Category: Science

Tree of life includes 2.3 million species

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The largest “tree of life” ever created has been released, spanning 3.5 billion years and 2.3 million species. The work was not carried out from scratch, as such an effort would consume a vast amount of man-hours. Instead the researchers compiled data from almost 500 existing smaller trees displaying the divergence and evolution of life as we understand it.

Way cool. Gotta love Duke University – when they’re scientists in the whole world of science.

What smells like Tuberculosis?

“Smell technology” might improve the diagnosis of pulmonary and extrapulmonary tuberculosis (TB) around the world…

A device that detects a pattern of chemicals in the breath was both sensitive and specific for TB in a small pilot study, according to Amandip Sahota, MD, of the University Hospitals of Leicester in England.

In the study, the device was able to detect both pulmonary and extrapulmonary forms of the disease, Sahota reported at the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICAAC).

The idea of using breath samples to detect disease is not new, Sahota noted, but his study employed a technology — Field Asymmetric Ion Mobility Spectrometry (FAIMS) — — that has the potential to be cheaper, faster, and more widely available than earlier methods…

In the U.S., TB incidence continues to fall…but worldwide, the disease still exacts a stunning toll — about 9 million new cases and 1.5 million deaths a year.

Despite the advent of new technologies, Sahota said, most TB diagnosis worldwide is still done using culture methods, which are time-consuming and require significant expertise. A simple rapid point-of-care test would speed treatment, he said…

Shruthi Ravimohan, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania commented…”The longer patients wait for their results…the more likely is it that they will be lost to follow-up or the test results will be lost in the meantime.”

As well, she noted, delayed treatment is likely to have other adverse consequences, including advancing illness…

…The sensitivity of the test was 93% and the specificity was 94%.

Importantly, Sahota said, the 25 patients had varying forms of TB, with only 11 having pulmonary disease. Also, six had lymph node disease, four had spinal involvement or psoas abscess, two had joint disease, and one patient each had testicular and skin TB.

The method “is not limited to the lung,” he said.

Every little step forward helps the health of the world. Battlefield expedients may result in more lives saved in the developing world. OK with me.

Don’t worry about Styrofoam in landfills – just add mealworms


If you’ve ever kept mealworms as food for a pet reptile or frog, then you probably fed them fruits or vegetables. What you likely didn’t know, however, was that the insects can also survive quite nicely on a diet of Styrofoam. With that in mind, scientists at Stanford University have now determined that mealworms can break the difficult-to-recycle plastic foam down into a biodegradable waste product.

The Stanford team fed Styrofoam and other forms of polystyrene to a colony of approximately 100 mealworms.

Within 24 hours, the worms consumed 34 to 39 milligrams of the plastic, converting about half of it to carbon dioxide – as they would with any other food source. Bacteria in the worms’ gut degraded the other half into tiny biodegradable droppings. The researchers believe that those droppings could safely be used as a crop fertilizer.

The mealworms themselves appeared to be just as healthy as worms that received a more traditional diet of vegetable matter.

Working with colleagues in China, the Stanford team members are now investigating whether mealworms or other insects could also be used to break down additional types of plastic, such as polypropylene. They also hope to find a marine equivalent to mealworms, that could consume the tons of plastic waste currently fouling the world’s oceans.

Phew! Now we can go back to comfy styrofoam cups of coffee at our favorite fast food joints.

2015 Ig-Nobel Prizewinners

Always worth checking out. My favorite, this year –

Is “Huh?” a Universal Word? Conversational Infrastructure and the Convergent Evolution of Linguistic Items — A study supported by European Research Council grants.

But, wait, there’s more. Many more. All worth a chortle.

A chemistry award for partially unboiling an egg; pretty much all mammals take the same time to pee; an economics award for offering cash to coppers who turn down bribes.

And on and on.

There’s a very cold ‘blob’ in the North Atlantic Ocean

day after tomorrow

Last week we learned from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that the first eight months of 2015 were the hottest such stretch yet recorded for the globe’s surface land and oceans, based on temperature records going back to 1880. It’s just the latest evidence that we are, indeed, on course for a record-breaking warm year in 2015.

Yet, if you look closely, there’s one part of the planet that is bucking the trend. In the North Atlantic Ocean south of Greenland and Iceland, the ocean surface has seen very cold temperatures for the past eight months:

What’s up with that?

First of all, it’s no error. I checked with Deke Arndt, chief of the climate monitoring branch at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, who confirmed what the map above suggests — some parts of the North Atlantic Ocean saw record cold in the past eight months…

And there’s not much reason to doubt the measurements — the region is very well sampled. “It’s pretty densely populated by buoys, and at least parts of that region are really active shipping lanes, so there’s quite a lot of observations in the area,” Arndt said. “So I think it’s pretty robust analysis.”

Thus, the record seems to be a meaningful one — and there is a much larger surrounding area that, although not absolutely the coldest it has been on record, is also unusually cold.

