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Researchers have found a way to turn something as trivial and accessible as urine into a sustainable source of energy. This research was published in “ElectochimicaActa” and the researchers from the University of Bath, Queen Mary University of London and the Bristol Robotics Laboratory report the outlines of a microbial fuel cell that is more affordable, compact and with a lower power production than normal cells. This is why this discovery would be advantageous for developing countries.

The lead author of the research, Jon Chouler, said, “Our new design is cheaper and more powerful than traditional models. Devices like this that can produce electricity from urine could make a real difference by producing sustainable energy from waste.”

Bioenergy is becoming an increasingly attractive alternative to the world’s non-renewable sources of energy and with growing pressure to find new energy sources, what better to turn to biofuel and its producer: the microbial fuel cell?

Dr. Mirella Di Lorenzo, one of the authors of the research stated, “The world produces huge volumes of urine and if we can harness the potential power of that waste using microbial fuel cells, we could revolutionize the way we make electricity.” This revolutionary finding may be the start of an era of sustainable energy and a future of green electricity production, while saving our non-renewable resources (i.e. natural gas, petroleum, and coal).

Demonstration of urinal fuel cell plant with charging station for mobile phones. University of the West of England (UWE), Bristol.

Microbial fuel cells use specific types of bacteria and their processes to transform organic material into electrical energy. Microbial fuels are much more beneficial than the other methods of bioenergy production because they do not require any extreme conditions (i.e. they function at room temperature and pressure); they operate inexpensively and cause minimal waste.

On the other hand, there are two major set-backs to using microbial fuel cells. They are expensive to produce and do not produce as much energy as normal bioenergy fabrication techniques. But this newly designed microbial fuel cell does not make use of such costly materials for the cathode (an integral part of the bioenergy production process, usually made of platinum), instead, the new design uses titanium wire, carbon cloth and a catalyst made from glucose and ovalbumin (both found in food). The catalyst helps fasten the production process and generate extra energy. Dr. Di Lorenzo also stated, “We aim to test and prove the use of carbon catalysts derived from various food wastes as a renewable and low-cost alternative to platinum at the cathode”.

After the researchers found this perfect combination off cheap and sustainable materials for the fuels cells, they went on to alter the design. They found two ways to increase energy production by tenfold. One method was to double the electrode length and the other method was to stack three of the fuel cells up.

If this design proves to be marketable, it might possibly be one of the most sustainable discoveries made in decades and would allow for many of the world’s top non-renewable energy consumers to find a “greener” source of energy to rely on. This might be a major contributor to saving Planet Earth’s rapidly deteriorating environment.

The post From Urine to Electricity: The Wonders of Microbial Fuel Cells appeared first on Science Flips.

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Human beings have existed on Earth for nearly 200,000 years, and none of the many pathogens or natural disasters they faced has succeeded in wiping them out. So, worrying about humanity’s vulnerability to a strain of bacteria, superbugs or a virus seems like irrational pessimism. It’s pessimistic, certainly, but it’s not irrational.

Few people realize how tenuous human existence really is. For example, about 75,000 years ago, a huge volcanic eruption in what is now Lake Toba in Indonesia nearly eradicated the entire human race. The eruption killed all but a few thousand people worldwide. Seismologists say that such events are cyclical and that another one is overdue. Other natural threats include asteroid impact, nuclear war, and artificial intelligence. According to many experts, however, the most immediate threat doesn’t come from the heavens, machines, or from under the ground. It comes from bacteria and viruses.

Those experts say that a bacterial infection or viral epidemic wiping out humanity is unlikely in the foreseeable future, but it’s not impossible. What is much more likely, they say, it that a pathogen could kill huge numbers. Most people know about the Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918-19. In recent years the impact of that pandemic has been reevaluated. It is now thought to have killed more people than all the wars of the 20th century combined.

The Spanish flu happened at a time when mass global travel had not yet started. Now, millions of people traverse the globe every day, and so do the bugs they carry with them. Being cooped up on airplanes exacerbates the problem as does the fact that just over half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, most of which are becoming more densely populated every year. Contagious diseases spread quickly in these accommodating environments and, when a serious infection starts, authorities often don’t realize its extent until it is well established and more difficult to tackle. If a viral pandemic like the Spanish flu happened today, the number of casualties would likely be much greater than in 1918.

Penicillin and Drug Resistance

Until the discovery of penicillin in 1928, humanity relied on a combination of luck and the non-mobility of populations to contain most infectious diseases. Now, it relies mostly on the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry. These lines of defense are weakening, however. Many new and powerful antibiotics have been developed since 1928, but an increasing number of pathogens have acquired resistance to most of them. Up until the mid-1980s, the pharmaceutical industry had managed to stay a few steps ahead of the bugs by regularly producing more powerful antibiotics. Since then, however, it has produced very few new ones. At the same time, a number of pathogens have developed resistance to even the most powerful existing antibiotics. Those pathogens, commonly called “superbugs,” have evolved resistance faster than the pharmaceutical industry has developed drugs capable of fighting them.

