Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Hiroshima scientists create transparent frogs

"A research team led by professor Masayuki Sumida at Hiroshima University’s Institute for Amphibian Biology has created a type of transparent frog whose internal organs are visible through its skin. The researchers say the see-through frogs can help in the study of diseases and in the development of medical treatments by allowing laboratory scientists to check the status of internal organs and blood vessels while the frogs are alive and without having to dissect them.

According to Sumida, the transparent frog is the result of breeding two specimens of Japanese brown frog (Rana japonica) that had a genetic mutation giving them pale skin. By selectively breeding their offspring, the researchers were able to create a frog that remains transparent for its entire life cycle. Most of the world’s known transparent creatures live underwater, and transparent four-legged animals are extremely rare.

The researchers also say that by fusing the genes of fluorescent proteins to the frog’s genes, they can create frogs that glow. Glowing frogs can help scientists study specific “problem” genes by providing a real-time visual indication (i.e. the frogs glow) when those genes become active.

Professor Sumida says, “Transparent frogs will prove useful as laboratory animals because they make it easier and cheaper to observe the development and progress of cancer, the growth and aging of internal organs, and the effects of chemicals on organs.”

The results of the research will be announced at a meeting of the Zoological Society of Japan on September 22."

Friday, September 21, 2007

Scientists say 'hobbit' was not modern human

"U.S. scientists, wringing their hands over the identity of the famed "hobbit" fossil, have found a new clue in the wrist.

A Homo Erectus skull, left, a cast taken from a skull that is said to be that of a new species in the evolution of man named 'Homo Floresiensis', center, and the cast of a modern Homo Sapiens skull

Since the discovery of the bones in Indonesia in 2003, researchers have wrangled over whether the find was an ancient human ancestor or simply a modern human suffering from a genetic disorder.

Now, a study of the bones in the creature's left wrist lends weight to the human ancestor theory, according to a report in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

The wrist bones of the 3-foot-tall (0.91 meter) creature, technically known as Homo floresiensis, are basically indistinguishable from an African ape or early hominin-like wrist and nothing at all like that seen in modern humans and Neanderthals, according to the research team led by Matthew W. Tocheri of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

That indicates that it is an early hominin and not a modern human with a physical disorder, they contend.

"It seals the deal," Tocheri said in a telephone interview.

The specimen he studied lived on the Indonesian island of Flores about 18,000 years ago, a time when early modern humans populated Australia and other nearby areas.

Scientists had thought humans had the planet to ourselves since Neanderthals died out about 30,000 years ago, and the discovery of Hobbits indicates another evolutionary cousin who coexisted longer, Tocheri said.

It is not known whether humans and Hobbits coexisted on that island, he said, but it is clear we shared the planet for some time.

"Basically, the wrist evidence tells us that modern humans and Neanderthals share an evolutionary grandparent that the hobbits do not, but all three share an evolutionary great-grandparent. If you think of modern humans and Neanderthals as being first cousins, then the hobbit is more like a second cousin to both," Tocheri said.

When the bones were first discovered some scientists declared them the remains of a new, dwarf species of human ancestors. Because of its tiny stature it was quickly dubbed the "Hobbit," from the creature in the books by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Dean Falk of Florida State University said the new report helps confirm that conclusion.

"This is exciting and should help settle things," she said. "The authors are to be congratulated, not only for describing important new details about 'Hobbit,' but for shedding light on the evolution of the wrist and how it might have related to tool production."

But others have questioned whether it was really a new species. Robert D. Martin of the Field Museum in Chicago and co-authors challenged the original classification, arguing that it appears to be a modern human suffering from microencephaly, a genetic disorder that results in small brain size and other defects.

There are things that can go wrong in the development of the wrist, Tocheri said, but they do not result in a complete change of design from modern human to chimpanzee or gorilla wrist.

Nonetheless, Martin said he is standing by his position.

"My take is that the brain size of (that specimen) is simply too small. That problem remains unanswered," he said in a telephone interview.

"People ask me whether this new evidence changes anything, well it doesn't," he said. "I think the evidence they've presented is fine, it's the interpretation that is problematic.""

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

World’s Languages Dying Off Rapidly

"Of the estimated 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, linguists say, nearly half are in danger of extinction and are likely to disappear in this century. In fact, they are now falling out of use at a rate of about one every two weeks."

Read the entire article in the NY Times here.

Surprise strategy: Bees smother enemies

"Cyprian honeybees don't smother their enemies with kindness — they just smother them to death, research shows.

