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Humanity is in the midst of a “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic” that could have a severe impact on our health unless something is done at an institutional level to change things, a leading expert in the field warned Sunday during an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian.

Matthew Walker, director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley and author of the new book Why We Sleep, explained that failing to get enough slumber each night could increase our risk of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and other severe health issues.

Sleep deprivation, he explained during the interview, is anything less than seven hours. A 2013 Gallup poll found that 40% of all Americans slept six hours or less each night. Furthermore, the national average was just 6.8 hours per night, and 14% of people a maximum of five hours.

Similarly, the US National Institutes for Health (NIH) reported that an estimated 50 to 70 million Americans have chronic or ongoing sleep disorders – a finding which is problematic, they added, as sleep deficiency has been linked to health problem such as heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, obesity, depression and increased risk of injury.

“One in three of us suffers from poor sleep, with stress, computers and taking work home often blamed. However, the cost of all those sleepless nights is more than just bad moods and a lack of focus,” the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) added. “Regular poor sleep puts you at risk of serious medical conditions… a solid night’s sleep is essential for a long and healthy life.”

Why aren’t we getting enough sleep, and how do we fix the problem?

One of the main reasons for this, Walker told The Guardian, is the proliferation of technology and our tendency to use it just before bedtime. Work, commute time, anxiety and the availability of caffeine and alcohol also play key roles in this trend, he added. However, he also emphasized that people in the developed world seem to take pride in sleep deprivation.

“Humans are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent reason,” he explained. “We have stigmatized sleep with the label of laziness. We want to seem busy, and one way we express that is by proclaiming how little sleep we’re getting. It’s a badge of honor.”

“When I give lectures, people will wait behind until there is no one around and then tell me quietly: ‘I seem to be one of those people who need eight or nine hours’ sleep,’” Walker added. “It’s embarrassing to say it in public. They would rather wait 45 minutes for the confessional. They’re convinced that they’re abnormal, and why wouldn’t they be? We chastise people for sleeping what are, after all, only sufficient amounts. We think of them as slothful.”

Walker believes that the problem has gotten so bad that it can no longer be solved at the level of the individual: lawmakers, employers and other institutions need to take steps to ensure that men and women are getting at least the seven hours of sleep required for them to function normally.

“No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation. It sinks down into every possible nook and cranny. And yet no one is doing anything about it. Things have to change: in the workplace and our communities, our homes and families,” he told The Guardian, adding that sleep “needs to be prioritized, even incentivized.”

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Image credit: Getty

The post Sleep deprivation a ‘catastrophic’ health issue, expert warns appeared first on Redorbit.

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Odds are, most people haven’t spent a lot of time pondering the specifics of duck penises, but a researcher from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts has spent more than a decade investigating their genitalia and has published a new study detailing her findings.

As study author Patricia Brennan, a visiting lecturer of biological sciences at the institution, told National Geographic earlier this week, she didn’t even realize until near the end of her graduate school work that birds could even have penises. In fact, 97% of them do not, she explained.

Male ducks are one of the exceptions, and unlike most species, they grow a new one each year. Most of the time, they are hidden, but you can convince a duck into showing you his by turning him over onto his back and applying pressure to his belly, Brennan noted. “If you know exactly where to press, you can pop the penis out. They’re quite cooperative.”

The topic of her latest research, however, involves investigating the factors into what determines the size of a duck’s penis – which interestingly enough, is corkscrew shaped, Brennan explained. Specifically, she wanted to see whether or not competition with other males would cause a duck to grow a larger penis than those facing less – ahem – stiff competition from rivals.

Trying to ‘sneak in some copulations’ before the group leader

As Brennan and her colleagues reported in the journal The Auk: Ornithological Advances, they gathered two different types of ducks with two vastly different mating systems (ruddy ducks and lesser scaups) and split them into either pairs or groups of five females and eight males.

