, Sweeney and her team suspended an optical cable to reef depth—about 2.5 meters below the water—from a floating spectrometer. They noted shifts in the ocean’s color which reflected the sky’s color. The coral spawned during twilights of radiant blue! Sweeney, whose team reported its results in the February Journal of Experimental Biology, believes that like sea urchins (which also link reproduction to lunar cycles), corals “see” color shifts through their skin, which contains photoreceptors of the kind found in human retinas.
Ocean sunfish aka Mola mola: the biggest teleost (bony fish) in the world is a gentle giant who looks implausible. Check out this great article in Mother Jones, One Insanely Improbable Fish, complete with beautiful old Japanese illustrations of Mola mola. And enjoy the video of Mola mola in action off the coast of southern California, such a peaceful, funny looking fish. One of my favorite fish. This was one of the questions I posted in the Animal Vegetable mineral group, in the trivia thread, and nobody got it.