Testing for bacterial resistance. Credit: Dreamstime

Unsurprisingly, an ever-growing number of people are succumbing to drug-resistant bacterial infections and many are dying as a result. The problem has been exacerbated by doctors and veterinarians carelessly over-prescribed antibiotics for decades. The more often a particular new drug is administered the quicker the targeted bugs develop resistance to it. Medical experts warn that this situation will worsen unless drastic action is taken globally.

This battle cannot be won by the pharmaceutical industry. That industry is profit driven and largely reactive. So it develops drugs only when there’s a market for them, i.e. when a disease is clearly identified and already active. Serious diseases, however, sometimes crop up unexpectedly, and millions of people can become infected and die before a suitable drug is developed, distributed, and administered. In military terms, that’s like waiting for the enemy to attack with its latest advanced weapon before even beginning to devise a strategy to counter it. That would be no way to protect a population from potential military aggression, which is why the military continuously spend huge amounts on researching and developing new weapons and defense systems, even though they know many will never be used.

Biological Weapons

There is another reason for a military approach to this problem: terrorism and biological weapons. Disease spread intentionally by a terrorist group has always been a worry for governments and the military. Until recently, however, it was regarded as a relatively minor worry because of the technical and logistical difficulties involved. That changed in 2002 when the first synthetic virus was created in a laboratory. As a result, it is now theoretically possible to create any virus in a laboratory if its genome sequence is known. That includes viruses regarded until recently as being extinct.

Fireman with biological hazard protection suit. Credit: Fedecandoniphoto/ Dreamstime

In 2014, to help promote research into new vaccines, the US National Institute of Health published a database online of the full genome sequences of over 3,800 viruses. The database includes the genome sequence of the smallpox virus. That deadly virus was eradicated from the human population some years ago and the only existing strains of it are held in just two secure locations, one in Russia and the other in the US. Because the disease was eradicated, vaccinating most people against it ended some years ago. If somehow the virus reappeared today, most of the human race would be vulnerable.

When European settlers first reached the Americas, they carried many diseases, including smallpox. Because the Native American population had never been exposed to those diseases before, they had no immunity. An estimated 70% of them died as a result.

The sad fate of the Native American should be instructive. Yet the amount governments worldwide spend on medical research and general disease preparedness today is a tiny fraction of their military budgets, despite disease killing vastly more people than wars. Those absurd statistics show that governments have yet to grasp the glaring lessons of history. As the 18th century Anglo-Irish parliamentarian, Edmond Burke warned, “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

The post The Growing Threat of Superbugs and Viruses appeared first on Science Flips.

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The unspeakably vast expanse of space presents a practically infinite place to explore and so far, mankind has barely scratched the surface. Today, a number of missions continue to explore the planets of our own solar system, just a minuscule speck in the Milky Way galaxy alone, while space telescopes hunt for another Earth, a life-supporting world orbiting a star beyond our own. Space is home to many truly fascinating and unimaginable things including the greatest forces of nature in existence and countless billions of new worlds to explore.

It might be easy for space to appear boring, particularly if you aren’t aware of any of the following real places out there in the Universe. On the other hand, science fiction tends to portray as fascinating, yet it does so unrealistically. The real Universe is even stranger than anything you might have seen in science fiction. Space is home to the extreme, the bizarre and even the completely inexplicable.

UY Scuti, the Largest Known Star

Since the stars look like nothing more than tiny specks of light in the night sky, it is important to remember that our own Sun is a star not unlike billions of others in our galaxy alone. The stars are just much, much further away. The Sun is a class G yellow dwarf star about half way through its ten-billion year lifespan. It has a diameter about 109 times that of Earth, or about 865 thousand miles.

UY Scuti is a red hypergiant star 9,500 light years from Earth. What’s special about UY Scuti is its phenomenal size, making it the largest star known to exist. With a diameter of 1.5 billion miles, it is 1,700 times wider than the Sun. Placed in our own solar system, it would extend far beyond the orbit of Jupiter and possibly even engulf the orbit of Saturn.

This enormous star, like many supergiants and hypergiants, will likely end its life with a supernova, the most ferocious force known to nature. This tremendous explosion in which particularly large and massive stars end their lives will obliterate everything for trillions of miles around, creating a huge and colourful nebula from which a new solar system may form.

