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Updated: 3 hours 33 min ago

A Lick Of The Tongue Changes This Ice Cream’s Color

4 hours 33 min ago

Xamaleón as it changes. IceXperience

At first, it’s a delightful shade of periwinkle blue.  Then, it turns into a lilac purple before settling on a vibrant magenta.

No, these aren’t the stages of your old mood ring.  Believe it or not, this is the colorful transformation of the new ice cream Xamaleón, which is designed to change colors as you lick it.

The evolving dessert is the brainchild of Spanish physicist, engineer and professor Manuel Linares, who can now add “modern day Willy Wonka” to his resume.  Inspired by the likes of Charlie Francis, creator of fluorescent ice, Linares said he wanted to create a kind of ice cream that had never been seen before.

The result was Xamaleón, which is Spanish for “chameleon.” With a patent pending, Linares is staying tight-lipped on the recipe, but apparently there’s a special ingredient dubbed the “love elixir,” which must be spritzed on the ice cream before it’s eaten.  The mysterious concoction somehow reacts to your saliva and changes in temperature to transform the cream into its different delightful colors.

Linares claims the ice cream, which tastes like tutti-frutti, contains natural ingredients, such as strawberries, cocoa, almonds, bananas and more.  At his ice cream parlor in Calella de Mar in Barcelona, business is through the roof, according to the Mirror.

And the former physicist isn’t stopping there. notes he’s planning on making another ice cream called Xamán, which contains medicinal plants from Peru and Africa that produce an aphrodisiac effect.  I think I’ll hold out for that flavor instead.

Milky Way Has The Mass Of 800 Billion Suns, Study Finds

Wed, 07/30/2014 - 16:15

As Seen From Earth Science@NASA, Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Astronomers have performed yet another checkup on our home galaxy, this time asking it to step on a scale. The Milky Way has a mass equal to 800 billion suns, according to the team of researchers from Europe, Canada and the U.S. The team also found there's a 95 percent chance that the Milky Way is smaller than Andromeda, which is the closest spiral galaxy to our own whorled home, and a sky-watchers' favorite. (You can spot Andromeda with your naked eye.)

Over the past ten years or so, different teams of astronomers have periodically measured the mass of the Milky Way and its neighbors–some saying it's similar to the new measurement, and some saying it's greater. Teams have also variously found that the Milky Way is more massive than Andromeda, that Andromeda is more massive than the Milky Way, and that the two are about the same in mass. There's ongoing debate about how much matter is in each, including how much dark matter, which is of intense interest to astronomers today.

In a statement, one of the study's authors, Matthew Walker, explained what made his team's measurements the latest and greatest. "By studying two massive galaxies that are close to each other and the galaxies that surround them, we can take what we know about gravity and pair that with what we know about expansion to get an accurate account of the mass contained in each galaxy," he said. "This is the first time we've been able to measure these two things simultaneously."

Walker and his colleagues published their work in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Now, go see if you can incorporate the phrase "the mass of 800 billion suns" into daily conversation somehow.

Octopus Broods Its Eggs For 4.5 Years, Longest For Any Animal

Wed, 07/30/2014 - 14:35

Octo-mom Bruce Robison et al / PLOS ONE In April 2007, Bruce Robison and colleagues happened upon a deep-sea octopus more than 4,500 feet below the sea off California. When they came back about a month later it was guarding a clutch of eggs that appeared quite new and small. So Robison, from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and colleagues decided to take this opportunity to see how long these animals take to brood their eggs, as this hadn't been investigated before. They came back shortly thereafter to find it was still holding onto the eggs – then back, and back again, a total of 18 times. Every time, the octo-mom was still faithfully clutching her offspring-to-be.

The octopus went about brooding her eggs for a total of 53 months (aka 4.5 years), which is by far the longest on record for any animal and more than twice the lifespan of many shallow-dwelling species. The longest any octopus had previously been known to brood was 14 months. But deep-sea creatures live in much colder waters, and it was previously unknown how long they might take to "raise" their offspring. The authors of the study, published today (July 30) in PLOS ONE, compare it to other known brooding records:

The longest guarded incubation known for fish eggs is 4–5 months, by the Magellan Plunder Fish in Antarctic waters. For birds, the longest uninterrupted egg brooding is 2 months, by the Emperor Penguin. Among live-bearing species, elephants gestate for 20 to 21 months, frilled sharks carry their embryos internally for about 42 months, and the internal gestation period of alpine salamanders can reach 48 months before birth.

One of the craziest things about this: Octopus mothers aren't thought to eat when they are raising their young. So how did it survive? The scientists don't know, but the cold temperatures and slow metabolic rate of deep-sea animals may have helped. But it seemed to take a toll on the octopus, a member of the species Graneledone boreopacifica; over the course of brooding, the scientists observed her turn from a pallid purple to a much paler white, and they noticed the "diminishing size and tumescence [or swollenness] of the mantle, loss of skin texture, cloudy eyes, slack skin, and a loss of pigmentation."

One advantage to investing so much maternal care is that when these species' eggs hatch, they emerge like miniature adults and can therefore skip the juvenile stage that other octopuses have to pass through. Scientists think this gives them a better chance of surviving in the dark, mysterious world of the deep sea. 

The octopus and the eggs. Bruce Robison et al / PLOS ONE

Many Fraudulent Stem Cell Beauty Treatments Are Being Sold Online

Wed, 07/30/2014 - 13:17

So Pretty These are fibroblasts from a mouse. Fibroblasts are a type of stem cell that's being studied for cosmetic procedures. SubtleGuest on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

A number of experimental stem cell treatments have shown promise in patients recently. Facelifts, breast augmentations, and vaginal rejuvenation procedures (!!!) using stem cells, however, are not among the promising techniques. Nevertheless, unscrupulous clinics are selling these cosmetic "stem cell" procedures, a team of doctors and stem cell researchers found.

While we've previously seen reports of clinics offering unmonitored, unproven stem cell treatments, we never guessed there would be so many. The team, from Stanford University, identified 50 clinics with websites that offered supposed stem-cell cosmetic procedures. All the sites sold treatments in which a clinician takes a biopsy from some part of a patient's body, tries to isolate stem cells from that biopsy, and then injects the stem cells back into another part of the patient's body. In a paper the team members published, it sounds like they actually found more than 50 clinics that do this. They chose 50 for further analysis. Their conclusions about the clinics aren't necessarily surprising, but they're a good reminder about why it's a bad idea to get "stem cell" treatments outside of a clinical trial right now:

  • The clinics make promises that aren't borne out by the level of research that's gone into stem cell therapies.

  • The clinics don't have the equipment to fully separate stem cells from the tissue samples they take from their patients. The result is that these patients are likely getting injected with a mixture including stem cells, plus a bunch of other types of cells, depending on the body part from which clinicians take the original tissue sample.

  • Some of the advertised procedures don't use stem cells at all. The Stanford team found clinics offering platelet-enriched plasma as stem cell therapy. Platelet-enriched plasma doesn't contain stem cells. Technically, platelets don't even count as cells. You can learn more about platelet-enriched plasma from our story about blood facials (yum).

  • Because they promote the growth of cells, stem cells may create unwanted growths, including tumors. How about this woman who grew nasal tissue on her spine after a stem cell transplant? 

Strangely enough, perhaps one driving factor behind these clinics' claims is that there has been some starting research on using stem cells for cosmetic procedures. Such research doesn't often get as much media coverage as more "serious" stem cell therapies, such as those aimed at reversing blindness or paralysis. Still, it seems it's been moving along, even if it's not ready yet for general consumers.

In one area of research, scientists have tried transferring stem cells taken from fatty tissue to other parts of the body, such as the breasts. For those who have undergone breast cancer treatment, the stem cells are supposed to improve skin quality around the breasts, or to improve the success rates of grafts of normal fatty tissue into breasts from which surgeons have removed tumors. The studies on these treatments are still small and conflicting, however. There's debate about the extent to which the body re-absorbs transplanted fat cells and shuttles them elsewhere.

Strangely enough, perhaps one driving factor behind these clinics' claims is that there has been some starting research on using stem cells for cosmetic procedures. Such research doesn't often get as much media coverage as more "serious" stem cell therapies, such as those aimed at reversing blindness or paralysis. Still, it seems it's been moving along, even if it's not ready yet for general consumers.

In the future, perhaps folks will be able to get safe, effective, stem-cell based cosmetic procedures that reverse the effects of time.

