Scientists move a step closer to bring back extinct animals

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Scientists have moved a step closer to bringing extinct animals back to life, by have taken a small inserting the DNA of a woolly mammoth into lab-grown elephant cells, Live Science reports.

Harvard geneticist George Church and his colleagues say they inserted mammoth genes for small ears, subcutaneous fat, and hair length and colour into the DNA of elephant skin cells. They claim it might be possible in this way to bring the mammoth, which died out 3,600 years ago – back to life, but probably not anytime soon.

"There is more work to do, but we plan to do so," Church told The Times newspaper.

Next, they need to find a way to turn the hybrid cells into specialized tissues, to see if they produce the right traits. For instance, the researchers need to make sure the mammoth genes produce hair of the right color and texture.
After that, the team plans to grow the hybrid cells in an artificial womb; scientists and animal-rights advocates have deemed it unethical to grow them in a living elephant's womb.

If these hybrids survive, they hope to engineer an elephant that can survive in cold climates. Then, by introducing more mammoth DNA into the elephant's genome they might be able to revive the ancient animals.

If that works, Church has his eye on other animals, including the passenger pigeon, a bird whose flocks once filled the skies of North America but went extinct in the early 20th century.

His current research is yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Antarctic ice shelves vanishing faster than previously thought

An iceberg off the Antarctic Peninsula [Credit: James Hager]

The rate of ice loss in the West Antarctic is accelerating, with ice shelves shrinking at an alarming rate, according to a new study, published in Science this week. If the shelves vanish, as the scientists fear they might, it could lead to sea level rises of up to three metres.

Shrinking rates have increased by 70% over the past decade.

"We are starting to lose more ice at a faster rate; we're accelerating," study co-author Helen Fricker, a climate scientist at University of California, San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography told reporters. 

"If this thinning continues at the rates we report, some of the ice shelves in West Antarctica that we've observed will disappear by the end of this century," Fricker says.

And that will cause serious problems because of the huge amount of "grounded ice", held up from entering the ocean by the shelves.

"A number of these ice shelves are holding back one metre to three metres of sea level rise in the grounded ice. And that means that ultimately this ice will be delivered into the oceans and we will see global sea-level rise on that order."

The study was based on satellite measurements of the ice taken over 18 years – a time period that allows overall trends to be seen in a way that previous shorter-scale studies have not, Fricker says.

'Super-termite' hybrid could bring wave of destruction

the male Asian subterranean termite (left) actually prefers the female Formosan subterranean termite to females of its own species. [Credit: University of Florida/Thomas Chouvenc, Erika Helmick, Nan-Yao Su].

the male Asian subterranean termite (left) actually prefers the female Formosan subterranean termite to females of its own species. [Credit: University of Florida/Thomas Chouvenc, Erika Helmick, Nan-Yao Su].

Two of the world's most destructive species of termites have swarmed at the same time, creating a hybrid that scientists fear could lead to a wave of destruction.

The combination of genes between the Asian and Formosan subterranean termites in Florida has resulted in highly vigorous hybridised colonies that can develop twice as fast as the two parental species, they say.

The Asian and Formosan termites already cause $40 billion in damage between them. Their hybrid offspring could increase that bill many times over.

The distributions of Asian and Formosan termites overlap in only three areas in the word.

The distributions of Asian and Formosan termites overlap in only three areas in the word.

A new paper published in the journal PLOS ONE by a team of University of Florida researchers, says that, while both of the invasive species have been spread round the world by human activity, their distributions overlap in only three narrow areas – Florida being one.

The authors say that, due to climate change, the dispersal flight seasons of both species overlapped for the first time on record in 2013 and 2014, with Asian termites appearing to actually prefer mating with Formosan females than their own species.

The authors warn that climate change could spread the termites' range even further.

"With a subtropical climate and strong human activity, the continuous spread of exotic termites in south Florida is inevitable," the paper says.