Comparison of planets and stars with UY Scuti being the largest known star. Credit: Jcpag2012 /Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 MACS0647-JD, One of the Most Distant Galaxies

We all know that space is incredibly big, but when we speak of the most distant objects in the observable universe, the distances involved become truly unimaginable. Using infrared imaging with the combined power of the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, MACS0647-JD was discovered in November, 2012 and is now a candidate for the most distant observable galaxy from Earth. It is so far away that it has taken light 13.3 billion years to reach us, hence it being 13.3 billion light-years away. That’s equal to a considerable 78 septillion (78 followed by 24 zeros) miles. This means that we are seeing the galaxy as it was 13.3 billion years ago, when light started the immeasurably long journey to get all the way to Earth. Until that point, it was simply invisible to us, as is the case with more distant objects.

By observing extremely distant galaxies like MACS0647-JD, scientists are able to learn more about the history of the Universe. MACS0647-JD was formed when the Universe was only 420 million years old, which not much time when it comes to cosmic evolution. The galaxy is very small as well, being only a fraction of the size of our own, the Milky Way. However, this is also how we are seeing it now. Today, the galaxy could be quite similar to our own which is also almost as old as the Universe itself. Perhaps it is even home to solar systems like our own and advanced forms of life – we will simply never know.

The most distant known galaxy MACS0647-JD spotted by Hubble telescope. Credit: NASA Sagittarius A*, the Centre of the Milky Way

Sagittarius A* lies at the centre of the Milky Way galaxy, about 26,000 light-years from Earth. When you see a picture of the Milky Way or a similar galaxy, you will see that the centre is an enormously dense and bright area filled with billions of dying stars, surrounded by spectacular swirling arms of stars and stellar clouds. Sagittarius A* is believed to be the site of a supermassive black hole, a star that is so enormously dense that its gravity has become so powerful that even light cannot escape it.

It is now thought that supermassive black holes lie in the centre at most, if not all galaxies. When supermassive stars end their lives, they tend to either explode as a supernova or compact into an infinitely dense mass where the laws of physics basically break down. Since nothing can travel faster than light, absolutely nothing can escape once it has passed through the event horizon which marks the border of a black hole. Effectively, this means that the star becomes invisible. Black holes last for billions of years but, eventually, they evaporate in what is called Hawking radiation.

Absolutely nothing remotely Earth-like could exist in or near the centre of the Milky Way. It is highly dense with billions of dying stars such as white dwarfs, black holes and stellar remnants left over by supernova explosions. Cosmic radiation levels are also extremely high. It seems impossible that humanity could ever visit the centre of the Milky Way, or even any other stars for that matter, and this is not only because of the impossible distances involved.

Sagittarius A at the center of the galaxy. Credit: ESO/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0 SGR 1806-20, a Magnetar 50,000 Light-Years from Earth

Magnetars are a rare type of neutron star, a stellar remnant of a dying star with a particularly powerful magnetic field strong enough to destroy your old floppy disk collection from millions of miles away. When smaller stars get old, they expand into the red giant stage and afterwards start to collapse inward, becoming things like neutron stars and white dwarfs. Magnetars are the rarest and only 21 have ever been discovered.

SGR 1806-20 is located on the far side of the Milky Way galaxy in the constellation of Sagittarius. It is currently, as of 2013, the most highly-magnetized object to have ever been observed. Even more incredibly, SGR 1806-20 is only twelve miles long, rotating every 7.5 seconds. In spite of its tiny size, it has a mass of more than twelve times that of the Sun. It is also about three million times brighter than the Sun. If you were to pick an amount of matter the size of a grain of sand from SGR 1806-20, it would weigh more than a jumbo jet!

SGR 1806-20 neutron star. Credit: NASA Titan, the Only Celestial Body in the Solar System with Lakes and Rivers

Titan is the largest moon of the ringed gas giant planet of Saturn. It is also the second-largest moon in the Solar System, being slightly more voluminous than even the planet Mercury. What makes Titan most unique, however, is that it is the only moon in the Solar System to sport anything more than a negligible trace atmosphere. It is also the only celestial body beyond Earth to have stable bodies of liquid on its surface.

Just like Earth, Titan has lakes and rivers, but these are quite different to those which we know here on Earth. Titan’s extremely cold surface temperatures averaging about -180°C mean that water would only exist in the form of ice as hard as granite. However, instead of flowing with water, the rivers on Titan flow with a mixture of liquid methane and ethane which only exist as a gas in natural conditions on Earth.

Methane thunderstorm on Titan. Credit: Science Flips based on Shutterstock

As if this were not bizarre enough, Titan also has a climate which, in many ways, is similar to Earth. It snows and rains with ethane and methane and it has storms, including a permanent hurricane on the south pole. Geologically, Titan is a young world with few craters and a surface marked by high plateaus and sandy dunes.

Titan’s uniqueness prompted NASA to launch a landing module as part of the highly successful Cassini-Huygens mission. In 2005, the Huygens landing module landed on a soft and slightly viscous orange surface beneath the thick layer of orange haze and clouds of the atmosphere, taking the only surface photos of a celestial body beyond Mars. It has been hypothesized that Titan could be home to life which is based around a methane cycle instead of water.