In one area of research, scientists have tried transferring stem cells taken from fatty tissue to other parts of the body, such as the breasts. For those who have undergone breast cancer treatment, the stem cells are supposed to improve skin quality around the breasts, or to improve the success rates of grafts of normal fatty tissue into breasts from which surgeons have removed tumors. The studies on these treatments are still small and conflicting, however. There's debate about the extent to which the body re-absorbs transplanted fat cells and shuttles them elsewhere.

Some researchers also think that stem cells have promise for slowing the effects of aging on the skin. Stem cells are able to make a number of chemicals that promote the growth of collagen, the tissue type that makes young folks' skin firm. There's little evidence that injected stem cells truly promote collagen growth and have an anti-aging effect, however. More likely, the Stanford team writes, getting injected with a bunch of liquid plumps up the skin and makes wrinkles less obvious. That's how many legitimate wrinkle treatments available now work, but it's not true anti-aging.

There's one FDA-approved cosmetic procedure using stem cells. It involves taking stem cells from behind the ear, growing them in lab for 90 days, and then injecting them into wrinkles around the nose and mouth. The cells are supposed to fill in wrinkles and deep folds.

In the future, perhaps folks will be able to get safe, effective, stem-cell based cosmetic procedures that reverse the effects of time. A real fountain of youth and beauty! For now, however, perhaps it's best to stick with the better-studied stuff, such as Botox and other popular injections.

Killer Sperm Violently Prevents Worms From Interbreeding

Wed, 07/30/2014 - 11:00

A female nematode being invaded by sperm. Gavin Woodruff Every so often, animals looking for love will color outside the lines, taking a mate that doesn’t exactly share their own genetic code.  Such inter-species pairings can produce some pretty cool animal hybrids, like the popular liger or the brown and white “grolar” bear.

But not all of these colorful couples result in a happy ending – especially if you’re differing species of worm.  For female nematodes, hooking up outside the genetic family tree can end in a pretty grisly demise.

And the cause of death? Killer sperm.

A new study published in PLOS Biology details the dangers of interspecies mating among nematodes, which are super tiny un-segmented worms.  When researchers mated differing nematode species in the Caenorhabditis genus, they noticed that many of the females became sterile and had much shorter lifespans than usual.

To figure out what was up during the mating process, the researchers used a fluorescent dye that allowed them to observe the worms’ sperm during transfer.  They discovered that the foreign sperm broke through the females’ uteruses and fertilized their eggs while they were still in the ovaries.  (Fertilized eggs can’t develop unless they’ve moved to the uterus.)

Then the rogue sperm typically destroyed the ovaries and continued onward in their “sperm invasion,” further damaging other organs and sometimes killing the female.

The experiment provides a good example of how animals evolve to make sure that their sperm will get to an egg no matter what.  Yet in these two types of worms – which look pretty much identical – their two strategies have diverged rather drastically, with one type of sperm becoming much more forceful than the other.

It also may explain how the different species stay separate, as the study found that females may avoid mating with worms that have more aggressive sperm.  Can’t say that I blame them.

Infant Possibilities

Wed, 07/30/2014 - 10:00

Photograph by Sam Kaplan

When Kira Walker was born, on June 13, 2013, her parents and doctors knew she might have health issues. Her mother, a recovering heroin addict, had taken methadone to manage her addiction throughout the pregnancy. Kira was admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at the Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Missouri, where she was born, so that doctors could watch for withdrawal symptoms. That’s why they happened to notice she had a different and equally serious problem: abnormally low blood sugar.

At first, Kira’s doctors could control her blood sugar with cortisol, and she was allowed to go home. But at her one-month checkup, her blood sugar was so low that the glucose meter couldn’t initially read it. Kira was admitted to nearby Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, where doctors ran a slew of tests to determine the cause. No luck. With her blood sugar dropping precipitously, Kira would go limp at times. And every day that the level continued to yo-yo brought her closer to brain damage. No one knew what to do. 

Kira was exceptionally lucky to have landed at Children’s Mercy. The hospital is one of a handful in the U.S. that can sequence babies’ whole genomes in just a few days—a feat that two decades ago would have taken 10 years. By sequencing her genome, doctors might uncover a genetic clue to her condition and suggest a therapy. They took samples of blood from Kira and her parents on a Thursday and sent them to the hospital’s lab for sequencing. By Sunday evening, they had the results.

Kira, they learned, had inherited a mutated copy of a gene known as ABCC8 from her father; the other copy had randomly mutated in some of her pancreatic cells as she developed in utero. The mutation caused the affected cells to constantly secrete insulin, the hormone that removes sugar from blood. Luckily, about 60 percent of her pancreatic cells remained healthy, so doctors could remove the rogue ones and leave the rest of her organ intact. (If more of her pancreas had been affected, she might have become diabetic.) Children’s Mercy flew Kira and her family to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where surgeons specialize in treating the disease. On August 30, two-month-old Kira went into surgery. When she came out three hours later, she was cured.

Doctors at Children’s Mercy estimate that as many as one third of all newborns admitted to NICUs in the U.S. suffer from genetic diseases like Kira’s—conditions caused by single-gene mutations that are difficult, if not impossible, to diagnose with standard clinical tests. Worse, patients often have to wait four to six weeks for results, time that many sick babies do not have. Certainly, some of the more common genetic diseases are well-known and easy to identify—I’m pregnant, and early in my first trimester I took a blood test to determine if I harbored mutations associated with more than 100 of them. (I don’t.) But there are now more than 4,000 known genetic diseases caused by single-gene mutations.

By analyzing a baby’s genome, doctors can look at all possible genetic causes of a condition simultaneously, and in the span of just 50 hours, says Stephen Kings-more, director of the Center for Pediatric Genomic Medicine at Children’s Mercy Hospital. Over the past couple of years, Kings-more led a small pilot project to sequence the genomes of 36 infants, including Kira’s. For a clinical trial funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), he says, the hospital is now beginning to sequence the genomes of 1,000 more.

This capability could change neonatal medicine forever. The clinical trial at Children’s Mercy, along with three other trials soon to start at different institutions, will elucidate the benefits and drawbacks of such knowledge. Other doctors, meanwhile, are developing reproductive technologies that could prevent debilitating conditions entirely, giving parents-to-be a virtual guarantee that their babies will be healthy. These technologies, while exciting, raise tough questions too—about newborn and fetal rights, the possibility of genetic discrimination, and where, ultimately, we should draw the line when it comes to genetic tinkering. Few would argue against preventing disease—but what happens when parents can design aesthetically beautiful, genetically superior babies?

* * *

In April 2003, after 13 years of hair-pulling work and nearly $3 billion in costs, scientists with the Human Genome Project announced that they had finished sequencing the first complete human genome. Many doctors believed the information would revolutionize medicine overnight—that with humanity’s full genetic code mapped out, scientists would be able to identify the cause of most conditions and then engineer ways to fix them. “People thought that we’d have medical care like Star Trek,” says Josh Petrikin, a neonatologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital.

That’s not what happened. For one, the sequencing itself—deciphering the exact order of three billion tiny little letters, or nucleotides—was time-consuming and expensive. It also proved exceptionally difficult to interpret meaningfully. It was like trying to read a book written by Martians, if the language was not only totally unfamiliar but also riddled with enormously complicated and inconsistent rules. To make matters worse, scientists soon realized that most diseases weren’t caused by mutations in single genes; many were either caused by mutations in multiple genes or none at all.

Doctors estimate that as many as one third of all newborns admitted to neonatal intensive care units in the U.S. suffer from genetic diseases.

Now, 11 years later, the diagnostic and therapeutic promise of whole-genome sequencing is finally blossoming—at least for babies. Most diseases that afflict adults are caused by a complex array of genetic and environmental factors. But genetic diseases are the leading cause of death in infants, and many are caused by a single-gene mutation. These “monogenic” diseases include well-known conditions such as cystic fibrosis, sickle-cell anemia, and Tay-Sachs disease, as well as thousands of exceedingly rare illnesses that each afflict no more than a handful to a few hundred individuals in the world. This uniqueness makes them very difficult to diagnose clinically, but because they are relatively simple genetically, they are, in theory, easy to diagnose with gene sequencing. Additionally, the cost and time involved has dropped exponentially in the past decade, and bioinformatics software has become much better at matching genetic mutations to known symptoms and conditions. It makes sense, then, that sick babies should be among the first to benefit from the technology.

