ESA observes sea temperatures in Pacific to help monitor extreme storms

Sea-surface temperature anomalies reveal cold-water wakes trailing behind the Kilo, Ignacio and Jimena hurricanes, highlighting the power these winds have in stirring the upper ocean and bringing cooler deep waters to the ocean surface. [Credit: Ifremer–N. Reul/ESA SMOS+STORM project and REMSS]

The European Space Agency is pulling together data from three satellites too try to piece together how surface winds evolve under tropical storm clouds in the Pacific Ocean, with a view to creating more accurate predictions of extreme weather at sea.

“In addition to improving marine forecasting, the combination of data from sensors on different satellites will definitively enhance our understanding of ocean–atmosphere interactions in intense storms," said Nicolas Reul from the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea, known as Ifremer.

The observations are vital this year as a particularly strong El Niño builds up, with much higher surface ocean temperatures than normal.

The surplus heat is helping to breed tropical cyclones. There have been eight major storms so far, making the season the fifth most active in the Eastern Tropical Pacific since 1971. Measurements reveal coldof sea-surface temperatures in the wake three recent hurricanes, showing how the winds have in stirring the upper ocean and bringing cooler deep waters to the surface.

Climate change creates an evolutionary mismatch between bees and flowers

The Bombus fraternise, the bumblebee found in the Rocky Mountains, is evolving rapidly to adapt to changes in the plants due to climate change – but the plants aren't keeping up.

The Bombus fraternise, the bumblebee found in the Rocky Mountains, is evolving rapidly to adapt to changes in the plants due to climate change – but the plants aren't keeping up.

Climate change is wreaking havoc on bumblebees and flowers in the Colorado mountains, with a study comparing 40 years of records showing steep decreases in the number of both.

But it's also had another surprising, rather more complex effect. It has caused a rapid evolution by the bees, which are outpacing the flowers in adapting to the new conditions.

Too much heat can reduce flowering of mountain plants and this is where global warming is having its affect.

Wired has the details:

On one of the mountains in the study, between 1960 to 1985 only 12 percent of the years were hot enough to reduce flowering. Since 1985, 48 percent percent of years were too hot for flowers that bumblebees typically forage on.
Since 1970, the total number of flowers available for bees on the mountain study sites declined by 60 percent overall.

That's having a big affect on the bees which, between 1966 and 1980, were mostly "long-tongued" bees, designed to specialise in narrow tubular flowers, to both bee's and flower's benefit.

Since 2012, though, long-tongued bees have declined by nearly a quarter as fewer flowers force the bees to become less selective. But the speed at which the population has changed has astounded scientists.

What no one expected was that the tongues of long-tongued bees would get shorter. A lot shorter. “A 24 percent decrease in tongue length is really dramatic,” says Miller-Struttmann. “That was in 40 years, in 40 generations, I should say, because these bumblebees only have one generation a year. That’s a pretty short period of time to see such a dramatic shift.” Bumble bee bodies also got slightly smaller, but not as much as the tongues shrank. The research team did not find changes in the depth of the flowers bumble bees were visiting. The bees’ shape changed, but the flowers didn’t.

But the flowering plants are much longer-lived than the bees and their generation time is in the decades not a single year and so the bumblebees and plants, that have traditionally been co-evolutionary, are now mismatched physiologically.

The bees may not be as good a pollinator for those plants, which could cause further declines in flowers. In the long term, perhaps they will also evolve, but they’re much longer-lived species. Their generation time is decades, not yearly. Change will be slower—or may not happen at all.

The full paper can be found here: Miller-Struttmann, et al. 2015. Functional mismatch in a bumble bee pollination mutualism under climate change.

Bronze Age Britons mummified their dead, new study finds

A skeleton from Neat's Court in Kent, England, shows signs of being mummified by heat or through smoking. [Credit: Geoff Morley]

A skeleton from Neat's Court in Kent, England, shows signs of being mummified by heat or through smoking. [Credit: Geoff Morley]

Archaeologists have found that many cases of human remains in Britain that have been preserved in various ways from about 2200 BCE to 750 BCE.