At this point, it’s time to ask what the heck is going on here. And while there may not yet be any scientific consensus on the matter, at least some scientists suspect that the cooling seen in these maps is no fluke but, rather, part of a process that has been long feared by climate researchers — the slowing of Atlantic Ocean circulation…

The fact that a record-hot planet Earth coincides with a record-cold northern Atlantic is quite stunning. There is strong evidence — not just from our study — that this is a consequence of the long-term decline of the Gulf Stream System, i.e. the Atlantic ocean’s overturning circulation AMOC, in response to global warming.

The short term variations will at some point also go the other way again, so I don’t expect the subpolar Atlantic to remain at record cold permanently. But I do expect the AMOC to decline further in the coming decades. The accelerated melting of the Greenland ice sheet will continue to contribute to this decline by diluting the ocean waters.

This won’t lead to anything remotely like The Day After Tomorrow (which was indeed based — quite loosely — on precisely this climate scenario). But if the trend continues, there could be many consequences, including rising seas for the U.S. East Coast and, possibly, a difference in temperature overall in the North Atlantic and Europe.

A good time to go back and watch at least the first portion of Day After Tomorrow. The movie does a good job of explaining the slowing of Atlantic Ocean circulation and what potentially can happen. There are climate scientists who agree – and some who disagree. A localized effect can become a regional effect and vice versa.

What is fairly likely is that if the circulation is interrupted by what has long been a predictable feature of global warming, folks in NW Europe and the UK who’ve been getting used to a generally warmer year-round batch of seasons better get out their woolies. The Gulf Stream circulation brings a fair chunk of warmth to what should feel like Poland or even Belarus. And may, soon.

Blood moon Sunday night — don’t hold your breath waiting for the end of days

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A rare astronomical phenomenon Sunday night will produce a moon that will appear slightly bigger than usual and have a reddish hue, an event known as a super blood moon.

It’s a combination of curiosities that hasn’t happened since 1982, and won’t happen again until 2033. A so-called supermoon, which occurs when the moon is closest to earth in its orbit, will coincide with a lunar eclipse, leaving the moon in Earth’s shadow. Individually, the two phenomena are not uncommon, but they do not align often…

Appropriately, some loonies need to be cautioned

A rare confluence of a lunar eclipse and a supermoon set to happen this weekend has prompted such widespread fear of an impending apocalypse that the Mormon Church was compelled to issue a statement cautioning the faithful to not get caught up in speculation about a major calamity…

It’s unclear how many Latter-day Saints buy the theory, but Mormon leaders were worried enough that they took the rare step this week of issuing a public statement cautioning the faithful not to get carried away with visions of the apocalypse.

Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told its 15 million worldwide members that they should be “spiritually and physically prepared for life’s ups and downs,” but they urged them not to take speculation from individual church members as doctrine and “avoid being caught up in extreme efforts to anticipate catastrophic events.”

True Believers really work at validating their ticket to the Great Beyond over simple astronomical events like this. It’s enough to make some believe the Earth is round.

Here’s how West Virginia University researchers caught VW cheating

WVU test rig

This photo shows how researchers caught VW cheating on its emissions tests

Revelations that as many as 11 million Volkswagen cars have been cheating on their emissions tests have become big news this week. But the research that demonstrated that VW’s diesel vehicles were generating excessive pollution has been publicly available for more than a year — ever since a team at West Virginia University published their findings in the spring of 2014.

Volkswagen reportedly programmed its vehicles to behave differently during emissions testing than in real-world driving conditions. To detect this, the West Virginia researchers developed a method for measuring a vehicle’s emissions performance as it drove down the highway…

This equipment rode around in the back of the vehicles they were testing, collecting gas from the exhaust pipe and analyzing it. The gear included an onboard generator, to make sure that the power demands of the testing equipment didn’t change the performance of the engine.

Then they drove the vehicles up and down the West Coast, testing their performance in a variety of real-world driving conditions, from city streets to mountain roads. They found that one of the vehicles they tested (we now know it was a VW Jetta) was emitting 15 to 35 times the legal limit of nitrous oxide, while another (a VW Passat) was emitting five to 20 times the limit.

At this point, the researchers didn’t know why the cars were emitting so much pollution. But when they presented their results at a 2014 conference in San Diego, there were EPA officials in the audience. They picked up the investigation from there and eventually forced Volkswagen to admit that they had programmed the vehicles to cheat on emissions tests.

Gotta love all the directions capable of basic science. Catching corporate crooks is just one avenue – but, surely, important enough to deserve applause from ordinary consumers, recognition from bureaucrats who didn’t catch on to the crime until these folks at WVU pointed out discrepancies.

We may never find aliens if they’re hip to encryption

snowden tv

Edward Snowden has strongly defended citizens’ rights to encrypt their messages, and has taught journalists how to use encryption to protect themselves from spying programs.