The post Five of the Strangest Places in the Universe appeared first on Science Flips.

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We all want faster and more powerful computers and devices that consume less and less energy to save battery power. So far, researchers and manufactures were able to produce ever smaller microprocessors that doubled in performance every year and so followed a predicted trajectory of performance increase commonly known as Moore’s law.

However, as circuits on microprocessors reached the nanometer scale, the problems of further miniaturization accumulated due to increasing heat buildup and reduced reliability. Some scientists see the limit of miniaturization at about 2-3 manometers which should be reached by about 2020 and constitutes a natural limit of traditional microprocessor technology due to unpredictable quantum effects.

To further increase the speed and performance of computers and devices, new strategies and technologies are required. Beside the use of quantum technology, implementation of laser guided data transfer has been a recent research focus.

Tiny Laser Breakthrough

Now, there has been a breakthrough in the world of lasers. An international group of scientists was able to place tiny lasers directly onto silicon. This has not been possible before and has opened exciting new opportunities in the semiconductor industry and provides a development platform for new super-fast microprocessors.

“Putting lasers on microprocessors boosts their capabilities and allows them to run at much lower powers, which is a big step toward photonics and electronics integration on the silicon platform.”

Professor Kei May Lau from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Usually, lasers used for commercial applications are pretty big, with the average size of 1 mm x 1 mm. Lasers smaller than this typically suffer from large mirror loss, which made it very difficult to get fully functional lasers at a smaller size. However, the group of scientists figured out a way!

They used “tiny whispering gallery mode lasers” which were 1 micron in diameter. That’s 1,000 times shorter in length and 1 million times smaller in area than the typical, commercial lasers used today! Current “whispering gallery mode lasers” have already been used for on-chip optical communications, chemical sensing, and other data processing applications. With those new tiny lasers, the integration of light based data transfer in all kind of electronic devices seems now feasible.

“Photonics is the most energy-efficient and cost-effective method to transmit large volumes of data over long distances. Until now, laser light sources for such applications were ‘off chip’ — missing — from the component,” Lau explained. “Our work enables on-chip integration of lasers, an [indispensable] component, with other silicon photonics and microprocessors.” It is expected we will see their tech coming into the market within the next decade.

Laser Integration on Silicon Chips

The group of scientists was able to integrate subwavelength cavities (which was the main makeup for their tiny lasers) onto silicon, meaning they could then create high-density on-chip light-emitting elements, or lasers. For this process to work, they had to first find a way to fix silicon crystal lattice flaws until the cavities were basically equal to cavities grown on lattice-matched gallium arsenide, GaAs, substrates. These Nano-patterns they created on silicone to fix the flaws on the GaAs templates made them nearly flawless. This made lasing possible on the new templates because the electrons were confined within the quantum dots grown there.

After they got the nearly perfect templates, they were able to use optical pumping. Optical pumping is a process where light, not electrical currents, “pump” electrons from an area of lower energy levels in an atom (or molecule), to an area with higher levels. This shows whether or not the device can work as a laser, and they demonstrated their product could indeed function as a laser.

Future Applications

Now that tiny, high-performance lasers have been able to be placed directly on silicon wafers, a new world has been opened up. Next-gen microprocessors will be able to run even faster and consume less power. This is possible because of both the lasers size and performance capabilities. Because the lasers are small, they take up less power while putting out just as high-performance levels. When you put lasers on a microprocessor, their capabilities will instantly be boosted and able to run at a lower power, which is a giant step for photonics and electronic integration using silicon as the platform.

This new breakthrough has big implications for all things electronic. It is expected that these new, high-performance lasers will be immediately picked up by the high-speed data communication industry. Gaming could be much faster, data transfers could be done in the blink of an eye, the possibilities are limitless and Moore’s law remains intact for now.

The post Tiny Lasers Speed up Computers appeared first on Science Flips.

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The scientific community recently announced the development of a new process in the field of gene splicing that could change the course of medical treatment, as well as lead to other beneficial uses. The method, called CRISPR-Cas9, invented at UC Berkeley in 2015, uses special types of bacteria and enzymes to replace pieces of RNA and DNA. The technique’s simplicity and efficiency is expected to facilitate genetic engineering for medicine, agricultural and energy production.

What is CRISPR?

CRISPR stands for “clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats.” The complexity of the name alone can make most peoples’ eyes glaze over, but the technique has taken the genetic engineering field by storm. CRISPR relies on prokaryotic DNA, a particular type of cell structure found in bacteria. These bacteria have repeating patterns of DNA that are interspaced with unique sequences found in viruses that are part of human’s natural disease-fighting immune system. CRISPR places pieces of DNA into these special sequenced areas, transcribing them into RNA. Special enzymes that can cut up invading viruses, called “cas,”or “crispr associated genes” are always located near these unique sequences. In collaboration, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier from UC Berkeley found that the specific enzyme called Cas9 is particularly efficient in doing the cut-up operations on genetic sequences. As virus DNA clusters in these special sequence areas, a certain type of enzyme called Cas9 then carries the transcribed RNA through the body, replacing the sequence wherever it finds a match.

