Science in the News

Baby Dinosaur's 99 Million-Year-Old Tail, Encased In Amber, Surfaces In Myanmar

posted Dec 9, 2016, 2:30 PM by Ann Marostica

In 2015, Lida Xing was visiting a market in northern Myanmar when a salesman brought out a piece of amber about the size of a pink rubber eraser. Inside, he could see a couple of ancient ants and a fuzzy brown tuft that the salesman said was a plant.

As soon as Xing saw it, he knew it wasn't a plant. It was the delicate, feathered tail of a tiny dinosaur.

"I have studied paleontology for more than 10 years and have been interested in dinosaurs for more than 30 years. But I never expected we could find a dinosaur in amber. This may be the coolest find in my life," says Xing, a paleontologist at China University of Geosciences in Beijing. "The feathers on the tail are so dense and regular, this is really wonderful."

He persuaded the Dexu Institute of Palaeontology to buy the artifact.

After analyzing the delicate tail, Xing and his colleagues in China, the U.K. and Canada now have an idea of what type of dinosaur it is, and of the evolutionary clues it holds. Their research was published Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

They say that 99 million years ago, a baby dinosaur about the size of a sparrow got stuck in tree resin and never made it out. Had the young dinosaur had a more auspicious day, it would have grown up to be a little smaller than an ostrich.

The young coelurosaur, nicknamed "Eva," is closely related to iconic meat-eaters Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor, which chases the kids around the kitchen in Jurassic Park.

The tail's dense feathers spread off to the sides, making it look flat. Vertebrae the size of grains of rice allowed the animal to swing it around (the curving tail was a major tip-off for Xing that this was no bird; the vertebrae of modern birds are fused into a rod). "So it's a tiny, whip-like tail," says McKellar.

It's rare to find fossil feathers attached to the spine they came from, which is what allows paleontologists to pin them firmly on the evolutionary tree.

"It's a spectacular little glimpse," McKellar says. "It gives us, basically, a pathway that gets us to modern feathers." And the story of how feathers evolved has been an area of debate for some time now.

Enlarge this image

People have been mining amber in northern Myanmar for at least 2,000 years. The amber there has been found to contain traces of life from millions of years ago.

Lida Xing

Bird feathers today have a strong central shaft — the part you'd dip in ink if you were using a quill. Little branches stem from that shaft, and even tinier branches stem from those, acting as hooks that zip the feather together into one smooth, continuous surface that's important for flight.

Before the advent of the strong shaft and hook-like barbules, flight wouldn't have been possible.

Did feathers start out stiff and spiky, with the strong shaft coming first, then the branches and then the smaller branches? Or did feathers start out floppy and fluffy, with barbs and barbules, and develop the strong central shaft later?

The little creature in amber points to the floppy scenario.

"It has those really fine branches, which potentially suggests the barbules evolved earlier than we thought," says Jakob Vinther, a paleobiologist at Bristol University in the U.K. who was not involved in the study.

"And that actually becomes really interesting in the evolution of color," he says.

Anytime you see a bird with iridescent feathers, such as a hummingbird or peacock, it's the barbules that are responsible for the brilliant, color-shifting effect. So when dinosaurs and birds evolved barbules, they unlocked a palette of brilliant colors.

Earlier fossils suggest that feathers developed first for insulation. Then, one line of thinking goes, they developed for flight and then later for display — like showing off fancy colors to attract mates, or muted tones to camouflage.

"I think the fact that the finest branches, which could have harbored this bright iridescence, got established before we got very robust feathers — that could potentially lean toward this idea that feathers were mainly used to show off before they got used to fly with," Vinther says.

"The fact that barbules might have originated earlier clearly show that some of these very bright colors, like this metallic iridescence, could have originated earlier," he adds. "Perhaps a greater number of dinosaurs, and more primitive dinosaurs, could have been iridescent."

And that means that feathered dinosaurs — even ones way back in evolutionary history — might have pranced around looking quite flamboyant.

"I'm really looking forward to see what's gonna be unearthed [in Myanmar] in the future," Vinther says. "It's really exciting what we get out of these amber fossils."

In fact, Xing has already been back to Myanmar.

