Category: Science

Some plants talk to each other on the genetic level


“So, how do you feel about tendril sex?”

Whether or not plants hear and talk to us, they sure talk among themselves – some of them, at least. This has been established by scientific research in the past: plants communicate to each other via signals in the form of chemicals. Some species of plants, in fact, have sophisticated means of interacting with others of their kinds: while some can share genetic information, others send warning messages of possible insect attacks. The former form of communication entails parasitic plants attaching onto their hosts.

Dodder, which is a parasite, attaches onto the other plant known as Arabidopsis, stealing some of its nutrients in the process via an appendage. However, to have their meal of nutrients, Dodder has to first identify its host. It was previously thought that it uses chemicals to do so. Now, a new study has demonstrated that dodder uses a genetic method: it exchanges RNA with the plant. These two plants thereby ‘talk’ to each other as they exchange pieces of mRNA.

What do they say to each other then? Mystery, mystery. Perhaps, Dodder signals its host to ‘allow’ it to drain its nutrients by tricking it to lower its defenses?

The picture says it all.

Thanks, Mike

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Hemp homecoming in Kentucky

Kentucky Hemp Field

Call it a homecoming for hemp: Marijuana’s non-intoxicating cousin is undergoing a rebirth in a state at the forefront of efforts to reclaim it as a mainstream crop.

Researchers and farmers are producing the first legal hemp crop in generations in Kentucky, where hemp has turned into a political cause decades after it was banned by the federal government. Republican U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul advocate for it, as does state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, a Republican who is running for governor next year.

The comeback is strictly small scale. Experimental hemp plots more closely resemble the size of large family gardens.

Statewide plantings totaled about 15 acres from the Appalachian foothills in eastern Kentucky to the broad stretches of farmland in the far west, said Adam Watson, the Kentucky Agriculture Department’s hemp program coordinator.

The crop’s reintroduction was delayed in the spring when imported hemp seeds were detained by U.S. customs officials. The state’s Agriculture Department sued the federal government, but dropped the case Friday after reaching an agreement on importing the seeds into Kentucky. The seeds were released after federal drug officials approved a permit.

Since then, test plots have shown the crop to be hardy and fast growing – and a potential moneymaker with a remarkable range of traditional uses including clothing, mulch, hemp milk, cooking oil, soap and lotions.

“What we’ve learned is it will grow well in Kentucky,” Comer said. “It yields a lot per acre. All the things that we predicted.”

Growing hemp without a federal permit was banned in 1970 due to its classification as a controlled substance related to marijuana. Hemp and marijuana are the same species, Cannabis sativa, but hemp has a negligible amount of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.

For now, growing hemp is strictly limited. The federal farm bill enacted this year restricts hemp production to research projects designated by agriculture departments in states that allow the crop to be grown. But commercial uses are also emerging.

Which goes to prove for the umpteenth time, our government is managed by cowards, fools and idjits.

RTFA for the measured sign of progress back from a half-century of stupid regulation. All based on fear and an absolute rejection of scientific knowledge.

Cripes, people wonder why I’m so “intolerant”. Why should anyone with a modicum of sense and education have to put up with the range of incompetence – from bigotry and racism to abusive laws regulating vegetables – embraced so thoroughly by the lawgivers of this supposed Land of Liberty.

Global warming is humidifying the upper atmosphere

We have long suspected that greenhouse gases which cause the Earth to warm would lead to a wetter atmosphere. The latest research published by Eul-Seok Chung, Brian Soden, and colleagues provides new insight into what was thought to be an old problem. In doing so, they experimentally verified what climate models have been predicting. The models got it right… again.

To be clear, this paper does not prove that water vapor is a greenhouse gas. We have known that for years. Nevertheless, the paper make a very nice contribution. The authors show that the long-term increase in water vapor in the upper troposphere cannot have resulted from natural causes – it is clearly human caused. This conclusion is stated in the abstract,

Our analysis demonstrates that the upper-tropospheric moistening observed over the period 1979–2005 cannot be explained by natural causes and results principally from an anthropogenic warming of the climate. By attributing the observed increase directly to human activities, this study verifies the presence of the largest known feedback mechanism for amplifying anthropogenic climate change.