This novel strategy has never been seen before in insects, "and probably in all animal species," apidologist Gerard Arnold at the National Center of Scientific Research in France said.

Cyprian honeybees (Apis mellifera cypria) do possess stingers to defend themselves. However, their archenemy, the Oriental hornet (Vespa orientalis), is protected from such attacks by their hard body armor. The predatory hornets tend to attack bee colonies en masse in the middle of the autumn, explained researcher Alexandros Papachristoforou of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece.

Previous studies revealed Asian honeybees can kill hornets by completely engulfing them, making the predators die from the heat inside the ball of bees — a strategy dubbed "thermo-balling."

However, Oriental hornets are theoretically resistant to thermo-balling, adapted as they are to the hot and dry climate of Cyprus. Although the heat inside a thermo-ball can reach 111 degrees F (44 degrees C), the heat-resistant Oriental hornet only keels over at temperatures of 122 degrees F (50 degrees C) or more.

Now scientists find Cyprian honeybees can kill hornets by suffocating them, a strategy the researchers have dubbed "asphyxia-balling."

"The domestic bee has never ceased surprising us," Arnold said. "Under stressful conditions, honeybees can develop remarkable mechanisms in order to survive."

The scientists collected live insects from Cyprus and took them back in their hand luggage for study in their labs. "Knowing that the hornets could somehow destroy the cage that you have trapped them" was "a very funny and uncomfortable situation," Papachristoforou recalled.

Hornets normally breathe via small openings in their sides called spiracles. These are covered by structures known as tergites.

In their experiments, the researchers saw that bees mob the guts of hornets, covering the spiracles. To see if the bees killed the hornets using smothering, the scientists held open the tergites of some hornets with tiny plastic blocks. They found bees took twice as long to kill such modified hornets—roughly two hours instead of one.

"To kill the high-temperature-tolerant hornet, Cyprian honeybees have developed an alternate strategy to thermo-balling and stinging," Papachristoforou said. "They appear to have identified the hornets' 'Achilles heel' by asphyxiating the predator."

Papachristoforou, Arnold and their colleagues will detail their findings in the Sept. 18 issue of the journal Current Biology."

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Alex Wanted a Cracker, but Did He Want One?

For those of you who read the story of the passing of Alex the research parrot in an earlier post, here's a more detailed article from the NY Times, along with a video of Alex.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Planet Of No Apes? Experts Warn It's Close

"Great apes have rich emotional lives and share strong family bonds. They laugh when they are tickled, cry when they grieve. They can make and use tools. They think about their past and plan for their future.

But many won't have a future to plan for, conservationists say.

The Western Gorilla - the most common gorilla in the world - is now "critically endangered," just one step away from global extinction, according to the 2007 Red List of Threatened Species released Wednesday by the World Conservation Union.

The Ebola virus is depleting populations to a point where it might become impossible for them to recover. Commercial hunting, civil unrest and habitat loss due to logging and forest clearance for palm oil plantations are compounding the problem, said the Swiss-based group, known by its acronym, IUCN.

"Great apes are our closest living relatives and very special creatures," Russ Mittermeier, head of IUCN's Primate Specialist Group, told The Associated Press. "We could fit all the remaining great apes in the world into two or three large football stadiums. There just aren't very many left.""

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Gifted research parrot Alex found dead

"Alex, a parrot who could count to six, identify colors and even express frustration with repetitive scientific trials, has died after 30 years of helping researchers better understand the avian brain.

The cause of Alex's death was unknown. The African Grey parrot's average life span is 50 years, Brandeis University scientist Irene Pepperberg said. She said Alex was discovered dead in his cage Friday but she waited to release the news until this week so grieving researchers could get over the shock and talk about it.

"It's devastating to lose an individual you've worked with pretty much every day for 30 years," Pepperberg told The Boston Globe. "Someone was working with him eight to 12 hours every day of his life."

Alex's advanced language and recognition skills revolutionized the understanding of the avian brain. After Pepperberg bought Alex from an animal shop in 1973, the parrot learned enough English to identify 50 different objects, seven colors, and five shapes. He could count up to six, including zero, was able to express desires, including his frustration with the repetitive research.

He also occasionally instructed two other parrots at the lab to "talk better" if they mumbled, though it wasn't clear if he was simply mimicking researchers.

Pepperberg said Alex hadn't reached his full cognitive potential and was demonstrating the ability to take distinct sounds from words he knew and combine them to form new words. Just last month, he pronounced the word "seven" for the first time.