Genome Editing with CRISPR-Cas9 - YouTube

Why is CRISPR so Important

In the past, processes to modify genetic sequences have been laborious and costly, which held back the more widespread use of this biotechnology. CRISPR allows a more focused approach that will allow genetic microbiologists to target specific genes easily and in multiple sections. It can be used to cheaply and efficiently cut out detrimental genes from the code and modify them permanently.

Practical Uses for CRISPR

In the field of medicine, CRISPR can be used to alter the course of many genetic diseases by targeting and modifying the genes associated with the disease. It could potentially allow engineering improved heart function and resistance to viruses. In agriculture, CRISPR can be used to eliminate susceptibility to plant diseases such as powdery mildew, which destroys millions of acres of crops each year. In the energy field, CRISPR can be used to alter how algae are produced for a truly sustainable source of energy for the future. The potential uses for CRISPR gene engineering is only beginning to be explored and could change society in profound and exciting ways.

The Known Unknowns and the Unknown Unknowns

Because CRISPR can be used to radical change the structure of living things, more research must be done to ensure that unexpected consequences do not appear because of its use. For example, more studies must be done to ensure that the bacteria used in CRISPR does not mistakenly attack other genes or cause unusual changes in the genetic sequencing other than on targeted sites. If the technique can be used to alter detrimental genes, it can also be used to create advantageous changes, such as “designer babies” with particular eye color, hair color, intelligence level and skills. In addition, genetic alteration is never a simple matter, and the possibility of negative effects must always be taken into account. The ethical considerations of gene alteration must be considered in advance of widespread use of the technique for commercial purposes.

Like many developments today, CRISPR offers a method to improve the health of the human population and assure abundant resources for the future. However, further research is necessary to ensure that its implementation continues to be a help, and not a burden, to the society. For instance, CRISPR-Cas9 inventor Doudna warned of the consequences of editing the human genome and urged the first address the societal and ethical issues of further CRISPR research and clinical applications.

The post Brave New World – The Dawn of CRISPR Genetic Engineering appeared first on Science Flips.

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The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is a cutting-edge space observatory that is slated to launch in October 2018.  Designed to be the primary space observatory for the next decade, the JWST is considered to be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, with plans to both complement and expand upon contemporary discoveries.  Using innovative design and engineering, its goal is to implement a broad range of astronomical and cosmological investigations with hopes to revolutionize current comprehension of the universe.

Conceived in 1996 by members of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency, astronomers and engineers were intoxicated by the idea of building a bigger telescope with increased range and abilities.  The next frontier of space exploration seemed to lie in the infrared spectrum.

Artist’s impression of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

Why exactly is infrared capability important?  Newly formed stars and planets are cradled in cosmic dust that absorbs visible light.  Infrared light has the ability to penetrate through this dust cloud, thereby exposing what lies inside. Furthermore, visible light from objects in the farthest reaches of the universe is subject to being stretched by the expansion of the universe.  By the time this light reaches earth, it lies in the long-wavelength infrared range. While Hubble does have some infrared capacity, the JWST has 100 times the sensitivity of current technology and will be able to offer up unprecedented imaging of astronomical objects.

In order to build a telescope with the power to operate into the most distant corners of space, this new creation had to be engineered differently.  To start, the JWST would need a gigantic mirror to reflect all of the infrared light for which it was created.  The mirror that has been designed is 6.5 meters across and has a collecting area roughly five times as large as Hubble’s.  Due to its enormous size, the mirror cannot fit onto its launching rocket, the Ariane 5. Scientists had to segment the mirror into panels that will unfold once in space.

Another obstacle was heat generated by the sun.  For the JWST to operate best, it would require a temperature of about -233 degrees Celsius — a mere 40 degrees above absolute zero.  To make this possible, engineers have designed a multi-layered sunshield that will reduce solar heat to approximately one-millionth its normal value.  Perhaps the most terrifying aspect about the entire project for scientists is that once in orbit, the JWST will be 1.5 million kilometers from Earth.  Unlike Hubble, which suffered optical complications that were corrected by a space shuttle mission, this telescope will be too far from Earth for any attempts at repair should there be a problem.

Construction of the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA. Credit: Desiree Stover/ NASA

Mission goals for the JWST include measuring the physical and chemical properties of planetary systems, understanding the formation of stars and planets, and imaging star-forming clusters.  Perhaps the most important and absolutely mind-blowing outcome the JWST hopes to achieve is to uncover evidence of the first galaxies or luminous objects formed after the Big Bang.  In theory, it could be looking into the infancy of the universe and perhaps, just perhaps, detecting signs of life.