Ruddy ducks, she explained, are highly promiscuous, usually copulate by force, never naturally form pair bonds and tend to have larger penises, the researchers explained in a statement. Lesser scaups, on the other hand, do tend to form seasonal pair bonds, typically have small penises and are far less likely to try to force themselves onto females.

All of the ducks were kept in outdoor aviaries during the breeding season over a two year span, and the study authors found that, as expected, lesser scaups tended to have longer average penis length when they were housed in larger groups containing multiple other males.

However, things were a little more complex with the ruddy ducks, as a significant number of males failed to reach sexual maturity until year two of the experiment. Once they did, those in groups grew their penis more quickly, but the timing of penis growth varied from duck to duck and only one alpha male maintained his reproductive organ for an extended period of time.

“Everybody else grows a penis very quickly,” Brennan told Nat Geo, “trying to sneak in some copulations before the [dominant] male starts beating them up.” Once they did so, their penises quickly returned to a non-reproductive state, making the ruddy duck one of the rare species that modifies its genitalia in response to its social environment.

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Image credit: Image: Kurt Bauschardt/Flickr

The post Sexual rivals can influence the size of a duck’s penis appeared first on Redorbit.

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Using the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered a most unusual exoplanet that absorbs 94% of the visible light given off by its host star, making it seem as if it is pitch-black in color, according to research published last week in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

This unusual world, officially known as WASP-12b, is a “hot Jupiter” – a giant gas planet which orbits very closely to its sun and which is heated to extreme temperatures – NASA explained in a statement. In this case, its day side reaches temperatures of up to 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit.

The reason that WASP-12b can reach such extreme temperatures, Popular Science explained, is because it is just two million miles from its host star, meaning that it can complete a trip around its sun in 1.1 Earth days. Conditions are so hot on the exoplanet that reflective clouds are unable to form, meaning that incoming light penetrates deep into the planet’s atmosphere.

That incoming light is absorbed by hydrogen atoms and converted to heat energy, NASA stated, and this steady conversion of light-to-heat makes the planet appear to be pitch-black to onlookers, the researchers found. To the human eye, the exoplanet appears to be as black as fresh asphalt.

“We did not expect to find such a dark exoplanet. Most hot Jupiters reflect about 40 percent of starlight,” said lead investigator Taylor Bell of McGill University and the Institute for Research on Exoplanets in Montreal. He added that the discovery “further demonstrates the vast diversity among the strange population of hot Jupiters,” some of which can be thousands of degrees cooler than WASP-12b.

Strange exoplanet is tidally locked, has extremely low albedo

Originally discovered in 2008, WASP-12b is an egg-shaped exoplanet that is about twice as big as Jupiter, and because of its close proximity to its sun, it is tidally locked– which, as Space.com explained, means that the same side of the planet (the day side) is always faces its host star.

Despite knowing of the planet’s existence for nearly a decade, though, scientists did not know just how dark WASP-12b was before observing it with the Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph instrument last October. Those observations revealed that it had a reflectance (or albedo) of no more than 0.064 – much lower than that of Earth (0.37) or the moon (0.12).

That’s one way to put it. (Credit: NASA)

The low reflectance means that the planet essentially consumes 94% of the light that it receives from its host star, converting it into heat and allowing it to maintain its scorching temperatures, NASA explained. For the sake of comparison, Bell noted that most hot Jupiters reflect about 40% of the sunlight they receive, making this distant gas giant (located around 1,400 light years from Earth) an oddity – even if it is not the only dark exoplanet of its kind to be discovered.

“There are other hot Jupiters that have been found to be remarkably black, but they are much cooler than WASP-12b,” Bell said, according to Space.com. “For those planets, it is suggested that things like clouds and alkali metals are the reason for the absorption of light, but those don’t work for WASP-12b because it is so incredibly hot.”