"Climate change can directly shift the distribution range and the timing of reproduction of species because of alterations of environmental conditions...The unusually warm 2013 and 2014 winters (5th and 10th warmest winter on record) with successive cold fronts in the region may have allowed for a wide overlap of the termite species dispersal flight seasons."

The researchers are yet to determine whether the hybrid termites are fertile but, whether they are or not, they are destined to stay around for a long time.

"Because a termite colony can live up to 20 years with millions of individuals, "the damaging potential of a hybrid colony remains a serious threat to homeowners, even if the hybrid colony does not produce fertile winged termites,” lead author Nan-Yao Su says.

Researchers transform packing peanuts into powerful parts for rechargeable batteries

Researchers at Purdue University have developed a way to convert packing peanuts into parts that can be used to store energy in rechargeable lithium ion batteries – and they could work better than rechargeable batteries currently on the market. They presented their findings at the 249th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) on Monday 23 March. 

Dr Vilas Pol, who led the team of researchers, got the idea one day when new equipment delivered to his lab came in a box full of the foam pieces.

Instead of tossing them out, Pol asked a member of his team, Dr Vinodkumar Etacheri, to work out how they could be reconstructed and used.

“Outside in a landfill, potentially harmful substances in the peanuts, such as heavy metals, chlorides and phthalates, can easily leach into the environment and deteriorate soil and water quality,” says Pol.

Packing peanuts are made using new or recycled polystyrene, the same molecule used in Styrofoam. Although the peanuts no longer contain CFCs, known to deplete our ozone, new “eco-friendly” versions of the material can still cause damage to the environment. 

“The starch-based alternatives also contain chemicals and detergents that can contaminate ecosystems,” he explains.

Material used by commercial industry is generally heated up to about 2500 degrees Celsius in order to make microsheets for rechargeable batteries. Pol and Etacheri found that, when baked at just 600 degrees Celsius, the packing peanuts transformed into microsheets with disordered, porous structures.

“Their disordered crystal structure lets them store more lithium ions than the theoretical limit, and their porous microstructure lets the lithium ions quickly diffuse into the microsheets and creates more surface area for electrochemical interactions,” says Etacheri.

Pol says his team hopes to have the trash-turned-technology battery components commercially available within the next few years.

Less than two days until the launch of the historic One-Year Mission in space

The Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft prepares for launch. [Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls]

The Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft prepares for launch. [Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls]

Researchers from the US and Russia prepare for the final countdown to the launch of the historic One-Year Mission as the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft, which will carry the crew, is transported to its final ground location: the launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The One-Year Mission is an international collaboration between the US and Russia that will investigate how the human body responds to weightlessness, isolation, radiation and stress of long-duration spaceflight. The crew consists of NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), who will live onboard the International Space Station (ISS) for one year.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly (left) and Russian astronaut Mikhail Kornienko of Roscosmos, the two-man crew of the One-Year Mission. [Credit: NASA/Bill Stafford]

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly (left) and Russian astronaut Mikhail Kornienko of Roscosmos, the two-man crew of the One-Year Mission. [Credit: NASA/Bill Stafford]

Because of the low or no-gravity environment, fluids within the human body – such as blood and water – shift to the upper body. Fluids play an important role in our health; you can feel the effects of its redistribution when your legs swell during a long flight or when you get dizzy from standing up too quickly. Fluids also impact your vision.

So researchers will be collecting non-invasive physiological data from the two-man crew based on seven categories of interest: visual impairment, physical performance, functional tasks, behavioral health, metabolic, microbial, and human factors (such as how well crew members remember what they learned on the ground).

The mission is considered a stepping stone to future expeditions to Mars and beyond.

Kelly and Kornienko will be joined by Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka of Roscosmos on their journey to the International Space Station. Their spacecraft, the Soyuz TMA-16M, is scheduled for take-off on 27 March, 3:42 p.m. EST. But Kelly and Kornienko will not return to Earth until March 2016, onboard the Soyuz TMA-18M.