The James Webb Space Telescope is a revolutionary astronomical observatory that is being built with the hopes of supplementing current knowledge and then surpassing what is known about the universe.  Using state-of-the-art engineering, the JWST will be the first of its kind to detect infrared light at such a high resolution.  Twenty years in the making, it has been an undertaking of epic proportions, involving countless scientists and engineers.  When launched in 2018, the James Webb Space Telescope will carry with it not only the most ground-breaking technology, it will also carry the hopes of many for discovering the origins of the universe.

Reference: James Webb Space Telescope/ NASA

The post Eye in the Sky – The Next Generation Space Telescope appeared first on Science Flips.

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If karma can apply to insects than the special relationship between the praying mantis and the hairworm has to illustrate it better than most. The praying mantis is a beautiful but ruthless creature. It’s predatory, hungry and looks evil with its’s 180 degree rotating triangular head, long front limbs with spikes and jaw-dropping reflexes. This is a creature that feasts on a variety of small insects such as moths, grasshoppers, crickets and flies.

The mantis usually lies in ambush, completely still, while it waits for its next meal. With a long green or brown body, the mantis is well camouflaged in its natural habitat. Once its beady compound eyes have latched onto its latest prey, it’s usually not long before that insect is warming the mantis’ belly. With spikes attached to its front raptorial limbs, any hapless prey is quickly overcome. Pinned down and helpless, the praying mantis consumes its prey greedily. It even has three simple eyes at the back of its head. What could stop this king of the insect predators?

Praying Mantis. Credit: Lazydaz/ Dreamstime Controlled by a worm

Unfortunately the praying mantis is also a victim of its own success. The prey it eats can often wreak its revenge from beyond the grave. This can happen if the prey taken is host to the microscopic larvae of the parasitic hairworm (Chordodes formosanus). When the praying mantis eats an infected insect, it also consumes the hairworm larvae, which starts to grow rapidly inside it.

Before long the abdomen of the praying mantis contains a hungry hairworm several centimeters long. This hairworm has one aim, to reach sexual maturity and reproduce. It needs water to do this; so as well as chewing on the mantis from the inside it secretes proteins which seize control of the mantis’ nervous system. Not only is the hairworm consuming the mantis from the inside and turning it into a husk, it’s also able to order it around.

Parasitic hairworm emerging from praying mantis. 

By the time it has reached sexual maturity the hairworm can be as much as one meter long. Needing water to reproduce, the hairworm orders the poor mantis into water so it can be excreted. Befuddled, the mantis proceeds to drown itself in the nearest body of water; a sort of watery suicide by proxy. Like some creature in a science fiction movie, the hairworm escapes through the anus of the mantis, looking to breed.

By the time the hairworm leaves its rear end the mantis is little more than a shell. The hairworm can only reach full maturity by hollowing out the mantis completely, even if that means eating all the internal organs. Even then it must pack itself tight inside the mantis’ abdomen.

Impact on reproduction

Not that it will care too much at this stage, but the male mantis will also by now be suffering from shrunken testes. Its opportunities to reproduce – unlike the hairworm – have been thwarted. The hairworm optimizes the energy it draws from the male mantis while in effect castrating it. By doing this it even prevents the stricken mantis from passing on its genes before it perishes.

If the mantis is female, reproductive capabilities are not diminished by the parasite – it can still produce offspring. It’s not known why there is this bias between male and female mantis hosts. Scientists suspect it may have something to do with how the hairworm tampers with development hormones. Males may keep more juvenile qualities than females, although both sexes when infected appear smaller and less adult.

A deadly and efficient parasite, Chordodes formosanus helps balance out the karma within the insect kingdom. The ferocious praying mantis can be humbled by a simple worm, which once ingested rots it from within.

The post The Worm That Controls the Praying Mantis appeared first on Science Flips.

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In tropical oceans around the world lives an eccentric family of snails that possesses one of the most complex and powerful venoms in the world. The cone snail ranges in size between about a thimble and a very small traffic cone. It produces a geometric cone for a shell, often decorated with intricate patterns and vibrant colors. Many pharmaceutical companies have already derived compounds from cone snail venom, and researchers are currently investigating its effects on diseases such as addiction, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and many more.

This is not your garden-variety snail for a simple reason: it hunts. The snail possesses a special tooth tipped with a hypodermic needle-like harpoon. Inside the tooth flows the cone snail’s venom, and when it pierces the flesh of its prey, its paralyzing effects take place almost instantaneously. With its prey incapacitated, the snail then swallows it whole.

The Venom

The venom of the cone snail contains over 100 different toxins – known specifically as conotoxins – that combine to achieve deadly results. The exact cocktail varies between species. Every conotoxin is comprised of a chain of amino acids, known in chemistry as a peptide. Each individual peptide targets a specific nerve receptor that corresponds to a process within the body. For example, some cone snail venom contains a form of insulin that depletes a fish’s blood sugar and makes them black out, allowing the snail to eat it at its leisure.