Four years ago, geneticist Stephen Kingsmore, then CEO of the National Center for Genome Resources in Santa Fe, New Mexico, had this epiphany. His team of researchers had been sequencing the genomes of cocoa and rice. “We realized that what we were doing in plants was going to hit medicine,” he says, “so we decided to try to surf that big wave.” A native of Northern Ireland with a dry sense of humor, Kingsmore moved from Santa Fe to Kansas City to open the Center for Pediatric Genomic Medicine. Soon after, he heard that the biotechnology company Illumina was looking for a hospital to beta-test its newest and fastest sequencer, the HiSeq 2500. “They said, ‘We’ve got this new sequencer; what do we do with this?’ ” Kingsmore recalls. “We said, ‘We know exactly what to do with that. Let’s use it in critically ill babies, as most babies die before they get diagnosed.’ ”

Since the hospital’s pilot project began, in November 2011, doctors have correctly diagnosed 18 out of 36 mysteriously sick babies—most of whom would have otherwise waited months for a diagnosis, if they survived that long. When I walked through the Children’s Mercy NICU with Petrikin and Howard Kilbride, the hospital’s director of neonatology, we encountered three-month-old Eliana Lewis sleeping in her father’s arms. Eliana was born on New Year’s Eve 2013, and soon after she got home, she began suffering brain seizures every couple of minutes. They couldn’t be stopped with standard medications, so doctors kept her heavily sedated. Whole--genome sequencing at Children’s Mercy eventually diagnosed Eliana with Ohtahara syndrome, caused by a mutation in the gene SCN2A and sometimes controllable with a low-sugar diet. Eliana started the diet in March, and her seizures improved dramatically: She is no longer as sedated or on a ventilator. “We’re really starting to see her personality now,” her mother, Michelle Lewis, told me. “She’s starting to have periods of being awake and alert.”

Even Kingsmore has been shocked by how fruitful the sequencing efforts have proved to be. “Never did we expect what we’re finding—that the majority of the kids we’re testing would yield a diagnosis. That’s crazy,” he says, especially considering that scientists still don’t understand much of the human genome. Including children that weren’t part of the pilot project, he says, “We have dozens and dozens of stories of kids whose lives have been saved or transformed, their families given hope, because of this inexpensive genetic test.” 

Of course, not every story has had a happy ending. Eliana’s prognosis, for instance, isn’t great: Even when babies with Ohtahara syndrome survive past infancy, they are often severely intellectually disabled. And for some, a diagnosis is a dead end, with no known treatments; only seven of the infants in the pilot project had a treatable diagnosis. “Those happen, and those are sad, but I feel like it’s still doing some good to get a diagnosis—decreasing suffering, giving the family an answer,” Petrikin says. Lewis agrees. “Obviously our diagnosis is not the greatest thing in the world,” she says, “but we know what we’re fighting against, and that allows us to process things.”

"People are going to be able to say,'I want my baby to be a girl, I want her not to carry the breast cancer gene, and I want her to have blue eyes.'"

With the NIH trial, Children’s Mercy hopes to provide even more families with the answers and treatments they need. In the NICU, I stopped to peek at a three-week-old baby named Xavier in an incubator. He had been born with his bowels outside his body, a condition that is becoming more common and could have a genetic component. His doctors had attempted multiple surgeries to move his intestines inside, but his body had rejected them each time. Could sequencing pinpoint the cause of his birth defect and help his doctors understand why his body reacted the way it did? Perhaps. We passed another baby on a ventilator, tightly wrapped in a blanket, who had problems taking his first breaths outside the womb and had gone on to develop pulmonary hypertension. Babies with this condition respond differently to treatments, possibly because the symptoms have different underlying genetic causes. Sequencing could potentially get them the right care faster. “Ideally, we’d like to personalize what we’re doing rather than treat everybody the same,” Kilbride says. “A blood test focusing you and maybe even giving you a diagnosis in a few days? I mean, that would be revolutionary.”

* * *

When Alexis Sturgeon’s now 27-year-old brother was 15, he started vomiting incessantly. Doctors first thought he had the flu, but he didn’t improve. Several hospital visits and many tests later, he was diagnosed with late-onset ornithine transcarbamylase (OTC) deficiency, a rare disorder that can be caused by a mutation in the OTC gene. Normally, OTC makes a protein that helps to process nitrogen. Without a functioning copy of the gene, the body builds up toxic ammonia. Since his diagnosis, Sturgeon’s brother has had to take drugs—sometimes up to 100 pills a day—to supply enough of the missing protein to keep him healthy.

About 800 critically ill newborns are admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit at Children's Mercy Hospital each year. Courtesy Children's Mercy Hospital

The OTC gene is located on the X chromosome, which means that men, who carry one X and one Y chromosome, develop the disorder if they inherit the mutation. Women, on the other hand, are more often asymptomatic carriers, because even if they inherit one defective gene, the copy on their second X chromosome is typically able to produce sufficient quantities of the protein to keep them healthy.

Alexis Sturgeon felt fine, but she decided to get her own OTC genes tested anyway. She was indeed an asymptomatic carrier of the disease. Although she would likely be healthy for life, Sturgeon hoped to have children, and she didn’t want to pass the mutation on to them. If she had girls, they might not get sick, but they would have a 50 percent chance of inheriting one mutated gene and carrying the legacy of the disease to future generations. If she had boys, they would have a 50 percent chance of inheriting her mutated gene and developing the full-blown disorder. Sturgeon wanted to know: Was there anything she could do to ensure that she would have a healthy baby?

Geneticists like Santiago Munné have dedicated their lives to answering these kinds of questions. In the early 1990s, after he’d finished his Ph.D. in genetics, Munné realized that the people who could potentially benefit the most from improvements in genetic technology were women hoping to conceive. Doctors typically told women like Sturgeon that they had no choice but to roll the dice and hope their children beat the odds. “Usually, we were just giving people bad news,” he says.

So Munné went to work to develop better alternatives. In 1993, while collaborating with Jacques Cohen at Cornell University Medical College, he developed the first test to screen in vitro fertilization (IVF) embryos for chromosomal defects, such as those that cause Down syndrome. Fertility doctors could use the test to select only healthy embryos for implantation, thereby eliminating the risk for such disorders.

In 2001, Munné co-founded New Jersey–based Reprogenetics, one of a handful of biotech companies dedicated to developing new reproductive technologies. Munné’s team has drastically improved its chromosome test in the past four years so that it can detect more conditions. The company has also developed preimplantation genetic diagnosis tests that can screen IVF embryos for single-gene disorders such as OTC deficiency. 

“I’m very grateful that there are people out here who are smart enough to figure all this out."

When Sturgeon was ready to have kids, her doctor told her about the Reprogenetics test, and she immediately agreed to undergo IVF so she could use it. First her doctor took DNA swabs from Sturgeon’s and her husband’s cheeks to map their genes. She was also put on fertility drugs for several weeks. Then her doctor harvested seven of Sturgeon’s eggs, fertilized them with her husband’s sperm, extracted a single cell from each embryo when they were three days old, and sent the cells to Reprogenetics for testing. The next day, the company was able to tell her doctor which embryos carried the OTC mutation and which did not. On August 11, 2013, Sturgeon gave birth to a baby girl, Audrey, who has two functioning copies of the OTC gene. “I’m very grateful that there are people out here who are smart enough to figure all this out—to be able to give people who have these sorts of disorders a chance of having a healthy child,” she says. 

Munné says that screening for single-gene disorders is just the beginning. His company has also developed tests that can screen embryos for mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which increase the risk of breast cancer. He hopes to soon be able to screen embryos for gene defects linked to autism, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s too. And then there is the near-reality of whole-genome embryonic screening. While single-gene tests like the one used to screen Sturgeon’s embryos work well when a familial genetic condition is known, many prospective parents are disease carriers without realizing it. Plus, Munné’s research has shown that during conception, as many as 3,000 de novo mutations can arise that no one would be able to predict. 

On May 18, 2014, a baby was born whose genome had been sequenced prior to IVF implantation to check for potential genetic mutations—a global first. Although it was just a proof-of-concept run, Munné says that as soon as the cost for whole genome sequencing drops below $1,000—which researchers believe could happen this year—it will be feasible for Reprogenetics to offer preimplantation genome sequencing to families who want it. 

* * *

Genes, of course, predict far more than disease. So if doctors can create healthy babies, what’s stopping them from making babies with other sought-after characteristics? Not much, some say. “Once you’re able to look at and identify chromosomes in embryos, then you can study everything in that embryo—and the term everything keeps expanding,” explains fertility doctor Jeffrey Steinberg, director of The Fertility Institutes. “People are going to be able to come in and say, ‘I don’t want my baby to have Down syndrome, I want my baby to be a girl, I want my baby not to carry the breast-cancer gene, and I want my baby to have blue eyes.’ ”

The baby-girl part is already a reality. Although 36 countries have outlawed sex selection, the practice is legal and booming in the U.S., despite the fact that the procedure can cost upwards of $18,000. Out of 415 reproductive clinics surveyed in 2006, nearly half said they were offering preimplantation genetic diagnosis for “nonmedical” reasons, and the percentage has gone up since. Steinberg, for instance, says that 90 percent of the couples who come to his clinic want to choose their babies’ sex. 