In addition to the research being done by the One-Year Mission, Kelly is a part of NASA’s Twins study with his identical twin brother, Mark Kelly, who is also an astronaut. The Twins study will provide more insight into subtle physiological changes that occur from spaceflight by comparing the shared genetics of the two individuals whilst they are living in different environments – on space and on Earth – for one year.

Black hole's winds so strong they can blow out stars

This artist's impression depicts how a black hole accretes the surrounding matter through a disc (orange). Part of the accreted material is pushed away in a wind (blue), which in turn powers a large-scale galactic outflow of molecular gas (red). The study is based on data from the Herschel and Suzaku space observatories. [Credit: ©ESA/ATG medialab]

This artist's impression depicts how a black hole accretes the surrounding matter through a disc (orange). Part of the accreted material is pushed away in a wind (blue), which in turn powers a large-scale galactic outflow of molecular gas (red). The study is based on data from the Herschel and Suzaku space observatories. [Credit: ©ESA/ATG medialab]

Researchers have observed winds blowing from a black hole that are capable of gusting gas out of a galaxy and killing baby stars. The study reinforces the thought that star formations in galaxies can be controlled by black holes. 

The findings by British, US and Spanish scientists reported in Nature.

There seems to be a correlation between active galactic nuclei, which are supermassive black holes that release large amounts of energy as they pull in matter, and the mass and components of galaxies. It is thought that these active galactic nuclei can drive the flow of dense molecular gas (from which stars form) through the galaxy, which could quench star formation, thereby regulating galaxy growth. This theory is supported by Francesco Tombesi and colleagues, who find evidence for the launching of a wind from a supermassive black hole that could power the ejection of molecular gas in a nearby galaxy called IRAS F11119+3257.

Large-scale winds have been seen before, but what makes this study remarkable is that the authors have linked the small-scale wind coming off the accretion disc around the black hole to the outflow of molecular gas detected in the same galaxy, says James Geach in Nature. “This provides new insights into the mechanism by which the central black hole is affecting its host galaxy."

How Jupiter may have wrecked the competition and paved the way for Earth

Jupiter may have acted as a wrecking ball, causing material in the inner solar system to collide and make way for the Earth. [Credit: Getty images].

Jupiter may have acted as a wrecking ball, causing material in the inner solar system to collide and make way for the Earth. [Credit: Getty images].

We may have Jupiter to thanks for Earth's existence, according to a new study that suggests that before Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars formed, the inner solar system may have been home to several super-Earths.

The theory is that Jupiter travelled in towards the Sun before moving outwards again, and in the process smashed the first-generation into the Sun, making way for Earth.

The scenario has been proposed by Konstantin Batygin, a Caltech planetary scientist, and Gregory Laughlin of UC Santa Cruz in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

"Our work suggests that Jupiter's inward-outward migration could have destroyed a first generation of planets and set the stage for the formation of the mass-depleted terrestrial planets that our solar system has today," says Batygin, an assistant professor of planetary science. 

The theory could explain why our solar system is so different from those in our galactic neighbourhood. Typically they have one or more planets that are substantially more massive than Earth orbiting closer to their suns than Mercury does, but very few objects at distances beyond.

"Indeed, it appears that the solar system today is not the common representative of the galactic planetary census. Instead we are something of an outlier," says Batygin. "But there is no reason to think that the dominant mode of planet formation throughout the galaxy should not have occurred here. It is more likely that subsequent changes have altered its original makeup."

The proposed model of our solar system model builds on the Grand Tack scenario, which was first posed in 2001 by a group at Queen Mary University of London. In that scenario, during the first few million years of the solar system's life, when planetary bodies were still embedded in a disc of gas and dust around a relatively young Sun, Jupiter became so massive and gravitationally influential that it was able to clear a gap in the disc, with the Sun then pulling Jupiter inward.

Only Saturn stopped it from being destroyed on the face of the Sun.