“Past observations of hot Jupiters indicate that the temperature difference between the day and night sides of the planet increases with hotter day sides,” he added. “This previous research suggests that more heat is being pumped into the day side of the planet, but the processes, such as winds, that carry the heat to the night side of the planet don’t keep up the pace.”

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Image credit: NASA

The post Astronomers discover extremely hot, pitch-black exoplanet appeared first on Redorbit.

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While ants have a reputation for being intensely hard workers, previously published research has actually shown that at any given time, more than one-third of the ants in any given colony spend most of their time doing absolutely nothing – and now scientists think they know why.

In 2015, researchers from the University of Arizona found that approximately 40% of the ants in observed groups were almost totally inactive while their colleagues worked tirelessly to complete tasks essential to the colony’s survival. Further study revealed that these ants were not just being lazy – inactivity was their “specialization,” like how some ants foraged or built nests.

“Interestingly, we found laziness to be a behavior in itself,” Daniel Charbonneau, a grad student in the university’s Entomology and Insect Science department and one of the author of the 2015 paper, said at the time in a statement. At the time, however, the reason for this behavior remained unknown. Now, however, he and his colleagues believe that they’ve solved the mystery.

Writing in a recent edition of the journal PLOS One, Charbonneau, his professor (and co-author of the original study) Anna Dornhaus and Takao Sasaki from the University of Oxford explained that these so-called lazy ants are actually a reserve workforce that step in and pick up the slack if active workers need to be replaced. To borrow a sports analogy, they’re bench players.

“Serving as a replacement workforce is a long-held suspicion about the function of ‘lazy’ ants, but it was just an assumption, and never had been empirically confirmed,” Dornhaus noted last week in a statement. So she and her colleagues conducted experiments to put this notion to the test.

Removed ‘bench players’ are not replaced, researchers found

While observing a colony of ants belonging to the species Temnothorax rugatulus, Charbonneau and his co-authors identified and removed the ants that represented the top 20% of the workforce – those ants deemed to be the most active – to see how the inactive workers would respond.

Within one week, they found that these “bench players” stepped up and took over the roles that had been vacated by the ants that were no missing. These ants increased their levels of activity to match those of the lost workers, and the colony went about business as usual, they explained.

Charbonneau said that the ants being monitored were marked with paint on their head, thorax and abdomen so that they could be tracked in recorded  video footage. Since they studied these ants in the wild, he said that they did not know “how quickly their populations turn over in their natural habitat.” But, he added, “it doesn’t take much for a colony to lose a bunch of workers.”

In a separate experiment, Charbonneau and Dornhaus removed the least active 20% of the ants and found that, unlike the hardest workers, these ants were not replaced. In other works, ants that were busy building or foraging were not removed from those tasks to replace lost members of the inactive workforce.

“My speculation is this: Since young workers start out as the most vulnerable members of the colony, it makes sense for them to lay low and be inactive,” said Charbonneau. “And because their ovaries are the most active, they produce eggs, and while they’re doing that, they might as well store food. When the colony loses workers, it makes sense to replace them with those ants that are not already busy pursuing other tasks.”

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Image credit: Jen Fogarty/(C) AntWeb.org

The post ‘Lazy’ ants found to be ‘bench players’ in ant colonies appeared first on Redorbit.

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For the first time, a scientist has found concrete evidence supporting a old tale by famed German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt in which he described electric eels leaping up from the water to attack horses – and the author of the new study put his own body on the line to do so.

That brave (or foolish, depending upon your perspective) man was Ken Catania, a neurobiologist at Vanderbilt University who reached into a tank containing a small electric eel 10 times in order to obtain accurate measurements of the circuit connecting created by eel, body part and water.

As the university said in a statement, the measurements allowed Catania “to solve an equation he can extrapolate to measure the power released by bigger eels,” some of which can be up to 8 feet in size or longer. His findings also support von Humboldt’s story, the New York Times added.