Most American families who undergo sex selection do it for family balancing or health reasons. After using IVF to conceive two boys, now ages four and three, Shannon Twisler and her husband, who reside in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, decided to try for a girl. Since she was going to undergo IVF again anyway (the couple could not conceive naturally), why not have the doctor implant a female embryo? “It was kind of a no-brainer for us,” Twisler says. “I have one older sister who has three boys, and she really wanted a girl, and my mom had four girls but wanted a boy. It seemed like it was a pattern in my family to have one gender or another.” It was a pattern she’d hoped to buck with technology—and she did. Between the embryos she had frozen from her earlier IVF cycles and the third round of IVF she underwent last summer, she and her husband produced a single female embryo, which her doctor implanted in January 2014. She is due with a baby girl in October. 

Stephen Kingsmore, director of the Center for Pediatric Genomic Medicine at Children's Mercy Hospital, led a project to sequence the genomes of infants with mysterious illnesses. Courtesy Children's Mercy Hospital

But sex selection is only the beginning. Steinberg says he also knows how to select for babies with blue eyes, by looking for a variant in that gene that control the amount of pigment in the stroma of the iris. “If you have a lot of pigment, you make brown eyes,” he explains, “and if you have no pigment, you make blue eyes. In between, you make green or hazel.” In 2009, Steinberg announced that he was going to offer eye-color selection in his clinic. “It set off a firestorm—we got a huge number of people super-interested in it, and we got a huge number of people threatening us.” He says he even received a call from the Vatican, whose scientists asked him to reconsider offering the service. He complied because, as he puts it, “technology seemed to be moving faster than society’s ability to deal with it.” 

But Steinberg is confident that public opinion is changing. “A lot of the social criticism has settled down,” he says. “Twenty years ago, people thought IVF was going to produce zombies, but now you go to a party and half the people there are IVF babies. Selecting for eye color will become a reality in the next five years.” Hair-color selection isn’t far off, either, he adds: In June, Stanford University scientists announced they had identified a gene variant that contributes to blondness in human hair. 

Others disagree that these technologies are mature. “I don’t think it’s that simple, I really don’t,” says Richard Paulson, chief of reproductive endocrinology and fertility at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. “I think that people who are peddling this, who are advertising on their websites that the capability [for eye-color selection] exists, are not being intellectually honest.” Steinberg acknowledges that his eye-color-selection method is only 90 to 94 percent accurate; he is raising money for additional research to increase the accuracy to 99 percent, at which point he says he will begin offering the service. 

Choosing a child’s features is, of course, controversial for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with technology. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists worries that sex selection reinforces biases against women. (Interestingly, though, more than half of parents who use sex selection in the U.S. do it to have baby girls.) There’s also the question of what happens to the embryos that parents deem unworthy. Will thousands of brown-eyed embryos suddenly end up in the trash? Twisler plans to donate her extra frozen embryos to other families, but couples undergoing sex selection have the option of throwing away unused embryos. Then there is the “slippery slope” argument—that once we start selecting for sex, eye color, and hair color, what’s to stop wealthy parents from engineering smarter, more athletic, and more conventionally beautiful babies too? This is where visions of Gattaca come in: One can imagine a world where designer kids of well-to-do parents outcompete their genetically inferior, naturally conceived counterparts. Genetic discrimination becomes rampant, and wars start.

"Selecting for eye color will become a reality in the next five years."

But the science of Gattaca is still a long way off. For one thing, traits like IQ, height, and beauty are enormously complex. Scientists still haven’t identified all of the genes involved, so there is no known “recipe” for an IQ of 140 or a symmetrical face. And the best that fertility clinics can do today is choose among embryos that have been produced naturally from parents’ genetic material. There’s virtually no chance that doctors will be able to implant a genius baby from two parents with average IQs. That would require genetic engineering—tinkering with embryonic genes—which nobody yet knows how to do. “People seem to think there’s a menu of 1,000 different characteristics, and parents will be able to choose what they want,” Paulson says. “It doesn’t work like that.”

As a mother to a three-year-old, with another baby on the way, I can’t imagine wanting that anyway. Part of what makes me so excited to meet my baby girl is knowing that she is half mine, half my husband’s—a natural genetic blend of the two of us. Would it be nice if I could be sure that she hadn’t inherited my bad back or my husband’s propensity for gastric reflux? Sure. So selecting embryos for medical reasons makes sense to me. I can also understand the desire to want a balanced family; I was thrilled when I found out we would have one of each. But manipulating my daughter’s genes so that she looks more like Charlize Theron? Doesn’t have the same appeal. I’m not going to love my little girl any less if she has brown eyes rather than blue, and I can’t imagine she will suffer terribly for it either.

One thing is for sure: Genetic research is advancing rapidly, so it’s conceivable that our children or grandchildren will live in a world in which they can “design” their babies, at least to a degree. The question, really, is whether the values of future generations-—those whose lives have been shaped by this newfound knowledge-—will embrace such a future or fight against it.

How to Solve a Mystery Baby

Doctors at the Center for Pediatric Genomic Medicine at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, worked with biotechnology company Illumina to develop a protocol for sequencing the full genomes of newborns. It enables them to home in on the cause of rare diseases in just 50 hours.

Step 1: Eliana Lewis was born on New Year’s Eve 2013, and she had problems  almost immediately: fluctuating blood sugar, and seizures every few minutes. When drugs didn’t help, doctors took blood samples from both Eliana and her parents and sent them to the hospital’s lab. 

Step 2: Technicians isolated DNA from the blood, copied it millions of times, and used ultrasound to chop it into easy-to-read pieces. They then loaded a chip containing the DNA samples into Illumina’s HiSeq 2500 sequencer, which reads all the fragments in 26 hours. 

Step 3: A supercomputer took that information and reordered it by aligning the genetic fragments with those in a reference genome. Then the computer searched for differences among the three samples and the reference; there can be five million, and most are probably harmless.

Step 4: Bioinformatics software determined that Eliana had a mutation in the SCN2A gene that neither of her parents had. (It must have spontaneously occurred in the sperm or egg before she was conceived.) The mutation suggested she had Ohtahara syndrome, a rare form of pediatric epilepsy.

Step 5: Doctors tried new medications in light of Eliana’s diagnosis. By March, her health had improved enough to start her on a low-carbohydrate diet that has been successful in managing Ohta-hara syndrome. In May, she was released from the hospital with her seizures under control.  

A Healthy Baby from Scratch

The Food and Drug Administration is weighing whether to approve U.S. clinical trials for another cutting-edge technique: three-parent in vitro fertilization.

Parents-to-be who want to conceive a baby with IVF can use genetic testing to choose healthy embryos. But hopeful moms with rare disorders affecting mitochondria, the energy-producing organelles that sit outside a cell’s nucleus, don’t have that option: Their diseased mitochondria almost always get passed down, producing a devastating illness. One possible solution is to create a baby from the genetic material of three people. 

The procedure, called oocyte modification, involves replacing the nucleus of a donor woman’s egg with that of the intended mother’s, either before or after the nucleus of the mother’s egg has been fertilized with the father’s sperm. The new hybrid embryo contains the nuclear DNA of both mom and dad and the healthy mitochondria of the donor. 

“This technique is extremely exciting because it completely eliminates a fatal, incurable genetic condition from future generations, allowing women who carry this disease to have their own genetic children free from disease,” says Susan L. Solomon, CEO and cofounder of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, whose scientists have conducted some of the research. But like many other reproductive technologies for shaping a baby’s genetic future, this one has inspired controversy.

This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Popular Science.

Arizona's First Bitcoin ATM Goes Kablooey

Wed, 07/30/2014 - 08:45

Bitcoins via BitcoinTalk

Is there a deity out there who hates cryptocurrency? To the list of disasters that have befallen the bitcoin economy in 2014, including the bankruptcy of the enormous Mt. Gox exchange as well as the theft of about $2.7 million in bitcoins from Silk Road 2.0 (both in February), add this morsel of bad luck: A lightning strike has taken out the only bitcoin ATM in all of Arizona, less than a month after it was installed.

According to, the web site of The Arizona Republic newspaper, lightning hit the Booksmans Entertainment Exchange in Tucson last week, causing a power surge that fried some of the bitcoin ATM's electrical components. Owner-operator Brian Williams told a reporter that he'd started operating the $1,000 machine on July 14. “It's kind of like getting punched in the face,” Williams told The Republic. He also stated that he'd been able to remove and account for all the machine's hard currency, and that the damage had no impact on anyone's accounts.