As stated earlier, climate models have predicted this moistening – before observations were available. In fact, the models predicted that the upper troposphere would moisten more than the lower atmospheric layers. As the authors state,

Given the importance of upper-tropospheric water vapor, a direct verification of its feedback is critical to establishing the credibility of model projections of anthropogenic climate change.

To complete the experiments, the authors used satellite measurements of radiant heat. The emissions have changed but it wasn’t clear why they have changed. Changes could be caused by increases in temperature or from increased water vapor. To separate the potential effects, the authors compared the first set of experiments with others made at a different wavelength. That comparison provided a direct measure of the separate effect of moistening.

Next, the authors used the world’s best climate models to test whether the observed trends could be caused by natural changes in the Earth’s climate or whether they require a human influence. Sure enough, only the calculations that included human-emitted greenhouse gases matched the observations. The authors conclude that,

Concerning the satellite-derived moistening trend in recent decades, the relations of trend and associated range among three experiments lead to the conclusion that an increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gases is the main cause of increased moistening in the upper troposphere.

Another box ticked, another set of relevant questions answered. Now, real scientists will continue with their work – preparing answers for those nations and politicians ready to deal with serious ecological questions.

The rest…? I don’t know. Don’t waste too much time asking a Republican what they intend to do?

Thanks, Mike

Researchers create 1,000-kilobot swarm — self-assembling collective behavior

Robot swarm
Click to see the swarm in action [no sound]

Scientists have created a swarm of over a thousand coin-sized robots that can assemble themselves into two-dimensional shapes by communicating with their neighbours.

At 1,024 members, this man-made flock — described in the 15 August issue of Science — is the largest yet to demonstrate collective behaviour. The self-organization techniques used by the tiny machines could aid the development of ‘transformer’ robots that reconfigure themselves, researchers say, and they might shed light on how complex swarms form in nature…

The robots communicate using infrared light, but they are only able to transmit and receive information with the robots nearest to them — so they cannot ‘see’ the whole collective. However…seed robots act as the point of origin for a coordinate system; information on their position propagates outward through the swarm like fire signals across the peaks of a mountain range. This allows each bot to determine where it is and whether it is inside the shape programmed by researchers. Over a period of about 12 hours, the programmed configuration — such as the letter ‘K’ or a star — takes form, robot by robot.

RTFA. Use your imagination. What might be accomplished.

Children conditioned by religion can’t tell fact from fiction

sunday school

A study published in the July issue of Cognitive Science determined that children who are not exposed to religious stories are better able to tell that characters in “fantastical stories” are fictional — whereas children raised in a religious environment even “approach unfamiliar, fantastical stories flexibly.”

In “Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds,” Kathleen Corriveau, Eva Chen, and Paul Harris demonstrate that children typically have a “sensitivity to the implausible or magical elements in a narrative,” and can determine whether the characters in the narrative are real or fictional by references to fantastical elements within the narrative, such as “invisible sails” or “a sword that protects you from danger every time.”

However, children raised in households in which religious narratives are frequently encountered do not treat those narratives with the same skepticism. The authors believed that these children would “think of them as akin to fairy tales,” judging “the events described in them as implausible or magical and conclude that the protagonists in such narratives are only pretend.”

And yet, “this prediction is likely to be wrong,” because “with appropriate testimony from adults” in religious households, children “will conceive of the protagonist in such narratives as a real person — even if the narrative includes impossible events…”

This conclusion contradicts previous studies in which children were said to be “born believers,” i.e. that they possessed “a natural credulity toward extraordinary beings with superhuman powers. Indeed, secular children responded to religious stories in much the same way as they responded to fantastical stories — they judged the protagonist to be pretend.”

The researchers also determined that “religious teaching, especially exposure to miracle stories, leads children to a more generic receptivity toward the impossible

Then, they grow up and vote.

Thanks, Helen

Subsidized birth control = 40% decrease in Colorado teen pregnancy

A Colorado programme that offers free birth control to teenagers has dramatically reduced the rate of teenage pregnancy. But the nature of the scheme’s funding – a large anonymous donation – leaves it unclear whether it could work on a broader scale…

That opening paragraph is a non sequitur. The source of funding isn’t relevant at all. What was done with the contribution is about a qualitative effect on the lives of young women.