"The conflict between government forces and local armed forces is nearing an end. Soon, there will be a lot of specimens excavated," says Xing, who has been visiting amber markets in Myanmar's tumultuous Kachin state for a few years now.

In his dream of dreams, Xing says, he hopes to find a whole dinosaur encased in amber.

See the article here

Here’s What Dogs See When They Watch Television

posted Sep 9, 2016, 2:46 PM by Ann Marostica

Dog owners often notice their pets watching televisions, computer screens and tablets. But what is going on in their pooch’s head? Indeed, by tracking their vision using similar methods used on humans, research has found that domestic dogs do prefer certain images and videos.

This research indicates that dogs have a preference towards watching other canines – but our studies have also discovered that sound often initially attracts dogs towards television and other devices. Favoured sounds include dogs barking and whining, people giving dog-friendly commands and praise, and the noise of toys squeaking.

How dogs watch TV is very different to the way humans do, however. Instead of sitting still, dogs will often approach the screen to get a closer look, and walk repeatedly between their owner and the television. They are essentially fidgety, interactive viewers.

What dogs can see on the screen is also different to humans. Dogs have dichromatic vision – they have two types of colour receptor cells and see colour within two spectrums of light: blue and yellow. The use of colour within media is very important for dogs and explains why canine TV channel, DogTV prioritises these colours in its programming. Dogs' eyes are also more sensitive to movement and vets suspect that the improved flicker rate that has come from the shift from standard to high definition television has allowed dogs to better perceive media shown on TV.

But do they enjoy it?

Multiple screens have also been used in research to see whether dogs... read the entire article here

Here's Looking Achoo! Debunking the Sneeze

posted Aug 26, 2016, 3:54 PM by Ann Marostica

For such a commonplace bodily function, the sneeze has messed with our minds (and noses) for centuries. It will kill us, it won't kill us. We'll have bad luck, we'll have good luck. Watch out for Satan, he's wily and knows how to get into your nasal membranes. Did you have too much to eat? Are you sad? Do you have a weak heart?

Technically, sneezing is a reflex to the usual irritants such as germs, dust or pollen. But it turns out your nose can get ruffled by some. 

Let's look deeper into your nose and all of its mysteries, shall we?  Read the entire article here

This Animation Shows You Exactly How Many Internet Cables Are Under The Ocean

posted Sep 7, 2015, 7:33 PM by Ann Marostica   [ updated Sep 7, 2015, 7:33 PM ]

Ever wondered how the internet is received all around the world? While few of us still connect directly via an ethernet cable thanks to the invention of Wi-Fi, the internet is still delivered around the world through cables, most of which are deep below the sea, as this video by the Business Insider shows.

This undersea cable network stretches 885,000 kilometers (550,000 miles) – enough to circle the globe an astonishing 22 times. It weaves all over the Earth transmitting 99% of international data, sharing everything from the best pie recipe to the latest trades on the world's stock exchanges.

click below to view the animation

Three Steps To Save Britain’s Butterflies

posted Aug 31, 2015, 9:01 PM by Ann Ransom

August 17, 2015 | by Callum Macgregor

photo credit: The peacock butterfly, found in Europe and temperate Asia. Charles J Parker, CC BY 

British populations of butterflies, including some of the most familiar countryside species, will begin disappearing within decades unless we take action. This is the alarming conclusion of new research published in Nature Climate Change by a group of British scientists.

Butterflies are naturally sun-loving creatures, and with the UK sat on the northern edge of many species’ ranges, previous studies have forecast possible benefits to UK populations from a warming climate. However, as the climate changes, extreme weather events including droughts are expected to become more common. Droughts can be a problem for butterflies, especially if they harm the plants upon which caterpillars rely for food. With less food around, populations can crash, and may take several years to recover to pre-drought levels.

The new study used models to predict the frequency of droughts like that of 1995 under different scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions, and examined factors affecting the likelihood and speed of recovery for populations of six species of butterflies that experienced population collapses after the 1995 drought.

While droughts as severe as 1995 have previously only occurred as little as once in 200 years, allowing plenty of time for butterfly populations to recover, the study found that they may become far more frequent. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at current rates, they might even occur on average once every 1.29 years (effectively every summer).