There are only around two dozen bitcoin ATMs in the U.S. at present, according to industry news site CoinDesk, and no more than 140 worldwide. There's no indication yet of when the Arizona ATM will be back in operation. The nearest alternatives are located in Las Vegas, Nevada and Tijuana, Mexico.

Engineers Make The World's First Verified, 2-Dimensional Polymers

Wed, 07/30/2014 - 08:00

Crystal on its way to becoming a 2-D polymer Max J. Kory et al., "Gram-scale synthesis of two-dimensional polymer crystals and their structure analysis by X-ray diffraction," Nature Chemistry, 2014

In spite of its looks, this is not the lovechild of an accordion and an earthworm. It is actually a whole new material photographed in the middle of its creation process.

It's a crystalline material being soaked in a special acid solution. After some days of soaking, the pleats in this structure sloughed off. The resulting sheets were so thin, they were actually 2-dimensional—made of just one layer of atoms. They were among the first 2-dimensional polymers ever made by engineers, Chemical & Engineering News reports.

This week, two separate research teams published papers announcing they had made the world's first verified 2-D polymers. The polymer sheets are akin to graphene, a material made of a single layer of carbon atoms. The difference is that polymers are made of atoms of several different elements in a repeating pattern. (In case you're curious, the two teams made polymers of slightly different atomic compositions.) A 2-D polymer has proved to be more difficult to make than sheets of graphene, which can sometimes even flake off the tips of pencils.

Both graphene and 2-D polymers are being studied for similar reasons, C&EN reports. They could do cool things in optics, and their super-tiny pores mean they could be used in high-tech filters. However, 2-D polymers still need work before they can be used in practical applications. For one thing, engineers will have to figure out how to make more of the polymers. Right now, just making a few grams of the stuff is a big feat, as it's taken the scientists years to get the process just right.

Both labs had previously made 2-D polymers, but this is the first time they've determined the exact structure of the polymers, C&EN reports. How were they able to visualize these vanishingly thin structures? They used X-ray crystallography, the same technique Rosalind Franklin used to visualize a single molecule of DNA in 1952. Franklin's X-ray image was crucial to James Watson and Francis Crick's insight into the true structure of DNA.

[Chemical & Engineering News]

Blood Test Could Detect A Genetic Tendency Toward Suicide

Tue, 07/29/2014 - 23:01

Gathering blood samples Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to fighting suicide, knowing who is at risk can be tricky and, moreover, a very subjective process. Scientists at Johns Hopkins Medicine are trying to bring a level of objectivity into the search for those at high risk of attempting suicide – in the form of a simple blood test.

In a new study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, researchers say they have found something of a common denominator in people who have committed suicide or those with suicidal thoughts or attempts. The key? A unique genetic mutation in the gene SKA2, which is thought to play an important role in the way our brains handle stress. Not everyone at risk of suicide has the genetic signature, but when people do have this mutation, their likelihood of attempting suicide was found to be extremely high compared to the rest of the population.

“SKA2 has been implicated as important for the normal function of stress receptors,” said study leader Zachary Kaminsky, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “It chaperones them, and it goes up when glucocorticoid binds to these receptors, which happens when you get stressed out.”

Kaminsky and his team became interested in SKA2 in relation to suicide after mapping the genomes of both mentally ill and healthy people; they found that in those who had died by suicide, levels of SKA2 were significantly reduced.

Upon further inspection, the researchers found that some subjects had a unique epigenetic modification of the SKA2 gene. Without changing the underlying DNA sequence, this form of mutation can change the way the SKA2 gene functions by adding chemicals called methyl groups to the gene.

And the higher the levels of these methyl groups – or methylation – the higher the association with suicide risk.

“[Methyl groups] are basically molecular markers that are connected to genes that act like light switches or dimmer switches,” Kaminsky said. “They are independent of the DNA sequence, but they can turn up or down a gene.”

Additional brain and blood tests confirmed an association between higher methylation and suicidal attempts and thoughts, giving Kaminsky the idea that these methyl groups could be tested for to predict suicide risk. So the team designed a model analysis to look for methylation in the blood, accurately identifying those with this unique genetic signature. Among a group of 325 patients, the researchers were able to predict which participants were experiencing suicidal thoughts or had attempted suicide with 80 percent certainty. Those with a more severe risk of suicide were predicted with 90 percent accuracy. And in a younger group of patients, the researchers predicted with 96 percent accuracy if someone had attempted suicide in the past.

This isn’t the first time scientists have claimed a blood test could predict suicide risk, and Kaminsky noted that theirs won’t necessarily tell someone if they’re going to commit suicide. He says the test mostly shows a greater vulnerability to stress, since it denotes a down-regulation of SKA2, and previous studies have shown that individuals who have attempted suicide often have a dysregulated stress response.

Such a tool could be useful for the military, as members could be screened for their resilience to stress before embarking on active duty. Yet the blood test also brings up some controversial questions, such as who in the general public should be screened, who has access to the screening results, and what happens when someone shows up positive? While this test has the potential to help many in need, ethical concerns are sure to accompany its approval.

5 Phenomena That Science Has Yet To Fully Explain

Tue, 07/29/2014 - 17:00

Who doesn't love a good mystery, especially one that stumps researchers? 

Popular Science's editor-in-chief, Cliff Ransom, moderated a panel about such seemingly inexplicable phenomena this weekend at Comic-Con in San Diego. The occasion: the debut of the Science Channel's second season of "The Unexplained Files," which premieres tonight (July 29) at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

We thought it was fine occasion to ask, "What are some phenomena that science can't yet explain?" Below are five of our favorite enduring mysteries. 

Yawning Juanedc via Wikimedia Commons 1. Why People Yawn 

You yawn, I yawn, we all yawn. Reading or thinking about it makes you more likely to yawn. (Did you just yawn?) You can even "catch" yawns from other people, and from other animals like dogs. Thanks, biology—but what purpose does yawning serve?

Ideas abound, but none seem to hold up to scientific scrutiny. One is that yawning helps to cool the brain by increasing blood flow to the jaws, neck, and sinuses, and then removing heat from this blood when inhaling a big breath. Counterintuitively, yawning occurs less frequently in hot weather, when air has less ability to cool the body. In short, yawning "fails precisely when we need it," Dr. Adrian Guggisberg told WebMD. One hypothesis that has not (yet) been discarded: yawns "serve as a signal for our bodies to perk up, a way of making sure we stay alert," Maria Konnikova wrote in The New Yorker. "A yawn is usually followed by increased movement and physiological activity, which suggests that some sort of 'waking up' has taken place."

And why are yawns contagious? A recent study in PLoS ONE suggests they're way of showing empathy. But another newer study concluded the opposite. So it goes.

Patrick Swayze as a ghoul in the movie "Ghost."  2. Ghosts

"Alright," you might say, "I understand that yawning thing, but ghosts don't exist." Well, a plurality of Americans—48 percent, in fact—believe they do, according to a CBS News poll in 2005. Most women—about 56 percent—believe in ghosts. And more than one-fifth of people CBS polled say they've seen or felt the presence of a ghost. 

Modern scientists haven't delved into this topic all that much, but a few compelling explanations exist. One has to do with infrasound, or low-frequency sounds inaudible to humans but that storms and even household appliances can generate. Such rumbles can vibrate human organs and make people feel a sense of unease. Infrasound vibrations can also mess with vision and make people think they are seeing things. Another idea is that drafts may create "cold spots" thought to be signs of spirits. A final theory is that some observations of ghosts may have been due to hallucinations caused by carbon monoxide poisoning

One stage productions' (creepy) interpretation of what déjà vu looks/feels like. Yohanntd via Wikimedia Commons CC3.0 3. Déjà Vu

You've probably had this feeling before: As something happens, you feel you're reliving a past moment. What causes this eerie feeling of déjà vu? In short: No one is certain, but some ideas exist.

One study, which placed people in a virtual computer world, hints that the feeling triggers most frequently when a person encounters a place that's similar in layout to another place he or she has visited, but doesn't consciously recognize. "One reason for the jarring sense that accompanies déjà vu may be the contrast between the sense of newness and the simultaneous sense of oldness—something unfamiliar should not also feel familiar," cognitive psychologist Anne Cleary at Colorado State University told Scientific American. Another study found that one healthy male subject experienced a strong recurrent sense of déjà vu when he took two drugs to ward off the flu. Déjà vu might also come about when the brain improperly encodes a new memory, or when it misfires when establishing a sense of familiarity.