Because of the huge variety of peptides in the venom, the snails can be sure that they’ll be able to hack the nervous system of whatever creature they’re dealing with. While the sting of smaller snails is no worse than that of a bee, the venom of larger ones can be fatal to humans. Researchers in the field of medicine have been hard at work separating these peptides and discovering what role they play.

Cone snail attacks brittle star. Credit: Astrid Gast/ Dreamstime Pain Relief

The most successful so far is the medication known as Prialt. The medication serves as an extremely potent pain-reliever that is over 1,000 times more powerful than morphine. It has proven highly effective for anyone suffering from intense chronic pain who is immune to traditional pain relief, like morphine or other opioids. Another huge benefit is that it has no addictive qualities.

Addiction

Not only can cone snail venom cut the pain without the risk of addiction, it can also work to inhibit substance abuse. Every toxin works by blocking a neuron receptor in the brain, including those that cause us to lose control with drug and alcohol use. Neuroscientist J. Michael McIntosh of the University of Utah successfully treated animals in the laboratory of addictive tendencies, and there is good reason to believe it will be effective with humans as well.

Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple Sclerosis, or MS, is a disease that disrupts the central nervous system and neural pathways within the brain along with its ability to communicate with the rest of the body.  According to Dr. Charles Galea from Monash University, the disease develops by creating pores in walls of immune cells. These pores then provide a pathway for chemical messengers to pass through. Given enough time, these messengers eventually disrupt the normal goings on of the cell and trigger the disease.

Dr. Galea has shown cone snail venom can halt this process that stimulates MS in animal test subjects.

Diabetes

While the peptides contained within cone snail venom will block a neural pathway, that does not always translate into halting an action within the body. It can also trigger other processes.

One conotoxin produced by the cone snail, for example, has been found to provide fast-acting relief for diabetes patients who let their blood sugar slip too low. It is a form of insulin, and it works on many fish by depleting their blood sugar, causing them to black out and enter a coma. With humans, however, it actually triggers the production of insulin.

As a bonus, it works incredibly quickly. For diabetes patients who struggle to manage their insulin levels, the conotoxin has proven effective as a fallback when their blood sugar gets too low.

Much of this research is ongoing, and other studies not mentioned in this article are currently studying the effects of the venom on Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s syndrome, and even cancer. With time, the cone snail may become instrumental in fighting the most significant diseases afflicting society today.

The post The Venom From This Aquatic Cone Snail Fights Addiction, Diabetes, and MS appeared first on Science Flips.

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The mind is a strange thing. Humans are not even aware of the brain’s full potential, and only use a small portion of their brain cells. The possibilities for intellectual growth seem limitless. On the other end of the spectrum, however, are great numbers of individuals who experience mental malfunctions. Physical trauma to the brain is easily diagnosed, but many develop disorders with no outward indication of damage. Here are some of the strangest mental disorders that have had psychologists puzzled for decades:

Aboulomania

Have you ever been paralyzed with indecision? Maybe you’ve had to make a choice that seemed impossible, and felt as though you couldn’t go on until you decided your course of action. Those who suffer from aboulomania experience this in an extreme form. While they are otherwise normal in their mental functioning, they randomly encounter situations in their daily lives that require them to make a decision, but “cause” them such a high level of anxiety that they can no longer function normally. It can be as simple as trying to decide what to wear or what to have for breakfast; there are no patterns to the sudden paralysis. They are simply stuck agonizing over a simple choice.

Boanthropy

Those who suffer from boanthropy believe that they are an ox or cow of some sort. They will eat grass, meander in fields, and attempt to live the life of a bovine. Psychologists have no idea why people develop this disorder. Theories include the idea that an individual may dream of being a cow and continue the delusion into their waking lives. Other theories revolve around hypnotism. Boanthropy appears to have been around since at least the time of Nebudchadnezzer, the leader of the Babylonion Empire, who was believed to suffer from this disorder. Accounts of his behavior say that, “he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen.”

Erotomania

Have you ever met someone who was so self-absorbed he couldn’t imagine anyone not liking him? In an extreme version of that delusion, sufferers of erotomania believe someone is in love with them. They often focus on individuals of higher social status, often a celebrity. The delusion is difficult to break, even if the “admirer” confronts that person, proclaiming no romantic feelings whatsoever.

Capgras Syndrome

Capgras syndrome is Invasion of the Body-Snatchers come alive. Sufferers believe that someone, usually a friend or family member, has been kidnapped and replaced with an identical impostor. While this is a common occurrence in those suffering from schizophrenia, it has also been recorded in patients diagnosed with seizure disorders, dementia, or traumatic brain injuries. The disease is usually treated with anti-psychotics, but results tend to be scattered.