In 2008, an anonymous donor made a $23 million five-year commitment to provide long-term contraception such as intrauterine devices or implants for teenagers who needed them, for free or at very low cost.

The state’s health department rolled out the programme, called the Colorado Family Planning Initiative, through clinics that were already offering family planning services…

When Greta Klinger, the director of the programme, got the first results back about how the initiative was working, she and others were stunned.

“The demographer whom I worked with on the analysis of the data kept coming into my office and saying, ‘Look at this, I’ve never seen this before.'” Klingler says…”It’s really incredible. From the public health perspective, it’s pretty rare to have a programme that produces such dramatic results.”

The US birth rate for teenagers is decreasing across the country, but Colorado has seen a quicker drop – between 2008-12, it jumped from 29th-lowest teen birth rate in the nation to the 19th lowest.

Not everyone is happy. There is fierce opposition to the idea of offering birth control to teenagers from groups like Colorado Right to Life…

I’ll not waste space in this post on spooky arguments leftover from centuries of ignorance. Suffice it to say the arguments from opponents range from fear and hatred of evolution and science to instructions from an invisible old white guy in the sky.

Continue reading

NASA releases HD footage of Mars landing system

The US space agency released a spectacular video detailing the testing of an interplanetary landing system, which is designed to place more massive payloads on the surface of Mars, as it hurtled toward Earth.

In the cosmic quest to explore the surface of Mars, NASA is attempting to devise technologies that will allow it to deliver heavy payloads to the mysterious red planet. In June, NASA engineers, with the help of a massive balloon, lifted the 7,000-pound saucer-shaped test vehicle to an altitude of 190,000 feet before it was released.

The strenuous trial, which tested the so-called Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), was designed to create conditions similar to that of a Mars landing.

At this point, with rockets firing to keep the vehicle stabilized, video from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory showed the ‘flying saucer’ traveling at a speed of Mach 4.3 – or more than four times the speed of sound. Engineers then released an inflatable, life-preserver shaped device around the perimeter of the vehicle, officially known as a Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator, or SIAD, which slowed the craft to Mach 2.

However, while the inflatable device proved tough enough to endure the rigors of such intense force, the 100-foot-wide parachute proved less successful, and nearly disintegrated as it attempted to slow the bulky, fast moving object on its descent toward Earth…

Project manager Mark Adler said that the videos will help his team as they continue to study how to improve the LDSD’s performance for a mission to Mars.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth about a million,” Adler said…

Gotcha!

I have to thank Ursarodinia for early prompts about this test – which didn’t have this level of video available. Thanks, Mike, for catching this new release.

Comet close-ups from the Rosetta spacecraft

Following a decade-long meandering multi-loop de loop through the solar system, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft has finally reached its primary target: Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. What the comet lacks in a stylish name, it makes up for in historical prominence as it is the very first comet to get up close and personal with a manmade spacecraft…

Over the next few months, Rosetta will attempt to close in on a near-circular orbit of 30 km…before attempting to send a lander (dubbed” Philae”) onto the comet where it will take direct scientific measurements.

The Rosetta team has identified five possible landing sites on the comet and plans to settle on one by the middle of October, after which the agency will attempt to land the Philae lander in mid-November…

While the Rosetta mission will surely unlock a new understanding of our solar system, it has—more immediately—given us the privilege of being the very generation to see what a comet really looks like. Click through our slideshow of some of these spectacular images courtesy of the ESA.

As close as any of us are likely to get, folks. Take advantage of the photos.

Thanks, Mike

Tornado strength, frequency, linked to climate change

New research by a Florida State University geography professor shows that climate change may be playing a key role in the strength and frequency of tornadoes hitting the United States.

…Professor James Elsner writes that though tornadoes are forming fewer days per year, they are forming at a greater density and strength than ever before. So, for example, instead of one or two forming on a given day in an area, there might be three or four occurring…

Elsner, an expert in climate and weather trends, said in the past, many researchers dismissed the impact of climate change on tornadoes because there was no distinct pattern in the number of tornado days per year. In 1971, there were 187 tornado days, but in 2013 there were only 79 days with tornadoes.