They say that the evidence of mummification has been obscured due to wet conditions in the region, which means flesh, skin and organs have disintegrated but analysis shows that there has been little or now bacterial attack – evidence that the bodies had been mummified.

"The results demonstrate that Bronze Age populations throughout Britain practised mummification on a proportion of their dead, although the criteria for selection are not yet certain," the researchers wrote.


The researchers analysed the bones of 301 people, retrieved from 25 archaeological sites. Of these, 34 individuals were from the Bronze Age. More than half of the samples showed evidence that the person had been buried immediately, but 16 had excellent bone preservation, suggesting mummification after death.

It appears the Bronze Age Britons used various techniques including tanning the bodies in bogs, smoking them over a fire an removing organs, the scientists said.

Seafloor chimneys could have powered first life, experiment shows

This photo simulation shows a laboratory-created "chemical garden," which is a chimney-like structure found at bubbling vents on the seafloor – see image below of one at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. [Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech]  

This photo simulation shows a laboratory-created "chemical garden," which is a chimney-like structure found at bubbling vents on the seafloor – see image below of one at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. [Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech]


NASA researchers have replicated the bubbling chimney-shaped structures on the seafloor to investigate how the very first cell-like organisms on Earth might have received the electrical kickstart that gave them life.

In the study, the scientists report growing their own tiny chimneys in a laboratory and using them to power a light bulb, supporting the hypothesis that they were indeed the electrical source.

"These chimneys can act like electrical wires on the seafloor," said Laurie Barge of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, lead author of a new paper on the findings in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition.

"We're harnessing energy as the first life on Earth might have."

The NASA Astrobiology Institute explains the significance of the research:

The findings are helping researchers put together the story of life on Earth, starting with the first chapter of its origins. How life first took root on our nascent planet is a topic riddled with many unanswered chemistry questions. One leading theory for the origins of life, called the alkaline vent hypothesis, is based on the idea that life sprang up underwater with the help of warm, alkaline (as opposed to acidic) chimneys.

Chimneys naturally form on the seafloor at hydrothermal vents and range in size from centimetres to tens of metres. They are made of different types of minerals with, typically, a porous structure.

On early Earth, these chimneys could have established electrical and proton gradients across the thin mineral membranes that separate their compartments. Such gradients emulate critical life processes that generate energy and organic compounds.

"Life doesn't want to get electrocuted, but needs just the right amount of electricity," said Michael Russell of JPL, a co-author of the study.

"This new experiment confirms what that amount of electricity is – just under a volt."

You can find more information about the NASA Astrobiology Institute at

An image from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean shows a collection of limestone towers known as the "Lost City." Alkaline hydrothermal vents of this type are suggested to be the birthplace of the first living organisms on the ancient Earth. [Credits: D. Kelley and M. Elend/University of Washington]

An image from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean shows a collection of limestone towers known as the "Lost City." Alkaline hydrothermal vents of this type are suggested to be the birthplace of the first living organisms on the ancient Earth. [Credits: D. Kelley and M. Elend/University of Washington]

Why didn't chimpanzees learn to cook?

Chimpanzees in the London zoo in 1935 play with cooking equipment. [Credit: Imagno/Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

Chimpanzees in the London zoo in 1935 play with cooking equipment. [Credit: Imagno/Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

A study has shown that chimps prefer the taste of cooked food begging the question why they never learnt to do it for themselves.

Researchers believe the answer lies in their inability to control fire as well as not being able to trust others within their group not to steal their food while it is being prepared.

The experiment earlier this year, is reported by Oxford University students' magazine Bang! Science.

Scientists from Harvard University, led by Dr Felix Warneken, say that chimps have most of the mental capacities required to cook food. Their experiment showed chimps preferred cooked food, were willing to wait for raw food to be cooked, and also put raw food in a box for it to be replaced with cooked food.

But while chimpanzees never learnt to cook themselves, Warneken says the findings suggest that the mental skills required for cooking were in place up to seven million years ago – much earlier than previously believed.