But the NSA whistleblower sees a downside to encrypting so much information: aliens may not be able to spot signs of intelligent life.

Snowden, appearing on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk podcast via a video link from Moscow on Sept. 18, told the astrophysicist how encryption could interfere in our attempts at alien communication.

Done properly, encrypted communication—encoded so that only the intended recipient can read the information—can’t be identified and is indistinguishable from random behavior, Snowden said.

“So if you have an alien civilization trying to listen for other civilizations, or our civilization trying to listen for aliens, there’s only one small period in the development of their society when all of their communication will be sent via the most primitive and most unprotected means,” Snowden said. “So what we are hearing that’s actually an alien television show or, you know, a phone call … is indistinguishable to us from cosmic microwave background radiation.”

Although as Tyson noted on his podcast, alien species might not be so keen on encryption. “Only if they have the same security problems as us,” he told Snowden.

You might hope that some other species with sufficient advancement in science to track down our wee ball of mud in the night sky – might also have moved to social development more reliant upon science and less dependent on superstition and imperial amorality. And may have grown beyond our need for encryption.

Your body is surrounded by farticles


Everywhere you go, in everything you do, you are surrounded by an aura of microbes. They drift down from your hair when you scratch your head, they fly off your hand when you wave to your friend, they spew out of your mouth when you talk. Even when you sit around doing nothing, you’re sitting in your own, personal microbial bubble.

Made up of millions, billions, trillions of bacteria, yeast, cells, and cell parts, this bubble is actually more like a cloud — a cloud, new research suggests, that is unique to you. And as gross as it is to imagine everyone around you shedding microbial bits and pieces into the air, studying those clouds can be useful for people like doctors tracking down disease outbreaks and cops tracking down criminals.

The gut microbiome, often invoked in expensive probiotic-heavy diets, is probably the hottest microscopic community right now. It’s the collection of microbiota, living inside you, that helps you break down food, fight disease, and control your hunger.

But your outer body has its own microbiome, too. Your body is covered in skin, and that skin is like a vast savannah populated with millions of exotic critters. They feed on the oils seeping from your skin, dead cells, bits of organic matter, and each other. “In a single centimeter of skin, you can find thousands of bacteria,” says James Meadow, former University of Oregon researcher and co-author of a microbiome paper published…in the journal PeerJ.

Combined, the non-you cells in your body outnumber the you cells by about 10 to one. And if some sadistic scientist were to grind up and sequence all the DNA in every cell in and on your body, only about 2 percent of the genetic material would be human. The rest is microbes

So how different could individuals’ microbial clouds really be? The two trials showed that, at least in these 11 people, microbial clouds varied significantly from person to person. They also found that different people shed microbes at different rates…

That knowledge will help shape microbiome cloud research in fields like contagious disease and forensics. In hospitals, nobody really knows how germs spread. Since leaving Oregon State University, Meadow has joined a biotech company in San Francisco that wants to use the understanding of microbial clouds to help hospitals prevent things like MRSA outbreaks.

Cops see other opportunities for the microbial cloud. Gilbert has been helping crime scene investigators use microbial residue to track down criminals. He says people pick up microbes from the soil, the air, the food they eat, and the water they wash and drink with. So an individual’s unique microbial signature could put them at the scene of a crime—or exonerate them if the microbes in their cloud match their alibi.

Any guess as to who gets the most funding, first?

6 small cavers, 15 skeletons, and 1 new species of ancient human

Lee Berger put his ad up on Facebook on October 7th, 2013. He needed diggers for an exciting expedition. They had to have experience in palaeontology or archaeology, and they had to be willing to drop everything and fly to South Africa within the month. “The catch is this—the person must be skinny and preferably small,” he wrote. “They must not be claustrophobic, they must be fit, they should have some caving experience, climbing experience would be a bonus.”

“I thought maybe there were three or four people in the world who would fit that criteria,” Berger recalls. “Within a few days, I had 60 applicants, all qualified. I picked six.” They were all women and all skinny—fortunately so, given what happened next. Berger, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, sent them into the Rising Star Cave, and asked them to squeeze themselves through a long vertical chute, which narrowed to a gap just 18 centimeters wide.

That gap was all that separated them from the bones of a new species of ancient human, or hominin, which the team named Homo naledi after a local word for “star.” We don’t know when it lived, or how it was related to us. But we do know that it was a creature with a baffling mosaic of features, some of which were remarkably similar to modern humans, and others of which were more ape-like in character.

This we know because the six women who entered the cave excavated one of the richest collections of hominin fossils ever discovered—some 1,550 fossil fragments, belonging to at least 15 individual skeletons. To find one complete skeleton of a new hominin would be hitting the paleoanthropological jackpot. To find 15, and perhaps more, is like nuking the jackpot from orbit.

RTFA. It is a delightful read. Science, adventure, perseverance.

Thanks, Ursarodinia