The red admiral is one of the UK’s most common butterflies. Kenneth Dwain HarrelsonCC BY-SA

Under “business as usual” scenarios, the research forecasts the widespread extinction of local colonies of butterflies as soon as 2050. So, what can be done to conserve our butterflies? Here is my simple, three-step guide:

Step 1: Stop Global Warming In Its Tracks

Butterflies don’t have to be colourful. SoebeCC BY

Clearly, reducing the impacts of climate change will be important. Delegates from around the globe will meet in Paris later this year for the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference, hoping to reach the first deal on reducing emissions since Kyoto 1992. Under the study’s best case scenario for emissions, 1995-like droughts might occur only every six to seven years, giving butterfly populations much more opportunity to recover in between.

Step 2: Protect Butterfly Habitats

Ensuring the availability of suitable habitats for butterflies can also make a big contribution. The researchers found butterfly populations were more likely to persist through droughts and recovered more rapidly if situated in areas with larger, less fragmented patches of semi-natural habitat, such as grassland. Larger areas are likely to contain more abundant and diverse food-plants, helping more species of butterfly, and can also better resist edge effects associated with drought, such as moisture loss from woodland.

Highly fragmented habitats have more edge relative to their area, and therefore experience more severe edge effects. Well connected habitats, through which butterflies can easily mingle and locate breeding sites, could add decades on to the survival of certain populations as the climate warms.

Buddleia, also known as the butterfly bush, is one of the UK’s best plants for encouraging butterflies. Andy FoggCC BY

Step 3: Create More Butterfly-Friendly Gardens

While large-scale habitat management programmes, such as the establishment of nature reserves, are an important means to preserve semi-natural habitat, the restoration of connectivity is where butterfly enthusiasts can help at home.

According to Richard Fox from the charity Butterfly Conservation, many drought-prone species can be encouraged to breed in gardens by leaving grass to grow long. “You don’t have to let your prize lawn go to rack and ruin, you can just leave a strip along the fence”, Fox told me me. Depending on how much is left, this could provide breeding habitat for species including the speckled wood, ringlet, meadow brown and large skipper.

A female speckled wood butterfly Charles J SharpCC BY

Meanwhile, other species can be helped by choosing garden flowers with care, or letting them choose themselves. “Large and small white will breed on Nasturtiums and love to nectar on flowers like buddleia and perennial wallflower,” advises Fox, while “green-veined white caterpillars can feed on lots of weeds, so not being too tidy can help”. If you have a garden, why not plant some butterfly-friendly plants of your own?

So while butterfly lovers will be among those waiting with bated breath for the outcome of the Paris summit, they may also be able to help closer to home. Habitat availability will be vital to the survival of butterflies when drought strikes, and by providing such refuges in back gardens anybody can help them survive and flourish.

Scientists successfully grow human brain equivalent to 5-week-old foetus in the lab

posted Aug 20, 2015, 9:56 AM by Ann Marostica

The most complete brain ever grown in a lab: 99% of genes accounted for.


Growing brain tissue in a dish has been done before, but bold new research announced this week shows that scientists’ ability to create human brains in laboratory settings has come a long way quickly.

Researchers at the Ohio State University in the US claim to have developed the most complete laboratory-grown human brain ever, creating a model with the brain maturity of a 5-week-old foetus. The brain, which is approximately the size of a pencil eraser, contains 99 percent of the genes that would be present in a natural human foetal brain.

“It not only looks like the developing brain, its diverse cell types express nearly all genes like a brain,” Rene Anand, professor of biological chemistry and pharmacology at Ohio State and lead researcher on the brain model, said in a statement.

“We’ve struggled for a long time trying to solve complex brain disease problems that cause tremendous pain and suffering. The power of this brain model bodes very well for human health because it gives us better and more relevant options to test and develop therapeutics other than rodents.”

Anand turned to stem cell engineering four years ago after his specialised field of research – examining the relationship between nicotinic receptors and central nervous system disorders – ran into complications using rodent specimens. Despite having limited funds, Anand and his colleagues succeeded with their proprietary technique, which they are in the process of commercialising.