As Catania explained in a previous study, von Humboldt purportedly observed electric eels leap from the water to attack horses, pressing themselves against the horses’ legs while zapping them. Once the eels had exhausted their current, they could be safely collected, he said. While this tale has persisted, the behavior had not been seen again by scientists for more than two centuries.

In 2016, Catania reported finding “a defensive eel behavior that supports Humboldt’s account.” He saw an eel leap from the water and press its chin against an apparent threat while discharging high-voltage energy – behavior that would allow the eel to defend itself during the Amazon dry season, he explained in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Large eels ‘more powerful’ than ‘a law enforcement Taser’

Now, as NPR reported on Thursday, the Vanderbilt neurobiologist has taken his research to the next level – measuring the electric potential of these eel as part of an August study  and allowing the creatures to actually shock his arm in order to see what their discharge actually feels like.

In the journal Current Biology, Catania revealed that the small eel delivered a current that peaked at about 40 to 50 milliamps, but his calculations indicate that a larger one would pack far more of a punch. Such a shock, he told NPR, would be “much more powerful… and [come] at a pulse rate that is higher than the pulse rate given off by a law enforcement Taser.”

Based on his current and previous work, Catania found that eels use this ability to capture prey or to protect itself from perceived threats. They disable or paralyze their prey by delivering current through the water, and wrap around larger creatures in order to shock them directly by forming a circuit. He first observed this behavior while trying to remove them with a metal-handled net.

“Electric eels, in my experience, had never done something like that where they come out of the water, and they did it in a very directed way,” he explained to NPR, adding that he heard their electrical output over a speaker. “I knew that when they were attacking the net in this way, they were simultaneously giving off a high voltage discharge. That clue led me to think, ‘Well, maybe this is sort of a defensive behavior.’”

Study finds that eels can remotely control victims’ nervous system

“As the eel came up out of the water, the voltage that I recorded increased in proportion to height. The higher they got, the higher the voltage and that suggested why they might be doing this,” Catania added. So, naturally, he decided to find out what would happen when the eel came into contact with a living animal – specifically, him.

He allowed an eel approximately one foot in size to zap his arm while he held onto a device that would measure the strength of the creature’s current. He told NPR that he was not worried about becoming injured, noting “if you work around electric eels a lot, occasionally you’re going to get shocked anyway. so I kind of knew what I was in for.”

The sensation was similar to touching a hot stove or an electric fence, he told the Times, and it even caused him to reflexively withdraw his arm from the water. “The fact that there’s an animal out there that can remotely control your nervous system, I think is a pretty amazing thing.”

While the experience was most likely not the most pleasant one in the world, Catania told NPR that the research was informative. “It does allow us now to think about and make some pretty reasonable estimates about, ‘Given an eel of size X and water resistance of a known resistance, how much power would one of these eels be able to divert to a human being that was standing in the water?’”

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Image credit: Vanderbilt University

The post Researcher puts his own body on the line to test eel’s shock power appeared first on Redorbit.

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Traces of DNA discovered in soil samples collected from warm caves located beneath the ice of Antarctica suggest that the region may be home to never-before-seen plant and animal species, a new study published earlier this week in the journal Polar Biology has revealed.

According to BBC News, a team of researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra and the University of Waikato in New Zealand discovered “intriguing traces of DNA from mosses, algae and small animals” in caves located near an active volcano on Ross Island.

Steam originating from that volcano, Mount Erebus, created the caves by heating and hollowing out the ice, the British media outlet explained. In fact, as lead researcher Dr. Ceridwen Fraser of ANU noted, the caves “can be really warm – up to 25 degrees Celsius in some caves. You could wear a T-shirt in there and be pretty comfortable.”

The region also appears to be comfortable to other types of species as well, as Dr. Fraser and her colleagues discovered DNA in soil samples collected from those caves. While the majority of the DNA resembles that of plants and animals found in other parts of Antarctica, some of the genetic sequences could not be completely identified using forensic analysis.