"Humans must have adopted cooking fairly early in their evolution,” he said.

With the cognitive ability in place to cook, all our ancestors would have needed to develop was the ability to control fire and the capacity to trust others.

Others, such as Professor Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum in London, are not so sure.

“Cooking was an important milestone for humans in terms of making meat more digestible and neutralising pathogens and toxins, also for its social role, but best evidence for the ability to make fire at will only shows in the last 400,000 years”.

Bang! quotes an even more blunt palaeontologist Professor Fred Spoor. “Who cares that early humans may have liked the idea of cooked food?" he asks. "Perhaps they would have liked eating naturally roasted carcasses of animals occasionally trapped in savannah fires, but that is not cooking.”

NASA balloon flight tests whether bacteria can live on Mars

The 2014 test of the E-MIST system is prepared for flight at NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. [Credits: NASA / David J. Smith]

NASA researchers recently launched a helium-fileld scientific balloon to the edge of space to discover if bacteria might be able to hitch a ride to Mars and survive after they get there.

The abloom voyage is designed to expose the bacteria to conditions similar to those found on the surface of the Red Planet.

NASA researchers will measure how long the bacteria can endure the conditions, and they also will study the biological underpinnings of bacterial survival in harsh conditions.

Gianine M. Figliozzi, of the Space Biosciences Division of the NASA Ames Research Center, explains:

Earth’s stratosphere is an extreme environment. Situated above 99% of Earth’s protective atmosphere, conditions are dry, cold, and bathed with intense ultraviolet solar radiation. The air pressure is so low it’s nearly a vacuum. For these reasons, Earth’s stratosphere is a great stand-in for the surface of Mars.

“If we want to discover life on other planets we need to know if we are introducing Earth life as we explore,” said David J. Smith, scientist in the Space Biosciences Division at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, and principal investigator for the study.

“There are terrestrial microorganisms that can survive space-like conditions. We know some of these same microorganisms are onboard robotic spacecraft so we need to be able to predict what will happen when they get to Mars.”

A specialized hardware system that will be used for the study, Exposing Microorganisms in the Stratosphere (E-MIST), was developed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The E-MIST system was successfully flight tested during a five hour balloon flight in 2014. A report on the test flight was published in the December 2014 issue of Gravitational And Space Research.

The first full science mission using the E-MIST system launched from NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Fort Sumner, New Mexico on 26 September. During this mission, the balloon reached altitudes upward of 36,500 metres.

The video below is a history of NASA's scientific ballooning program.

There's more to a jellyfish than meets the eye

Jellyfish are among the oldest creatures on the planet, but also subject to less research than most animals and science is only now catching up.

With no heart, blood, or brain, you'd think they would be simple, but there is more to them than meets the eye.

They have survived five mass extinctions and live in every ocean.

This video from the PBS Deep Look series investigates these ultimate survivors. 

Dormant viruses may be responsible for motor neurone disease

Avindra Nath, M.D., discusses results from a study he lead showing that HERV-K genes, a group of ancient, inherited retrovirus genes may awaken to cause some forms of ALS. Video courtesy of NINDS.

Viruses lying dormant inside the human genome may “reawaken” to cause motor neuron disease, according to new research published in the journal Science Translational Medicine

The study also raises the possibility that antiretroviral therapy might be useful in some form of treatment.

The study found that the genome of the Human endogenous retrovirus called HERV-K, was abnormally activated in the brains of deceased Lou Gehrig's disease patients. 

The work follows on from a 2011 study when, Avindra Nath and his colleagues found that proteins synthesized by HERV-K were concentrated in the brains of patients with the disease.

But there are still questions to be answered.

"Perhaps most fundamental is the proverbial chicken and egg challenge: Is the activation of HERV-K a cause or a consequence of motor neuron degeneration? In this context, the most compelling aspect of their transgenic mouse work is the finding that elevated expression of the HERV-K env protein is directly pathogenic to motor neurons," an accompanying analysis in the journal  said.