The brain they have developed is a virtually complete recreation of a human foetal brain, primarily missing only a vascular system – in other words, all the blood vessels. But everything else (spinal cord, major brain regions, multiple cell types, signalling circuitry is there). What’s more, it’s functioning, with high-resolution imaging of the brain model showing functioning neurons and brain cells.

The researchers say that it takes 15 weeks to grow a lab-developed brain to the equivalent of a 5-week-old foetal human brain, and the longer the maturation process the more complete the organoid will become.

“If we let it go to 16 or 20 weeks, that might complete it, filling in that 1 percent of missing genes. We don’t know yet,” said Anand.

The scientific benefit of growing human brains in laboratory settings is that itenables high-end research into human diseases that cannot be completed using rodents.

“In central nervous system diseases, this will enable studies of either underlying genetic susceptibility or purely environmental influences, or a combination,” said Anand. “Genomic science infers there are up to 600 genes that give rise to autism, but we are stuck there. Mathematical correlations and statistical methods are insufficient to in themselves identify causation. You need an experimental system – you need a human brain.”

The research was presented this week at the Military Health System Research Symposium.

Russian Man Will Become Subject Of First Human Head Transplant Ever Performed

posted Apr 15, 2015, 11:36 AM by Ann Ransom

April 10, 2015 | by Janet Fang

Is it actually possible to fuse two spinal cords and stop the recipient’s body from rejecting the new head? Last century attempts with dogs and monkeys resulted in animals who survived for a few days, though a more recent mouse head transplant showed that it was basically possible. "I think we are now at a point when the technical aspects are all feasible," Canavero says.

After cooling the donor’s body and the recipient’s head, neck tissue is dissected, blood vessels are linked with tubes, and the spinal cords are cleanly severed, New Scientist explains. With the new head on the body, the ends of the spinal cords are fused together using a chemical that prompts fat in cell membranes to connect. Muscles and blood vessels will be sutured, and the patient will be kept comatose as electrodes stimulate the spinal cord. He calls it HEAVEN, for head anastomosis venture (anastomosis is the surgical connection of two parts).

This week, a volunteer was announced: 30-year-old Valery Spiridonov of Vladimir, Russia, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder called Werdnig-Hoffman muscle wasting disease. He wants the chance at a new body before he dies. “Am I afraid? Yes, of course I am. But it is not just very scary, but also very interesting,” Spiridonov tells Daily Mail. “You have to understand that I don't really have many choices... If I don't try this chance my fate will be very sad. With every year my state is getting worse.”

But according to Hunt Batjer of the American Association for Neurological Surgeons, even if the airway, spine, and major veins and arteries are put together, the spinal cord will be the real problem. "I would not wish this on anyone,” Batjer tells CNN. “I would not allow anyone to do it to me, there are a lot of things worse than death." For starters, the patient might not be able to move or breathe. And Arthur Caplan of New York University thinks Canavero is nuts. "Their bodies would end up being overwhelmed with different pathways and chemistry than they are used to and they'd go crazy,” he tells CNN. Also, the high levels of anti-rejection meds will poison the body, and who knows if the recipients will fully gain the function of their new parts. "It's not like you can unscrew your head and put it on someone else," Caplan adds.

Still, Canavero insists, “we can already do this.”

Rubber Duckies help to Study Ocean Currents

posted Mar 23, 2015, 8:35 AM by Ann Ransom

Friendly Floatees are plastic bath toys marketed by The First Years, Inc. and made famous by the work of Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer who models ocean currents on the basis of flotsam movements including those of a consignment of Friendly Floatees, containing 29,000 plastic yellow ducks, red beavers, blue turtles and green frogs, washed into the Pacific Ocean in 1992. Some of the toys landed along Pacific Ocean shores, like Hawaii. Others traveled over 17,000 miles, floating over the site where the Titanic sank, and spent years frozen in Arctic ice to reach British and Irish shores 15 years later in 2007. 

A consignment of Friendly Floatee toys, manufactured in China for The First Years Inc., departed from Hong Kong on a container ship, the Ever Laurel,[2] destined for Tacoma, Washington, U.S.. On 10 January 1992, during a storm in the North Pacific Ocean close to the International Date Line, twelve 40-foot (13.3 m) intermodal containers were washed overboard. One of these containers held 28,800 Floatees,[3] a child's bath toy which came in a number of forms: red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles and yellow ducks. At some point, the container opened (possibly due to collision with other containers or the ship itself) and the Floatees were released. Although each toy was mounted in a plastic housing attached to a backing card, subsequent tests showed that the cardboard quickly degraded in sea water allowing the Floatees to escape. Unlike many bath toys, Friendly Floatees have no holes in them so they do not take on water.