“The results from this study give us a tantalizing glimpse of what might live beneath the ice in Antarctica,” Dr. Fraser said in a statement. In fact, she added, “there might even be new species of animals and plants” waiting to be discovered in these warm, subglacial caverns.

New species of plants and animals may inhabit these caves

As an active volcano, Mount Erebus has hollowed out an extensive cave system on Ross Island, the researchers explained, creating a geothermal region which could be home to a “microrefugia” or a small area inhabited by relict plant or animal species that have managed to survive.

However, as co-author Laurie Connell from the University of Maine emphasized, the discovery of these yet-unidentified traces of DNA does not conclusively prove that the caves are currently home to plants or animals. “The next steps,” she said, “will be to take a closer look at the caves and search for living organisms. If they exist, it opens the door to an exciting new world.”

The scientists have good reason to be hopeful, as University of Waikato professor Craig Cary told BBC News, as previous research revealed the existence of a wide array of bacteria and fungi living in volcanic caves in Antarctica. “The findings from this new study suggest there might be higher plants and animals as well,” he added.

While that possibility still needs to be verified, the authors believe that their discovery provides evidence to support the possibility that geothermal areas, including subglacial ecosystems, could cultivate biodiversity in icy regions such as Antarctica. Furthermore, since Antarctica is home to many volcanoes, there could well be several other sub-glacial cave systems located across the continent.

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Image credit: : Eli Duke/Flickr

The post Researchers find ‘intriguing’ DNA in warm Antarctic caves appeared first on Redorbit.

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Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin have developed a new pen-like device that could allow doctors to more quickly and accurately identify and remove tumors during surgery, allowing them to distinguish between cancerous and healthy cells in as little as 10 seconds.

Described in a study published in a recent edition of the journal Science Translational Medicine, the instrument is a diagnostic tool called the MasSpec Pen. It uses tiny water droplets to analyze human tissue samples for cancer and is 96% accurate, the inventors explained in a statement.

“If you talk to cancer patients after surgery, one of the first things many will say is ‘I hope the surgeon got all the cancer out.’ It’s just heartbreaking when that’s not the case.” lead researcher and assistant chemistry professor Livia Schiavinato Eberlin, said. “Our technology could vastly improve the odds that surgeons really do remove every last trace of cancer during surgery.”

According to NBC News reports the pen-shaped device works in real time and is as accurate as taking a tissue sample and sending it to a pathologist. It is also less invasive, since it requires no tissue to be cut, and proved able to detect tumors in marginal regions between normal tissue and cancerous tissue – mixed composition cells that otherwise might have been overlooked.

Improving tumor detection while requiring less healthy tissue removal

The MasSpec Pen has a disposable nozzle, New Scientist explained, and when placed on tissues believed to be cancerous, it absorbs biological material such as fat and protein that is analyzed by a mass spectrometer. The spectrometer searches for compounds that make lung, breast and other types of cancer cells different from healthy ones using algorithms to search a database.

“Cancer cells have dysregulated metabolism as they’re growing out of control,” explained Eberlin. “Because the metabolites in cancer and normal cells are so different, we extract and analyze them with the MasSpec Pen to obtain a molecular fingerprint of the tissue. What is incredible is that through this simple and gentle chemical process, the MasSpec Pen rapidly provides diagnostic molecular information without causing tissue damage.”

The instrument can deliver a response in as little as 10 seconds, and in tests involving 253 human tissue samples, it proved to be 96% accurate. It was also successfully tested on live mice growing human breast tumors, according to NBC News, and the researcher team said that they plan to test the device during oncologic procedures beginning sometime next year.

“Any time we can offer the patient a more precise surgery, a quicker surgery or a safer surgery, that’s something we want to do,” said James Suliburk, head of endocrine surgery at the Baylor College of Medicine as well as a member of the research team. “This technology does all three. It allows us to be much more precise in what tissue we remove and what we leave behind.”