Pepperberg said the last time she saw Alex was Thursday. They went through their goodnight routine, in which she told him it was time to go in the cage and said: "You be good, I love you. I'll see you tomorrow."

Alex responded, "You'll be in tomorrow.""

Blue Danube

Last week I was invited to attend the Steinway premiere of their 'Black Tie' tuxedo line at Steinway Hall in Manhattan, across from Carnegie Hall.

This was the couple (Anderson and Roe) that performed for us. I especially appreciated this particular piece (which they closed with), as it's what I *tried* to perform at my grandparent's 50th wedding anniversary many years ago! Who knew I needed a second pair of hands?

If interested, you can learn more about them here.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

What will happen when machines outthink us?

"At the center of a black hole there lies a point called a singularity where the laws of physics no longer make sense.

In a similar way, according to futurists gathered Saturday for a weekend conference, information technology is hurtling toward a point where machines will become smarter than their makers. If that happens, it will alter what it means to be human in ways almost impossible to conceive, they say.

"The Singularity Summit: AI and the Future of Humanity" brought together hundreds of Silicon Valley techies and scientists to imagine a future of self-programming computers and brain implants that would allow humans to think at speeds nearing today's microprocessors.

Artificial intelligence researchers at the summit warned that now is the time to develop ethical guidelines for ensuring these advances help rather than harm.

"We and our world won't be us anymore," Rodney Brooks, a robotics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the audience. When it comes to computers, he said, "who is us and who is them is going to become a different sort of question."

Eliezer Yudkowsky, co-founder of the Palo Alto-based Singularity Institute, which organized the summit, focuses his research on the development of so-called "friendly artificial intelligence." His greatest fear, he said, is that a brilliant inventor creates a self-improving but amoral artificial intelligence that turns hostile.

T-minus 22 years?
The first use of the term "singularity" to describe this kind of fundamental technological transformation is credited to Vernor Vinge, a California mathematician and science-fiction author.

High-tech entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil raised the profile of the singularity concept in his 2005 book "The Singularity is Near," in which he argues that the exponential pace of technological progress makes the emergence of smarter-than-human intelligence the future's only logical outcome.

Kurzweil, director of the Singularity Institute, is so confident in his predictions of the singularity that he has even set a date: 2029.

Most "singularists" feel they have strong evidence to support their claims, citing the dramatic advances in computing technology that have already occurred over the last 50 years.

In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore accurately predicted that the number of transistors on a chip should double about every two years. By comparison, singularists point out, the entire evolution of modern humans from primates has resulted in only a threefold increase in brain capacity.

With advances in biotechnology and information technology, they say, there's no scientific reason that human thinking couldn't be pushed to speeds up to a million times faster.

Is the ‘nerdocalypse’ near?
Some critics have mocked singularists for their obsession with "techno-salvation" and "techno-holocaust" _ or what some wags have called the coming "nerdocalypse." Their predictions are grounded as much in science fiction as science, the detractors claim, and may never come to pass.

But advocates argue it would be irresponsible to ignore the possibility of dire outcomes.

"Technology is heading here. It will predictably get to the point of making artificial intelligence," Yudkowsky said. "The mere fact that you cannot predict exactly when it will happen down to the day is no excuse for closing your eyes and refusing to think about it.""

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

"Researchers at IBM will have two papers published in the journal Science this week detailing how it may be possible to use individual atoms, or groups of atoms, to store data or act as a transistor.

The work revolves around harnessing magnetic anisotropy, a property of atoms. Something is anisotrophic if it has different values when it faces in different directions. If a substance is anisotrophic and the orientation of the substance can be controlled, then the orientation--the theory goes--of the atom can come to represent the 1s and 0s of digital computing.

Potentially, atomic-level storage or switching could result in incredibly tiny computers. With atomic storage, you could fit a 1,000 trillion bits of information in an iPod, according to IBM estimates.

In the first paper, titled "Large Magnetic Anisotropy of a Single Atomic Spin Embedded in a Surface Molecular Network," researchers described how they arranged individual iron atoms with a scanning tunneling microscope on a specially prepared copper surface. With the atoms in place, the researchers were then able to measure the strength and orientation of the anisotrophy of the individual atoms.

The second paper, meanwhile, describes the performance of a switch created from two hydrogen atoms inside an organic molecule called naphthalocyanine. Researchers have made single-atom switches before, but the molecules had a tendency to change shapes. This problem has not, so far, surfaced in the IBM molecular switch. (Interestingly, IBM discovered the properties of naphthalocyanine by accident. It was studying the molecule in a separate project, on vibration.)"