Batygin suggests Saturn formed after Jupiter but was pulled toward the Sun at a faster rate, allowing it to catch up and the two bodies to exert a gravitational influence on one another, reversing the planets' migration direction and sending them back outward in the solar system. 

Batygin speculates that the inner solar system was cleared as Jupiter pulled all objects along until they smashed into each other and spiralled into the sun.

Tropics face bigger more organised thunderstorms as climate warms

This looping gif of a huge storm cell is part of an extraordinary gallery by Mike Hollingshead on his website Extreme Instability. Click to expand

Climate scientists have long predicted that certain parts of the tropics will get wetter the more the Earth warms. Now an Australian team has worked out the mechanism which will involve an a change in type of large thunderstorms rather than an increase in the number of them.

At the same time, other types of rainfall will diminish.

"What we are seeing is more big and organised storms and fewer small and disorganised storms," says Jackson Tan, lead author of a report by the Monash branch of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science (ARCCSS) and NASA.

What is more, the increased rainfall is a result of changes to the underlying circulation in the tropics, rather than just warmer weather.

"If this rainfall change was caused simply by a warmer atmosphere holding more moisture, we would have expected an increase in the average rainfall when each system, organised or disorganised, occurs," said Dr Tan.

The research was published in Nature.

But scientists are struggling to include the process of the creation of thunderstorms in climate models given current computing power. The small-scale processes giving rise to thunderstorms make their direct simulation impossible.

"This limitation, which is a well-known issue in global climate models, might well be a contributing factor to the precipitation errors and the bias towards light rain," said another author from Monash University, Christian Jakob.

"Given how important these large storms are to rainfall in the tropics, it is vital that there is a renewed effort to represent convective organisation in global climate models if we are to fully understand precipitation changes in the future."

Newly found shape-shifting frog changes its skin

Scientists have discovered a tiny frog in the Andes in Ecuador change its skin texture from spiny to smooth in just minutes.

The "mutable rain frog" (Pristimantis mutabilis) is the first shape-shifting amphibian ever found. The discovery was reported in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1096-3642 

A female is 20 to 23 millimetres long, and males are even smaller.

It was first seen by Katherine Krynak, a biologist, and Tim Krynak, a naturalist in 2006 on a routine survey of a protected area, called Reserva Las Gralarias. They took a picture of the animal but didn't, at first, recognise it as a new species.

"It wasn't until we saw the amazing texture of its skin that we thought, 'wow, this is something different,'" Katherine Krynak told Live Science. http://www.livescience.com/50242-shape-shifting-frog-discovered.html

In 2009, the Krynaks finally saw another punk rocker frog and grabbed it for a detailed photo session, putting it in a small plastic cup overnight.
But when Katherine Krynak opened the cup the next morning, the frog's spines were gone. Thinking she had nabbed the wrong frog, Krynak added moss to the cup to make the frog more comfortable until they could return it to the forest that night. "We were both so disappointed because it had taken years to find another one," she said.
But the Krynaks said they couldn't believe their eyes the next time they checked on the frog. Its spiny skin texture had returned.

The frog's reasons for changing shape are not clear, although the Krynaks believe it could be for camouflage in the mossy forests.

Suspending kids for marijuana uses just encourages more

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Suspending kids from school for using marijuana is likely to lead to more - not less - marijuana use among their classmates, a new international study by the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Melbourne has found.

The study, conducted with researchers from the University of Washington, compared drug policies and their enforcement at schools in Washington state and Victoria, Australia.

Students attending schools with suspension policies for illicit drug use were found to be 1.6 times more likely to use marijuana within a year than students at schools without suspension policies.

"That was surprising to us," said lead author Dr Tracy Evans-Whipp from the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute. "It means that suspensions are certainly not having a deterrent effect. It's just the opposite."

Counselling and abstinence-based drug policies seemed to work better.

"Students in schools with a policy of sending policy violators to a teacher for counselling on the dangers of marijuana were almost 50% less likely to use marijuana," said Evans-Whipp.

The data is published in the American Journal of Public Health.