Stockholm Syndrome

In cases of Stockholm syndrome, a captive individual begins to hold positive associations with their captor, showing them loyalty, compliance, and sympathy. In most cases, the captives are brainwashed to believe that their previous life was a lie, or their loved ones did not care about them. Treating this syndrome is a difficult and time-consuming process, often involving psychiatric care and drugs.

Munchausen Syndrome

Sufferers of Munchausen syndrome have a compulsive need to cause themselves harm or sickness in order to gain the attention of loved ones and medical professionals. Even stranger is Munchausen syndrome by proxy, wherein someone (usually a mother or caregiver) tries to attract attention by making someone else sick. Some might compare this disease to hypochondria, but there is a significant difference: hypochondriacs believe they have the disease, while Munchausen suffers are aware they are exaggerating or lying about their physical condition.

Cotard Syndrome

Zombies may be all the rage in today’s pop culture, but people with Cotard syndrome sincerely believe they are dead, dying, decaying, or missing all of their blood and/or organs. This is another disorder that is commonly seen in schizophrenic patients, although it was not officially recognized by the medical community until 2004.

Bigorexia

Bigorexia could be described as the opposite of anorexia. Instead of trying to get tiny, an individual is obsessed with gaining muscle mass and becoming large. Extremely vain and constantly worried about their appearance, bigorexics frequently check their mirrors. They may become severely agitated if they have to skip their regular workout. Most often, they use steroids to help them achieve their goals.

Bibliomania

As a form of hoarding, bibliomania causes individuals to obsessively collect and store books. This is not the average book lover, though. It can only be classified as this disorder if the behavior is over-the-top; the book hoarder might have more than one copy of the same book, or their need to collect books interferes with social or professional relationships.

Trichotillomania

Trichotillomania, a particularly destructive form of OCD, is indicated by a person’s compulsive urge to pull out their hair a single strand at a time. Usually, this is not just the hair on a person’s head, either. They might rip out eyelashes, arm hair, eyebrows, or any other hair on their body. In some extreme cases, the individual feels compelled to eat the hair, as well.

Many people pride themselves on their eccentricity, but they usually act in such a way deliberately, simply to be perceived as “strange.” For those who truly are suffering from rare and damaging disorders, being strange is a burden they must struggle to control. They can’t help their dysfunction, and until scientists figure out all the complex workings of the human brain, these disorders will continue to be a source of wonderment.

The post The Top 10 Strangest Mental Disorders appeared first on Science Flips.

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One of the major issues that mankind always had is that aging seems to be inevitable. But the reality is that there are some creatures, like sea urchins, that manage to adapt and avoid aging in a variety of ways. For example, they are regrowing their feet and spines in case they get damaged, not to mention that some of these species live year after year without any sign of aging or loss of body repair capabilities. Even reproduction seems to be unaffected by old age in the case of sea urchins.

James A. Coffman, an MDI Biological Laboratory Associate Professor studies the regenerative process of sea urchins so that he can better understand why we age and sea urchins don’t. This is interesting to track especially since humans and sea urchins do have a very interesting and close relationship from a genetic standpoint. In a recently published work in the journal “Aging Cell”, he and co-author Andrea G. Bodnar from the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Studies state that the physical decline you can find with aging isn’t something we can’t avoid, especially if you study sea urchins.

Of course, there are multiple types of sea urchins. The red sea urchin (Mesocentrotus franciscanus) has a life expectancy of 100 years, while the purple one (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) living for 50 years and the variegated one (Lytechinus variegatus) living for only 4 years. But the differences between their life expectancy don’t have anything to do with their regenerative capacity which is nothing short of interesting. Instead, it’s a characteristic of that specific species. According to Coffman the sea urchins aren’t aging at all, even if some of them are indeed short lived. These findings are contradicting most of the knowledge we have about our body’s regenerative abilities and it clearly manages to make us wonder if we can harness such a capability.

The MDI Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine is focused specifically on studies related to increasing the lifespan as well as tissue regeneration. Their main focus is to transform the ideas they discover into cures. They study a multitude of organisms in order to find valid ways of regenerating tissues and repairing them.

The theory we agree on is that aging is a side effect of genes with increasingly harmful expressions as the organism gets closer and closer to maturity and in particular after reproduction. But what Coffman and Bodnar found is that even the variegated sea urchin which has a very low life expectancy doesn’t seem to suffer any issue with its regenerative capacity. What we can see from here is that the idea of senescence might not be fully tied with a shorter life expectancy.

There are plans for more studies on this matter, especially on how the sea urchins are maintaining their regenerative capability despite being short lived. Another focus of this research will be on maintaining the body functions despite having an old age through help from the immune system. There might be chances to better understand how we can maintain our body functions at a youth state, but only time and a lot of research might be able to offer us the answer!

The post Can We Avoid Aging? Sea Urchins Can! appeared first on Science Flips.

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