Seattle oceanographers Curtis Ebbesmeyer and James Ingraham, who were working on an ocean surface current model, began to track their progress. The mass release of 28,800 objects into the ocean at one time offered significant advantages over the standard method of releasing 500–1000 drift bottles. The recovery rate of objects from the Pacific Ocean is typically around 2%, so rather than the 10 to 20 recoveries typically seen with a drift bottle release, the two scientists expected numbers closer to 600. They were already tracking various other spills of flotsam, including 61,000Nike running shoes that had been lost overboard in 1990.

Ten months after the incident, the first Floatees began to wash up along the Alaskan coast. The first discovery consisted of ten toys found by abeachcomber near Sitka, Alaska on 16 November 1992, about 2,000 miles (3,200 km) from their starting point. Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham contacted beachcombers, coastal workers, and local residents to locate hundreds of the beached Floatees over a 530 mile (850 km) shoreline. Another beachcomber discovered twenty of the toys on 28 November 1992, and in total 400 were found along the eastern coast of the Gulf of Alaska in the period up to August 1993. This represented a 1.4% recovery rate. The landfalls were logged in Ingraham's computer model OSCUR (Ocean Surface Currents Simulation), which uses measurements of air pressure from 1967 onwards to calculate the direction of and speed of wind across the oceans, and the consequent surface currents. Ingraham's model was built to help fisheries but it is also used to predict flotsam movements or the likely locations of those lost at sea.

Using the models they had developed, the oceanographers correctly predicted further landfalls of the toys in Washington state in 1996 and theorized that many of the remaining Floatees would have travelled to Alaska, westward to Japan, back to Alaska, and then drifted northwards through the Bering Strait and become trapped in the Arctic pack ice. Moving slowly with the ice across the Pole, they predicted it would take five or six years for the toys to reach the North Atlantic where the ice would thaw and release them. Between July and December 2003, The First Years Inc. offered a $100 US savings bond reward to anybody who recovered a Floatee in New England, Canada or Iceland. More of the toys were recovered in 2004 than in any of the preceding three years. However, still more of these toys were predicted to have headed eastward past Greenland and make landfall on the southwestern shores of the United Kingdom in 2007. In July 2007, a retired teacher found a plastic duck on the Devon coast, and British newspapers mistakenly announced that the Floatees had begun to arrive.[4][5] But the day after breaking the story, the Western Morning News, the local Devon newspaper, reported that Dr. Simon Boxall of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton had examined the specimen and determined that the duck was not in fact a Floatee.[6]

Bleached by sun and seawater, the ducks and beavers had faded to white, but the turtles and frogs had kept their original colors.

Human Head Transplants Could Become A Reality By 2017

posted Mar 1, 2015, 12:18 PM by Ann Ransom

February 26, 2015 | by Justine Alford

Photo credit: XiXinXing/ Shutterstock

Head transplants, or body transplants depending on how you look at them, are not just a thing of quirky horror movies. The first documented procedure was carried out back in the ‘50s when surgeon and transplant pioneer Vladimir Demikhov grafted the head and forelimbs of a puppy onto the body of a different dog. Disturbingly, he followed this with his more famous work, which involved the creation of two-headed dogs. Unsurprisingly, none of his animals lasted for more than a few days.  

While ethically questionable, these procedures ultimately led to the first successful head transplant on a monkey in 1970 by Dr. Robert White, who was apparently inspired by Demikhov’s work. Although White demonstrated the feasibility of the procedure, he didn’t bother to attempt to fuse the spinal cords of the donor monkey with the recipient, so it was paralyzed and couldn’t breathe without assistance. Although little has been done subsequently, medicine has progressed by leaps and bounds since then. So much so that one neurosurgeon believes that the procedure could soon be carried out on humans, and he has just published an outline of what the surgery would potentially involve.

