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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Vampire Moth Discovered

From National Geographic News:

Only slight variations in wing patterns distinguish the Russian population from a widely distributed moth species, Calyptra thalictri, in central and southern Europe known to feed only on fruit.

When the Russian moths were experimentally offered human hands this summer, the insects drilled their hook-and-barb-lined tongues under the skin and sucked blood.
Entomologist Jennifer Zaspel at the University of Florida in Gainesville said the discovery suggests the moth population could be on an "evolutionary trajectory" away from other C. thalictri populations. This is the second population of vampire moths Zaspel and her team have found. They discovered the first in Russia in 2006.

"Based on geography, based on behavior, and based on a phenotypic variation we saw in the wing pattern, we can speculate that this represents something different, something new," Zaspel said.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Robot Ants To Colonize Mars

The first inhabitants of Mars might not be human in form at all, but rather swarms of tiny robots.
European researchers are developing tiny autonomous robots that can co-operate to perform different tasks, much like termites, ants or bees forage collaboratively for food, build nests and work together for the greater good of the colony.

Working in the I-SWARM project, the team created a 100-strong posse of centimetre-scale robots and made considerable progress toward building swarms of ant-sized micro-bots. Several of the researchers have since gone on to work on creating swarms of robots that are able to reconfigure themselves and assemble autonomously into larger robots in order to perform different tasks.

Just as ants may observe what other ants nearby are doing, follow a specific individual, or leave behind a chemical trail in order to transmit information to the colony, the I-SWARM team’s robots are able to communicate with each other and sense their environment. The result is a kind of collective perception.

The robots use infrared to communicate, with each signalling another close by until the entire swarm is informed. When one encounters an obstacle, for example, it would signal others to encircle it and help move it out of the way.

Planet exploration and colonisation are just some of a seemingly endless range of potential applications for robots that can work together, adjusting their duties depending on the obstacles they face, changes in their environment and the swarm’s needs.

Simple, mass production would ensure that the robots are relatively cheap to manufacture. Researchers would therefore not have to worry if one gets lost in the Martian soil. link

I-SWARM robots in action:

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Secret of Death Protein Unlocked

Scientists at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have identified a previously undetected trigger point on a naturally occurring "death protein" that helps the body get rid of unwanted or diseased cells. They say it may be possible to exploit the newly found trigger as a target for designer drugs that would treat cancer by forcing malignant cells to commit suicide.

The researchers fashioned a peptide (a protein subunit) that precisely matched the shape of the newly found trigger site on the killer protein, which lies dormant in the cell's interior until activated by cellular stress. When the peptide docked into the binding site, BAX was spurred into assassin mode. The activated BAX proteins flocked to the cell's power plants, the mitochondria, where they poked holes in the mitochondria's membranes, killing the cells. This process is called apoptosis, or programmed cell death.

"We identified a switch that turns BAX on, and we believe this discovery can be used to develop drugs that turn on or turn off cell death in human disease by targeting BAX," said Walensky, who is also an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

Ref: BAX activation is initiated at a novel interaction site. 2008. Evripidis Gavathiotis et al. Nature 455: 1076-1081.
Tomb of the Blind Dead

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Single Species Ecosystem At The Earth's Core

The first ecosystem ever found having only a single biological species has been discovered 2.8 km beneath the surface of the earth in the Mponeng gold mine near Johannesburg, South Africa. There the rod-shaped bacterium Desulforudis audaxviator exists in complete isolation, total darkness, a lack of oxygen, and 60-degree-Celsius heat.

D. audaxviator survives in a habitat where it gets its energy not from the sun but from hydrogen and sulfate produced by the radioactive decay of uranium. Living alone, D. audaxviator must build its organic molecules by itself out of water, inorganic carbon, and nitrogen from ammonia in the surrounding rocks and fluid. During its long journey to the extreme depths, evolution has equipped the versatile spelunker with genes – many of them shared with archaea, members of a separate domain of life unrelated to bacteria – that allow it to cope with a range of different conditions, including the ability to fix nitrogen directly from elemental nitrogen in the environment.

It’s genome contains everything needed for the organism to sustain an independent existence and reproduce, including the ability to incorporate the elements necessary for life from inorganic sources, move freely, and protect itself from viruses, harsh conditions, and nutrient-poor periods by becoming a spore.

Dylan Chivian coined the name “audaxviato” from a phrase found in Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, in a message – "Conveniently in Latin," says Chivian -- deciphered by Verne's protagonist, Professor Lidenbrock, which reads in part, "descende, Audax viator, et terrestre centrum attinges." It means "descend, Bold traveler, and attain the center of the Earth." link
Environmental genomics reveals a single-species ecosystem deep within the Earth. D. Chivian et al.. 2008. Science 322.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Mighty Peking Man

"At first glance, the Shaw Brothers' 1977 demi-epic Mighty Peking Man might seem like the usual substandard big-monkey-on-the-loose shenanigans. But truly, this is the greatest reworking of the archetypal man-woman-ape love triangle since the original King Kong threw down the gauntlet in 1933." from StompTokyo.com.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The High Pitched Sound of Love

Black Canary © DC Comics
A pair of scientists at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) asked 69 women to make voice recordings when they were at high and low fertility points in their menstrual cycle. The closer a woman was to ovulation, the more she raised her pitch, the investigators found.

The increase in tone was only slight -- it wasn't Minnie Mouse on helium -- but the peaks were enough to be picked up by the voice decoder and presumably by the male ear, as well. The difference was the greatest on the two days preceding ovulation, when fertility within the cycle is the highest.

Curiously, this distinction only occurred when the volunteer, among the sentences she was asked to speak, introduced herself: "Hello, I'm a student at UCLA."

The scientists suggest the pitch change happens because men are lured to a more "feminine" voice in a woman -- and women respond to the instinct.

Sexual signals and reproductive fitness are strongly associated with voice, which is why women are often drawn to men with the husky voice of the supposed alpha male.

"Men prefer higher pitch relative to lower pitch in the same women, and these judgements are affected by cues of social interest in the speech," say the duo, Greg Bryant and Martie Haselton of the university's Center for Behavior, Evolution and Culture.

Previous research has found changes to body scent, an increase in flirtation, a shift towards more fashionable dress styles and a preference for more "masculine" men when women are in mid-cycle. Last year, investigators found that lap dancers earned more tips when they were fertile.

Conversely, a vocal shift towards hoarseness has been found at the time of menstruation. link