“The speed and accuracy of our device could really help on treatment options and decisions,” Eberlin told New Scientist, adding that approximately one-tenth of all cancer relapses are due to the re-growth of tissues missed during surgery. At the same time, she and her colleagues pointed out that the pen could help improve patient survival by reducing how much healthy tissue winds up being removed in an attempt to eliminate tumors.

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Image credit: Vivian Abagiu/Univ. of Texas at Austin

The post New ‘cancer pen’ can detect the tumors in just 10 seconds appeared first on Redorbit.

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One of the world’s most endangered mammals uses an rudimentary (and highly unusual) brand of democracy when attempting to decide whether or not to go on a hunt: they come together in a social gathering and cast their votes by sneezing, according to newly-published research.

Writing in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers from Swansea University, the University of New South Wales and Brown University explained that African wild dogs held so-called “social rallies” and used sneezing as a “quorum” when deciding if they should hunt.

As BBC News reported on Wednesday, the study authors observed the behavior in wild dogs at the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, recording the details of 68 individual gatherings and noticing that the higher number of sneezes there were, the more likely the pack was to hunt.

Previously, the British media outlet noted, experts believed that the creatures were sneezing just to clear their airways. However, the new research demonstrates that it serves as for the wild dogs to cast their vote in favor of resuming their pursuit of food following the gatherings, which came at the end of a brief rest period. Such behavior has never before been observed in a species.

“The dogs were sneezing while preparing to go,” Dr. Neil Jordan, senior author of the study as well as a research fellow at the UNSW Centre for Ecosystem Science, said in a statement. “The more sneezes that occurred, the more likely it was that the pack moved off and started hunting. The sneeze acts like a type of voting system.”

Not all votes carry the same amount of weight, however

As the New York Times pointed out, other species use similar methods to express their desire to move on as a group – for example, gorillas use grunts and honeybees make a piping sound – but African wild dogs are the first species observed using sneezes as part of a democratic process.

The African wild dogs tended to hold their vote during the “social rallies,” which are energetic greeting periods that follow a rest period, Dr. Jordan and his colleagues said. However, they also found that some votes carried more weight when it came to the decision-making process.

“We found that when the dominant male and female were involved in the rally, the pack only had to sneeze a few times before they would move off,” explained first author Reena Walker, a zoologist at Brown University. “However, if the dominant pair were not engaged, more sneezes were needed – approximately 10 – before the pack would move off.”

“The sneezes act as a type of quorum, and the sneezes have to reach a certain threshold before the group changes activity,” added co-author Dr. Andrew King of Swansea University. “Quorums are also used by other social carnivores… but our finding that the quorum number of sneezes changes, based on who’s involved in the rally, indicates each dog’s vote is not equal.”

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Image credit: Andrew King

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A pair of solar flares, including the most powerful one in more than a decade, were detected by  NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory sun-monitoring probe early Wednesday morning, experts at the US space agency confirmed in an announcement released later on in the day.

The first of the two flares was classified as an X2.2 flare and peaked at 5:10 am EDT, while the second was a larger X9.3 flare that peaked at 8:02 am EDT, NASA reported. X-class flares, they noted, are the most intense, while the number reveals more information about their strength.

“An X2 is twice as intense as an X1, an X3 is three times as intense, etc,” the agency explained. The X9.3 flare was the strongest observed since an X9.0 in December 2006 and the eighth most powerful since at least June 1996, according to Smithsonian.com and SpaceWeatherLive.com.

Both of the flares erupted from AR 2673, an active region on the sun which was also responsible for producing a mid-level solar flare on Monday, NASA said. They added that the X9.3 flare was the largest produced thus far during the current solar cycle, an 11 year period of the sun’s waxing and waning activity that began back in December 2008.

Sun Erupts With Monster X9 and X2 Flares - YouTube

Event caused radio blackouts, but should not affect hurricane monitoring

Space.com and the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) reported that the second, more powerful of the flares resulted in high-frequency radio blackouts over a “wide area,” and that those blackouts caused “loss of contact for up to an hour” over the planet’s sunlit side. Low frequency communication, including that used for navigation, was also affected.