A grainy image of Sasquatch from the Patterson-Gimlin film, which purports to show Bigfoot. Wikimedia Commons 4. Bigfoot 

Bigfoot is a creature of many names -- Sasquatch in the Pacific Northwest, Yeti in the Himalayas, "wild man" in Central Asia, and (my favorite) "Yowie" in Australia -- but science knows it as a cryptid: a type of animal whose existence hasn't been proven. Definitive proof of Bigfoot has never been established, but as scientists have been known to say, "absence of proof isn't proof of absence." Many speculate that Bigfoot sightings often involve large animals that could be mistaken for humans, such as bears. One recent study looked at DNA from hairs, which allegedly came from a large human-like beast. The study found that the hairs came from "raccoons, sheep, bears, dogs, humans and more," the New York Times reported. (Bigfoot was not listed.)

Spinal Placebo Pain relief through the placebo effect may take place in spinal cord cells Sussex Physio 5. The Placebo Effect 

You surely know about the placebo effect: If you truly think something will have a particular somatic effect (like reduce pain), it probably will—even if it is just a sugar pill and has no pharmacological activity. For this reason, placebo pills are used in all legitimate medical studies, to prove whether or not a drug actually has an effect that isn't psychological. The placebo effect is actually more puzzling than you might expect, though—recent work has shown, for example, that it even works when participants are told they are taking a sugar pill. It also works for sleep. If you believe you got a better night of sleep compared to others who slept the same amount, you are more likely to perform better at a variety of tasks.

There are some clues here and there as to how it might work. For example, one study found that in people given fake pain-relieving cream experienced less activity in pain-sensing regions of the brain. Another found a similar fake cream activated cells in the spinal cord (see the above image). But how the exact process maps across a whole host of experiences—from fighting infection, to performing better on tests, to sleeping better—nobody really knows.

U.S. Army Contemplates 3D-Printed Warheads

Tue, 07/29/2014 - 15:46

Grenade Explosion U.S. Marine Corps, via Wikimedia Commons

Additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3-D printing, is inherently creative. Materials are layered together and built up, constructing an object from powder and heat and code. In the future, the U.S. Army wants to turn this innovation to far more destructive ends, by printing new warheads.

The latest issue of Army Technology focuses on 3-D printing. Designing new shapes for warheads is one promising new avenue of research. In "ARDEC investigates how 3-D printed metals could transform Army logistics", U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center materials engineer James Zunino explains to author Timothy Rider what additive manufacturing can bring to the science of blowing stuff up. Rider captures the core of it here:

Warhead designers attempt to create blast effects that meet specific criteria, explained Zunino. They may want blast fragments of specific sizes to radiate in specific directions such that their blasts can most effectively destroy desired targets. 

“Once you get into detonation physics you open up a whole new universe,” Zunino said. The limits on what can be produced using machine tools limit warhead shapes. By lifting limitations through the expanded capabilities that come with additive manufacturing, space is used more efficiently. 

“The real value you get is you can get more safety, lethality or operational capability from the same space,” Zunino said.

Directing the explosion of a weapon is a big deal, as it can mean both deadlier military tools and more precise attacks. Last winter missile maker MBDA tested a differently shaped charge on a missile whose narrow explosion is designed to hit a target and nothing else. In the future, 3-D printed warheads could do something similar, giving troops and commanders more options about how and to what extent they should blow something up.

While printed warheads are the shiny tip of the spear, it's almost certain that 3-D printing will make a difference with mundane supply tasks like spare parts first. Multiple stories in the issue focus in on this immediate need. In "Getting to Right Faster," Master Sergeant Adam Asclipiadis of the Army's appropriately named Rapid Equipping Force, describes how they used Statasys Fortus 3-D printers in Afghanistan.

First, REF engineers work directly with the Soldier to understand the challenge. Then, they virtually design a prototype solution, incorporating the Soldier’s unique ideas and concept for operations. The REF engineers 3-D print plastic mock ups and deliver them to the requesting unit for immediate feedback. This allows Ex Lab personnel to ensure proper form, fit and function with the end user up front.... Most solutions require three to five iterations before reaching the final prototype. By using forward 3-D printers, the engineering teams are able to print, assess and turn around follow-on plastic prototypes, sometimes in only a few days.

Further articles in the issue examine the military applications of 3-D printing in medicine, food, new materials, at supply depots and in building miniatures to better understand a battlefield. There's also a look at 3-D bioprinting human tissue for treating wounds, especially burn wounds, suffered in the field of battle– perhaps in new patterns left by creatively shaped 3-D printed warheads. 

The whole issue is available online here.

Pest In Brazil Has Evolved Resistance Against GMO Corn

Tue, 07/29/2014 - 13:30

Corn Field AmeriFlux

Crop-munching caterpillars in Brazil are no longer put off by genetically modified plants designed to kill them, Reuters reports. The report is just the latest in a series that have emerged over the past few years.

In this case, the GM plant is Bt corn and the pest in question is the Spodoptera frugiperda, which is native to tropical regions of the Americas. Bt plants are engineered so that they have genes from a soil bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis. The genes produce crystalline chemicals that kill insect larvae when they eat it. A larva that chows down on a Bt-crystal-producing GM plant soon stops eating. A few days later, it dies.* In addition to Bt corn, Bt cotton is popular.

Yet resistance to Bt crops has been occurring with pest species throughout the world. The first publicly announced case of insects in a field evolving resistance to Bt plants occurred in India in 2009. The first U.S. case followed in 2011. Since then, there have been dozens of similar incidents. In 2013, a team of entomologists and agriculture scientists reviewed 77 previous studies about international Bt crops. The team found that in 2005, only one of the 13 pest species examined could eat Bt plants without dying. But by 2013, five species could eat Bt plants.

The first engineered Bt plant was registered by a U.S. company in 1995, but not long afterward, scientists noted that insects would likely evolve resistance to them. Controlling pests, whether it's with microbes in a hospital or grubs in a field, is always an arms race against evolution. That evolution happens whether you use genetic engineering or plain old spraying.

Controlling pests, whether it's with microbes in a hospital or grubs in a field, is always an arms race against evolution.

The rising Bt resistance means that farmers will likely ramp up their insecticide use. One group of Brazilian farmers even wants GMO companies to reimburse them for the additional insecticides they had to use because their Bt crops failed to deter pests. Companies are also likely developing new GMO crops, perhaps with more insect toxins engineered into them, to combat the newly evolved resistance. There is already a second generation of genetically modified, Bt crops that make two Bt toxins instead of just one. Some pests have evolved resistance against those plants, however.

There are some scientifically proven ways to slow bugs' ability to adapt to GMO toxins. Planting a mix of GMO and non-GMO plants helps. So does planting first- and second-generation Bt crops separately. Both strategies lessen the deadly pressure against insects susceptible to Bt poisoning, so they'll evolve more slowly.

Seed company Dow Agrosciences told Reuters that Dow representatives taught Brazilian farmers these strategies. The companies' instructions were confusing, a lawyer representing the farmers told Reuters, and there were not enough non-GMO seeds available for them to really put the strategies to work.

*P.S. What about the butterflies?!: Most non-scientist Americans first learned about Bt corn when a study came out finding that pollen from the corn may kill caterpillars of the monarch butterfly. Later studies have found that Bt corn doesn't significantly affect the numbers of monarch butterflies, although other modern farming practices may.


Where Do Geysers On Enceladus Erupt From? Probably A Buried Ocean

Tue, 07/29/2014 - 12:36

Enceladus's South Pole. Those things that look like beams of light are actually geysers. Giant, 125-mile-high geysers. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

A map of more than 100 geysers on the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus has helped scientists determine where those water jets are spouting from—and the results are encouraging for scientists who want to look for life there.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft first spotted the 125-mile-high geysers erupting from Enceladus’ south pole in 2005. Since then, scientists learned that the geysers contain ice and water vapor (exciting news, since on Earth we find life pretty much everywhere there’s water).  The jets burst out of “tiger stripes”, or fractures, that form as Saturn’s gravity deforms the moon’s icy surface.

What has remained a tantalizing mystery is the origin of the geysers. Do they erupt from a subsurface ocean, which is believed to be about six miles deep, buried beneath 25 miles of ice, and potentially capable of sustaining life? Or are they merely a result of frictional heat from the ice fractures rubbing together? The geysers overlap with hotspots on the moon’s surface, but scientists couldn’t tell whether the hotspots cause the geysers or vice versa. Please enable Javascript to watch this video

In a paper published today, scientists compared geyser activity with high-resolution heat maps of the moon’s surface. They found that the hotspots were only a few dozen feet across, which is too small for the heat to be caused by the grinding of the 84-mile-long ice fractures. Instead, the scientists think the geysers cause the heat—when the vapor spews out, some of it condenses on the fracture wall and releases heat.