According to the doctor, Sergio Canavero, the major obstacles to success—such as the risk of the body rejecting the head—can now be overcome thanks to modern medicine, and with a few further advances, the procedure could be ready as soon as 2017. That being said, just because it can be done, that does not mean it will—there are major ethical issues that would need to be considered before it can be approved. Those aside, this kind of dramatic surgery could offer hope to people whose organs are plagued with cancer, or those who have suffered major accidents. That’s why Canavero is now trying to recruit a team to further explore the possibility of such a technique and plans to announce the project later this year, according to New Scientist.

So what would the surgery involve? First, the recipient’s head would have to be cooled to keep the cells alive, as would the recently deceased donor. Next, the neck is cut into and the blood vessels are hooked up by a series of small tubes. After the spinal cords are neatly severed, the head is then moved onto the donor body, which is ready for the trickiest and most crucial part: joining up the ends of the spinal cords.

To do this, Canavero suggests using a substance called polyethylene glycol, which would help fatty cell membranes meld together. The final part of the procedure involves stitching up the blood vessels and muscles before putting the patient into a coma for up to a month. After intense physiotherapy, the patient should be able to use their body and walk. Although there is a risk of rejection, as with any transplant, Canavero points out that immunosuppressive drugs should prevent this from happening.

However, many of the surgeons that the New Scientist contacted said the idea sounded “too outlandish,” while others simply refused to provide any remark at all. One of those who did comment was Harry Goldsmith, a clinical professor of neurological surgery at the University of California, Davis, who said: “This is such an overwhelming project, the possibility of it happening is very unlikely. I don't believe it will ever work.”

Alongside the ethical considerations of such a surgery, some have expressed concerns that it could lead to people wanting to exchange their bodies for cosmetic reasons, so obviously if it does become legalized, strict regulations will have to be in place. Since the idea has been met with some strong opposition by those in the field of medicine, and many believe it simply won’t work, it will be interesting to see what unravels over the next couple of years.

[Via New Scientist and The Guardian]

Soft, Transparent Eggshell Gives Unprecedented Look At Embryonic Development

posted Feb 8, 2015, 7:51 PM by Ann Ransom

See-Through Eggshell

The process of developing new
 medications is long and arduous. Testing with animals takes a considerable amount of time and resources, and there’s still no guarantee that what works in a mouse will work in a human. Lab-on-a-chip technology expedites the process by mimicking biological processes, with only a fraction of the resources needed in traditional approaches. This led to the development of various organs-on-a-chip. The same approach has now been applied to developing embryos. A new paper published in Science China Technological Sciences by researchers from Tsinghua University in Beijing describes new egg-on-a-chip technology that uses a soft, transparent eggshell to get unprecedented access to developing embryos by offering more life-supporting functions than have been available in previous on-a-chip devices.

Previously, developmental biologists who wished to see developing eggs relied on ‘windowing’ the shell. Essentially, a portion of the eggshell is very carefully cut out, allowing scientists to look inside. It is taped back into place, which protects the developing embryo, and allows for access later in development. Not only does this process run the risk of damaging or potentially contaminating the embryo, but it gives a very narrow view of the action. Attempting to culture embryos in other ways has been unsuccessful, as they have been unable to keep the embryo alive.

This new system offers a considerable advantage over older methods. The eggshell is made out of a biomaterial called PDMS (polydimethylsiloxane), which is transparent and has elastic properties. The 360-degree transparency of the shell will not only allow researchers to see into the eggs, but will also allow in vivo fluorescent imaging, which provides a considerable amount of information about genetic function. Additionally, it will be much easier to introduce other materials into the embryo during development.

Just as with other lab-on-a-chip technology, this egg-on-a-chip allows for experimentation with far fewer resources, making research much more efficient. The researchers have been conducting experiments with these eggshells for two years, and have been able to sustain the avian embryos for 17.5 days; fairly close to the total 21 day gestation. 

“With both high optical transparency and engineering subtlety fully integrated together, the present method not only provides an ideal transparent imaging platform for studying functional embryo development including life mystery, but also promises a future strategy for “lab-on-an-egg” technology which may be important in a wide variety of either fundamental or practical areas,” the authors write in the paper.

Check out the view provided by the transparent eggshell right here:

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