Unfortunately, the solar flares come at a bit of an inopportune time for those of us on Earth (and especially in the US), as many are relying on weather satellites to continue monitoring Hurricane Irma and other Atlantic-based storms. Fortunately, experts do not foresee any disruptions.

“The satellites are designed very specifically to take into account these kinds of events,” SWPC physicist Terry Onsager told LiveScience. While some older satellites could be hampered when hit with charged particles and strong magnetic fields from the sun, the probe which is providing images of Irma – GOES-16 – is new, having just been launched last November, he noted.

The size of the second flare is somewhat usual, according to Smithsonian.com, since the sun is currently at solar minimum, or the period of lowest activity during its 11-year cycle. However, as Onsager told LiveScience, this status is based more on the frequency of flares, not their potential intensity. “We can have large space weather events at any time during the solar cycle,” he said.

For the record, the largest flare ever recorded – at least, dating back to June 1996 – was an X28.0 that occurred on November 4, 2003, according to SpaceWeatherLive.com. It was one of only two flares known to have been categorized at least X20.0, with the other coming in April 2001.\

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Image credit: NASA

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The mosquito-borne Zika virus has been feared because of the damage it can do to the brains of developing fetuses, but a new study published this week in the Journal of Experimental Medicine has discovered that the pathogen could actually be used to treat brain cancer in adults.

According to BBC News, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic and the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have found that injecting the Zika virus into adult mice suffering from a form of brain cancer caused tumors to shrink without damaging other cells.

As the study authors explained to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Zika is harmful to unborn children because it targets stem cells in their still-developing brains. However, adult brains have far fewer stem cells, and they can be resistant to chemotherapy in patients suffering from a specific type of aggressive brain cancer known as glioblastoma.

Glioblastoma is the most common form of brain cancer, the researchers noted in a statement. In the US, roughly 12,000 people are diagnosed with the disease each year. In most cases, it proves fatal within one year of diagnosis, as affected stem cells often prove resistant to traditional forms of treatment (including chemotherapy), leading to a recurrence within six months.

“We showed that Zika virus can kill the kind of glioblastoma cells that tend to be resistant to current treatments and lead to death,” said Dr. Michael S. Diamond, a professor of medicine at Washington University and co-senior author of the new study. The breakthrough could one day provide a new treatment option for those suffering from the disease.

Safer, less potent version currently be testing in the lab

Dr. Diamond and his colleagues decided to test whether or not Zika’s tendency to attack stem cells in unborn babies could be weaponized against glioblastoma, testing its effectiveness in both living mice and in donated samples of human brain tissue, according to BBC News reports.

The infected tumors with one of two strains of Zika, and found that the virus spread through the tumor and killed cancer-infected stem cells while avoiding other cells, suggesting that Zika could be used to complement chemotherapy and other treatments. Furthermore, they reported that mice with brain tumors who were injected with Zika virus experienced significant shrinkage of tumors in just two weeks and survived longer than those injected with a saltwater placebo.

As Live Science noted, the use of Zika to treat brain tumors in humans remains a long way off, as additional research is needed to prove that it can be both safe and effective. The research team is working to genetically modify the virus to make it weaker and less likely to cause disease, the website noted, and early experiments show that this mutated strain can still effectively target and eliminate glioblastoma-infected stem cells in vitro, although it was said to be less potent.

“We’re going to introduce additional mutations to sensitize the virus even more to the innate immune response and prevent the infection from spreading,” said Dr. Diamond, who is also a professor of pathology and immunology. “Once we add a few more changes, I think it’s going to be impossible for the virus to overcome them and cause disease.”

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Image credit: (Jeffrey Arguedas/EFE/Zuma Press/TNS)

The post Scientists looking to weaponize the Zika virus against brain cancer appeared first on Redorbit.

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