"Once we had these results in hand, we knew right away heat was not causing the geysers, but vice versa," Carolyn Porco, lead author of the paper, said in a press release. "It also told us the geysers are not a near-surface phenomenon, but have much deeper roots."

The team has concluded that the geysers must be coming from Enceladus’ inner ocean. That’s good news for scientists who want to search for alien life, because it means that future missions to Enceladus won’t need to drill through 25 miles of ice in order to sample the water below. Instead, a flyby mission could just swoop through the geysers to taste what’s inside the ocean, and see if it may be harboring any simple life forms. 

Laser Light Could Make Flu Vaccine 7 Times More Effective

Tue, 07/29/2014 - 11:22

Syringe Wikimedia Commons

When you get a vaccine, it's typically injected into the muscle below the skin with a needle. But vaccines administered through the skin can use smaller pin-prick methods that could be useful for those afraid of needles, such as children. These cutaneous vaccines have the potential to be relatively painless, and could also possibly require less vaccine material. Unfortunately, the chemical adjuvants used in intramuscular vaccines can cause scarring and ulceration, and therefore new adjuvants for cutaneous (skin-administered) vaccines are "urgently needed," as various researchers have written. Adjuvants are chemicals like aluminum salts and oils which work by mimicking components of pathogens (like bacterial cell walls) that the immune system has evolved to recognized and react to. 

new study on various animals suggests that briefly illuminating the area where the vaccine will be injected with laser light could increase the effectiveness of the flu vaccine, by four to seven times, as measured by the number of antibodies produced by the body, compared to using no laser light. This method also has the advantage of not needing the usual chemical adjuvants. Exactly how it compares to a typical human intramuscular flu vaccine is unclear, since this study was done on mice and pigs, although the researchers suggest the technique could translate to humans (since, among other things, pig's skin and immune systems are similar to ours). 

The lasers create small rifts within the skin called "microthermal zones," which heal by themselves within a few days, the authors write in a study describing the technique, published in Nature Communications. Before croaking, the dying cells send out "danger" signals telling the body to respond to viruses and other invaders, which summons a type of immune scout called plasmacytoid dendritic cells. These cells help the body recognize and react to the influenza virus, the authors wrote. The technique also has fewer side effects compared to conventional chemical adjuvants and makes it possible to avoid certain adjuvants, like aluminum, which can be harmful at high concentrations and which is a favorite target (besides mercury) among those opposed to vaccines.

The type of lasers used in this study were originally developed for cosmetic purposes, to make skin appear more youthful, reported the website Neomatica. The small microthermal zones give rise to new growth of epithelial cells, which can give skin a more youthful appearance.

Amazon's New Store For 3-D-Printed Products Omits The Best Parts Of 3-D Printing

Tue, 07/29/2014 - 10:27

The site isn't quite there yet, even though I think this product is pretty cool. Screenshot of by A. Ossola

This week, Amazon announced its new 3-D printing store. We were immediately giddy, imagining the endless possibilities of being able to upload any design and, in Amazon fashion, have it shipped to us in solid form overnight. But the online book purveyor that has diversified to sell basically everything on the planet seems to have squandered its opportunity to transform the 3-D printing movement; the products in its new online marketplace are not customizable, fairly expensive, and slow to be delivered. 

The new 3-D printed store allows “customers [to] become designers” with a variety of goods ranging from home décor to jewelry to electronics accessories. “The introduction of our 3-D Printed Products store suggests the beginnings of a shift in online retail - that manufacturing can be more nimble to provide an immersive customer experience,” said Petra Schindler-Carter, Director for Amazon Marketplace Sales, in a press release. This may represent a shift towards the future of online retail, but Amazon isn't doing it right. At least, not yet.

The first issue is with how customizable these products really are. Some have nearly infinite varieties, like this super cool quark pendant (Mom, note this one for my Christmas list), and really do grant the customer a fair amount of creative control. But many other products, including most of the electronics accessories and some décor, simply aren’t customizable at all. Why do I want these things 3-D printed, anyway?

Price, you say? Maybe these 3-D printed items are cheaper than their conventionally manufactured counterparts. That would be a great argument, except that it’s wrong. Take, for example, this 3-D Printed Nexus 7 Stand. The 3-D printed version sells for $52.59. A slightly more sophisticated version, on sale in another corner of Amazon’s infinite marketplace, would run you $20.48, including shipping. You can attest that price difference to “the coolness factor” of 3-D printing.

The amount of time the products need to ship, too, is long for those of us who have been spoiled by Amazon’s inhuman delivery speeds, requiring a tortoise-like 6-10 days in most cases. That’s too long for me to wait to get my “hanging ‘dawg’” sculpture.

As it stands now, the site is missing out on the best feature of 3-D printing: its infinite capacity for invention. In an ideal world, customers would be able to design something, based on their own plans or ones provided by an external company, and Amazon would print and ship with its trademark alacrity. That would make this new marketplace into a truly exciting gamechanger, bringing the power and ease of 3-D printing to people who have never had it before.

How Google's Mapathon May Have Compromised India's National Security

Tue, 07/29/2014 - 08:00

Detail From Top 10 Mapathon India Winners The number one is in Pathankot, which is very near the disputed territory of Kashmir. Google

India's Central Bureau of Investigation is questioning an open-source map project sponsored by Google. Google's possible crime: Revealing information about sensitive military installations. Relying on locals to document the area around them, Google's contest may have documented what was known to locals but unavailable on previous maps of India.

India, like most countries engaged in a long and frustrating military stalemate over territory disputed by a nuclear-armed neighbor, wants to keep details about its own military installations out of the public eye. The government's Survey of India is responsible for maps, and that responsibility includes making sure the Open Series Maps, designed for general consumption, don't contain information from the classified Defense Series Maps.

Google's 2013 India Mapathon project came with no such military purpose behind it. Instead, the internet giant provided mapping tools to contest entrants. Top prizes included Samsung Galaxy Note tablets and cash. Notable in the terms of the contest are the specific features Google wanted map makers to label:

The drawing and annotation tools enable an Entrant to draw roads and features that are visible in the imagery, and label these items based on personal knowledge of a region, city, or town. Additionally, Entrant may use it to create points of interest, such as a school, business, or community feature, and to locate and describe points of interest.

The top ten winners of the contest are shown on the home page for Mapathon 2013. Vishal Saini, ranked number one in the contest, mapped the city of Pathankot, in the northern part of Punjab province. Pathankot is the last Indian city on the national highway to the contested state of Jammu and Kashmir, and has come under military attack before. During the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war, while the two countries fought over control of Kashmir, Pakistan bombed the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot and attempted to attack it with paratroopers.

Now, if you look up Pathankot on Google Maps, in addition to the city, there's a large section of land labeled "military area." The Survey of India claims Google didn't ask for permission before launching their map project. Crucially, the Survey of India claims a monopoly on mapping sensitive and restricted areas, and the appearance of places like Pathankot Military Area on an open map undermine that monopoly, and the national security interest behind it.

Pathankot Military Area Google

The Moon Could Be Littered With Fossils From Earth

Mon, 07/28/2014 - 17:00

Diatoms. Images a and b are raw diatoms; c and d are fossilized, and e and f are fossilized diatoms that were frozen but not shot. Mark Burchell et al., Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Since 1996, scientists have debated about whether the Martian meteorite ALH84001 contains evidence that life once existed on Mars. The rock holds some microscopic wormy-looking structures that some scientists have suggested could be fossilized remains of life on Mars, whereas others say the weird shapes derive from normal geochemical processes.

There’s some evidence that microbes living inside a rock could be blasted from their home planet, travel through space, and then crash-land on a new planet relatively unscathed. Throughout the ALH84001 debate, scientists assumed fossils could also withstand the grueling journey, but it looks like nobody actually set out to test ituntil now. 

In a new study, physicists at University of Kent tested the hypothesis with a big gun. More specifically, they took powdered diatoms (a type of microscopic algae with a hard silica shell), packed them inside a nylon bullet, added water, and froze the sample. Then, they loaded the bullets inside a light gas gun and fired them at a sack of water at speeds ranging between 0.25 and 3.1 miles per second.

When they looked in the water afterwards, the researchers analyzed the whole and partial remains of the little diatom fossils. They concluded that small fossils could survive a meteorite impact, and that if they exist, then it’s possible to find them inside meteorites.