But a deeper dive into the data showed more severity in the types of storms and that more were happening on a given day than in previous years…

The United States experiences more tornadoes than any other country, and despite advances in technology and warning systems, they still remain a hazard to residents in storm-prone areas. The 2011 tornado season, for example, had nearly 1,700 storms and killed more than 550 people…

One bright spot of news in the research, Elsner added, was that the geographic areas impacted most regularly by tornadoes do not appear to be growing.

Interesting work and especially relevant in this period of climate change. Too bad politicians and other scatterbrains find it easier to focus on ideology and elections than actually developing a response to the changes we’re still analyzing and understanding.

Kudos to people like Professor Elsner for maintaining dedication to research even when there are know-nothings in the Florida legislature who would rather defund work like this than confront change.

Thanks, Mike

Why should ANY scientist cave in to anti-science, Luddite fears?

By Ezra Klein, editor-in-chief and head vegetable chef of VOX

I once asked Twitter to name the liberal equivalent of conservatism’s climate change denial: that is to say, an issue where the weight of liberal opinion had swung hard against the weight of scientific evidence. The most common candidate was liberal mistrust of genetically-modified foods:

This conversation came to mind when I saw this clip of Neil deGrasse Tyson slamming anti-GMO hysteria:

GMOs are actually an example of liberalism resisting the biases of its base. Though there’s a lot of mistrust towards GMOs and fury towards Monsanto among liberals, the Democratic Party establishment is dismissive of this particular campaign. You don’t see President Obama or Democratic congressional leaders pushing anti-GMO legislation…

Part of the reason comes down to people like Tyson. Political scientists will tell you that parties, and the ideological movements that power them, are composed of much more than officeholders and electoral strategists. They’re driven by interest groups and intellectuals and pundits and other “validators” that partisans and politicians look to for cues when forming their beliefs.

When it comes to environmental issues, one of those validators is the environmental news site Grist. It would’ve been easy for Grist to simply cater to the biases of their audience and go on a crusade against GMOs. Instead, they had journalist Nathanael Johnson do a huge series exploring the science, practice and controversy over GMOs. His conclusion? GMOs are basically safe, though their benefits are overstated by proponents. Grist could have spun the issue, or ignored the issue, and profited off the resulting traffic. But they didn’t. They pushed against the biases of their base.

When it comes to scientific issues, Neil deGrasse Tyson has emerged as a key liberal validator. But given the opportunity to cater to his base and send a clip viral by whipping up anti-GMO hysteria, Tyson does just the opposite. “We have systematically genetically modified all the foods, the vegetables and animals, that we have eaten ever since we cultivated them. It’s called ‘artificial selection.’ That’s how we genetically modify them.” His basic advice to those worried about GMO foods: “chill out…”

The difference, at least for now, isn’t between liberals and conservatives. It’s between the liberal and conservative establishments…In that way, GMOs are actually an example of how differently the Republican and Democratic parties and their allied ideological movements have been responding to scientifically contested issues. Just as many conservatives distrust science that tells them the earth is warming and government needs to regulate private enterprise to stop it, many liberals mistrust science that says genetically manipulating seeds or injecting chemicals into children will lead to a better world.

The difference is that conservatism’s mistrust of climate science has taken over the Republican Party — even politicians like Mitt Romney and John McCain have gone wobbly on climate science — while liberalism’s allergy to messing with nature hasn’t had much effect on the Democratic Party. And part of the reason is that the validators liberals look to on scientifically contested issues have refused to tell them what they want to hear.

That may be how conservatives want scientists to behave; but, they don’t. Liberals asking the same of scientists are on a fool’s errand and most of them realize it. I hope.

The abuses of science by corporations are no less criminal than abuses by governments. Monsanto’s greed is no less evil than the destruction visited upon Hiroshima by a government run by the Democrats in 1945. Neither example makes a case for rejecting humane and beneficial use of the same technologies.

Unless you prefer ignorance, superstition and ideology over rational opportunity.

A chance to fight for oversight and the right to control direction of implementation of scientific discovery trumps smashing machines and setting fire to crops – every time.