Humans have for generations been passing on genetic remnants of HERV infections that may have happened millions of years ago. Although nearly 8% of the normal human genome is made up of these genes, very little is known about their role in health and disease.

"People call the genes for these viruses junk DNA. Our results suggest they may become activated during ALS," said Nath, clinical director at the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and a senior author of the study.

"Ultimately we hope the results will lead to effective treatments for a heartbreaking disorder."

Lou Gehrig's disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), is a progressive and fatal neurodegenerative disease which destroys the motor neurons that control speech, movement, swallowing and breathing.

On rare occasions, HIV-infected, AIDS patients develop ALS-like symptoms. In many of these patients, the symptoms can be reversed by treatment with antiretroviral drugs.

Previous studies found reverse transcriptase, a protein encoded by retroviral genes, in the blood of some ALS patients but its role in the disorder is unknown.


New insights into star-forming giant galaxy cluster

A composite of X-ray and optical wavelengths of the Phoenix Cluster [Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/MIT/M. McDonald et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI]

Galaxy clusters, huge conglomerations of galaxies, hot gas, and dark matter, are the largest structures in the Universe held together by gravity. But they are generally poor at producing new stars in their centres.

The galaxy cluster SPT-CLJ2344-4243, nicknamed the Phoenix Cluster, however, bucks the trend.

Scientists already knew the cluster featured the highest rate of cooling hot gas and star formation ever seen in the centre of a galaxy cluster, and that it is the most powerful producer of X-rays of all known clusters.

Now new data from observations at X-ray, ultraviolet, and optical wavelengths by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Clay-Magellan telescope in Chile, are helping astronomers better understand how this may be happening. 

NASA explains:

Clay-Magellan’s optical data reveal narrow filaments from the center of the cluster where stars are forming. These massive cosmic threads of gas and dust, most of which had never been detected before, extend for 160,000 to 330,000 lights years. This is longer than the entire breadth of the Milky Way galaxy, making them the most extensive filaments ever seen in a galaxy cluster.

They surround large regions with greatly reduced X-ray emission in the hot gas. These regions can be seen as dark patches surrounded by the blue in the composite image above, which shows the Chandra X-ray data in blue and optical data from the Hubble Space Telescope (red, green, and blue).

Astronomers think that the X-ray cavities were carved out of the surrounding gas by powerful jets of high-energy particles emanating from near a supermassive black hole in the central galaxy of the cluster. As matter swirls toward a black hole, an enormous amount of gravitational energy is released. Combined radio and X-ray observations of supermassive black holes in other galaxy clusters have shown that a significant fraction of this energy is released as jets of outbursts that can last millions of years. The observed size of the X-ray cavities indicates that the outburst that produced the cavities in SPT-CLJ2344-4243  SPT- CLJ2344-4243 was one of the most energetic such events ever recorded.

Genetically edited 'micro-pigs' set to hit the pet market

BGI's micropigs on show in Shenzhen, China. [Credit: BGI]

BGI's micropigs on show in Shenzhen, China. [Credit: BGI]

A Chinese genomics institute will soon sell tiny pigs it has produced using cutting-edge gene-editing techniques.

Nature News reports that BGI, previously known as Beijing Genomics Institute, originally created the pigs for use as models for human disease. They did so by using the gene-editing tool TALENs to turn off certain genes such as the growth hormone receptor gene in the already small Bama pig breed.

Pigs make sense as a vehicle for studying human disease as they are closer to humans physiologically and genetically than rats or mice. However, they cost more to keep and require bigger drug doses in tests.

But now BGI has announced at the Shenzhen International Biotech Leaders Summit that it will begin selling the 15-kilogram pigs for 10,000 yuan – about US$1,600. A normal Bama pig weighs up to 50 kilograms.

In future, customers will be offered pigs with different coat colours and patterns, which BGI says it can also set through gene editing.

But the move has  raises some concerns. "It's questionable whether we should impact the life, health and well-being of other animal species on this planet light-heartedly," Jens Boch from Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg, who helped develop the TALENs approach, told Nature News.