But there are a few important caveats.  At impact speeds above 0.62 miles per second, none of the diatom fossils survived in one piece—they broke into tiny shards. And the faster they crashed into the water, the tinier the diatom bits became.  That’s a problem for any potential fossils that would fall to Earth from other planets, because meteoroids enter the Earth’s atmosphere at speeds between 6.8 and 44.7 miles per second before they hit Earth, according to the American Meteor Society.

The other important limitation is that the diatoms were shot frozen in ice, meaning they potentially behave differently during impact than they would if they were encapsulated in rock.

So the jury is definitely still out on ALH84001, and it probably will be for many years. Even if tests provide stronger evidence that fossils can travel between planetary bodies, it doesn’t necessarily mean they did.

What is pretty neat is that, because meteorite impacts tend to be slower on the Moon, it looks like fossils that have been smashed off from Earth could survive a collision with our natural satellite.  The authors conclude that the lunar surface could be a good place to scout for fossils, and those terrestrial transplants may be better preserved on the Moon than if they had remained on Earth.

No word yet on whether a dinosaur fossil could survive the impact. (Dinosaurs on the Moon? That would be crazy awesome.)

How I Used a Paint Can to Forge a Rugged Knife [Video]

Mon, 07/28/2014 - 13:18 Please enable Javascript to watch this video

Before bows and arrows, language, and even vertical foreheads, some of our ancestors survived by industriously chipping rocks into sharp tools. Today we take metal knives for granted, yet few are made to survive a world without order. 

There are two ways to make a knife: Heat up a hunk of metal and hammer it out, or cut out a rough shape and file it to a sharp edge. The latter seemed easier, and I already had some leaf-spring steel from my days as a craftsman of crossbows [see “Rebuild,” April 2014]. But the metal proved too stubborn to cut with a hacksaw. 

I needed a forge. The heat would soften the steel and ready it for shaping. I had only a wimpy workshop blowtorch, which can barely melt solder. But if I could trap its heat in one place, the temperature would rise and rise. So I took an empty paint can, punched a hole in the bottom, and screwed in a conduit fitting to hold the blowtorch in place. Firebrick and rock wool (available in most large boiler rooms) insulated my forge extremely well, and in less than 10 minutes, the leaf spring glowed cherry-red.

The softened steel yielded quickly to my hacksaw and files, and I fashioned the knife with a hollow-ground edge for easy sharpening. I also notched out some serrations, which drew blood even before I finished the project. 

Now I had a knife-shaped piece of steel, but a durable blade—hard enough to stay sharp and tough so it doesn’t crack—must cool properly. I used prewarmed canola oil to give my blade the right temper.

Did it work? I submitted my knife to the American Bladesmith Society’s punishing test. The blade had to sever a hanging rope with one swipe, chop through a two-by-four, shave off some hair, and bend at a 90-degree angle without breaking in two. To see how it fared, check out the video above.

Photograph by Ray Lego

Behind The Scenes Of “The Whole Brilliant Enterprise”

Mon, 07/28/2014 - 12:19

The final graphic Office for Creative Research

For the July issue of Popular Science, we—the Office for Creative Research—created a data visualization celebrating NASA’s long history of aerospace innovation. Since 1959, NASA has published a document called “Astronautics & Aeronautics Chronology” nearly every year, compiling news coverage of science, technology, and policy at the agency. In these compilations, NASA is reporting its own history. What kinds of stories do these documents hold? How has their language changed over the last six decades? To explore these questions, we created “The Whole Brilliant Enterprise,” a text-based visualization drawn from—by our count—4,861,706 words of NASA history.

The first step was to dig through the NASA chronologies by hand. We discovered that while the reports were an extremely descriptive history of aerospace, they lacked a hierarchy—they were simply straightforward timelines recounting events. A story about the hiring of a new NASA employee might appear alongside a story of a shuttle launch, representing chronological order but not relative importance. That mixed-up quality makes the documents wonderful to skim, but difficult to visualize.

To address the hierarchy issue, we turned to the archives of The New York Times, seeking out NASA-related headlines and articles. We took the articles’ placement in the paper of record—was it front-page news or did the story appear at the back of a section?—as a proxy for cultural impact. Then, we mapped that importance rating back onto the NASA archives, and used it to pull out the text of just the most consequential stories to act as the foundation of the visualization. It was in compiling these results that we realized that the piece should not be a rigid timeline of key NASA events, but instead a rolling impression of the agency’s eras, created by displaying some of the more popular and important terms within the articles.

Once we had the structure in place, the challenge became finding the balance between a term’s chronological location and the type size that would represent its place in the “cultural impact” hierarchy. We also had to space the individual terms evenly along a curved path. It took many iterations of the code that generated the graphic to strike that balance, but eventually we settled on a process that produced an image with the character that we had originally envisioned.

We followed a circuitous path to generate the graphic—the extent of which is evident in our sketches [below]—but we felt it was an appropriate process given the breadth of the archive. The value of our explorations is—like the histories themselves—more striking when viewed in hindsight.

A Small Gallery of Our Sketches and In-Progress Images

Counting the number of NASA-related New York Times stories We used articles in the New York Times to establish a hierarchy within the stream of stories that NASA compiles in its (almost) annual history reports. Dots here each represent a story, and are arranged by quarter. The most Times stories were published around the July 1969 moon landing. Office for Creative Research

A selection of NASA-related New York Times stories, plotted by their length and location in the paper Each dot here represents a NASA-related New York Times story. Page number of the story runs along the x-axis, and the y-axis is the story length in words. Bigger dots are stories that appear in a month that contained lots of other NASA stories—presumably meaning it was among was a flurry of noteworthy events. Lines connect consecutive stories in time. This view allowed us to determine whether our page-ranking algorithm would work to establish a hierarchy of stories in the NASA documents: If the same terms appeared in the NASA stories as in the most important Times stories, those NASA stories are likely more significant. Office for Creative Research

A quick visualization of the interconnectedness of select New York Times story abstracts on different NASA topics The white rays around the outside of the ring represent a selection of NASA-related Times stories. Longer stories create longer white radial streaks. When a single term appears in two stories, those stories are connected by an arc. The colors are randomly assigned. Office for Creative Research

Identifying the most important terms and beginning to sort them by topic At one point we used a word-cloud approach for our own internal examination of the text. The words are pulled from the NASA reports, and loosely arranged by time on the x-axis. Larger words have a higher importance index, based on our analysis of New York Times articles. They’re colored by category. Office for Creative Research

A process shot, as we calculate allowable text heights along the curves of the graphic Before we could fit text along a the curved paths of the graphic, we needed to calculate two parameters: the curvature of the line at each point (so we can lay down text that follows the curves smoothly) and the height between one curve and the next (which tells us how big the text needs to be to fill the space). This image is a screen shot of our algorithm in progress. Office for Creative Research

A study of our path-generation algorithm for the flare of “-ing” words running across the background One of the more fanciful elements in the graphic is the streaming white “-ing” words that appear in the background, evoking the flames that propel the spacecraft forward and giving a sense of flow and direction to the piece. This was the output of an early version of our program for generating the paths that we would eventually flow the “-ing” words along.  Office for Creative Research

Distributing the curves that will corral the text for on each topic in the final graphic The height of the curve is based on the number of stories in the NASA archive in each of the categories we chose to feature. Here, we’re testing how the streams would look for a handful of different category options. Office for Creative Research

Finding the perpendicular lines at the curves’ inflection points, for running text along the curves later With the final category streams in place, we then had to assess the shapes of those curves so we could flow the final text along them.  Office for Creative Research

The Whole Brilliant Enterprise: NASA’s First 50 Years In One Interactive Graphic

Mon, 07/28/2014 - 10:31

Ever since NASA established its history program in 1959, the agency has periodically compiled the world’s aeronautics advances into a single report. Assembled mostly from press releases and news stories, the documents recount coverage of budget negotiations alongside milestones like the shuttle program and the moon landing. Data illustrators at the Office for Creative Research distilled the trove of reports from 11,000 pages and 4.9 million words into just over 4,000 discrete phrases. Their illustration charts the frequency of some of the most important terms, colored by topic and arranged by time, and presents a new view of how NASA took humanity to the stars.

Explore the graphic with your mouse: zoom in and out with the scroll wheel; click and drag to pan; and click on the words that appear in white to see the terms in the original historical reports. Need more pixels? View the piece full-screen. And read more about the illustrators' process in a companion post.

A phrasal history of aerospace. Source: NASA History Program Office; additional data from the New York Times (for relative importance of keywords). Data analysis and visualization by the Office for Creative Research.