Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Spiders on drugs

An oldie but a goodie.

Seriously though, there is a long history of scientists pushing drugs on innocent unsuspecting spiders, dating back at least as far as 1954. NASA scientists had a go in the in 1995, with wacky results.

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Sunday, 28 September 2008

It's a bird, it's a plane...

No, it's a man with wings and jetpack! The future has finally arrived! Yves Rossy (a.k.a. Fusion man), a (presumably somewhat crazy) Swiss 49 year old, flew across the channel on Friday with a rocket pack in under 10 minutes.

About a previous flight, he said "I'm really pleased it went well." Attached to heavy metal home made wings, and with 4 kerosene-burning turbines only centimeters from his body, "really pleased" is somewhat of an understatement, I think. Try "alive". It doesn't even have proper steering. He controls it with his body. Nutter. Gotta love it.

Watch his previous flight here:

Meanwhile, Stephane Rousson, a 39-year-old French nutter, failed
in his attempt to cross the channel in a pedal-powered airship this weekend. Although his craft, essentially a bicycle attached to a blimp, may be less futuristic looking, I'm guessing it is more environmentally friendly. I hope this is not the solution for sustainable flying though... I'd rather have my own jetpack.

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Thursday, 25 September 2008

And the (scientific) photo winners are...

The winners of the 2008 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge have been announced, and are definitely worth checking out:

Glass forest. Taken by Mario De Stefano with a scanning electron microscope, this image took the first place in the Photography section. It shows diatoms, tiny algae, attached to a marine hydroid, another tiny plant-like creature. According to Stefano:
“This is the study of a community, … the same community as you would find in a rainforest.”

Squid suckers. Honourable mention in the Photography section, Jessica D. Schiffman and Caroline show the 400 micrometer diameter suckers that Loligo pealei squid use to latch on to prey. False colour scheme inspired by Little Shop of Horrors.

Visualizing the bible. Honourable mention in the Illustration section, Chris Harrison and Christoph Römhild show that science and religion needn't always disagree. Bar along the bottom represent the different chapters from the bible, and the length of the bars represent the number of verses in the chapter. The arcs represent the 63,779 cross references in the bible, with different colours representing the distances between connected chapters.

Mad hatter's tea, from Alice's adventures in a microscopic wonderland. Colleen Champ and Dennis Kunkel won first place in Informational Graphics for this whimsical science drawing. The Mad Hatter, March Hare and sleepy Dormouse (beetles) sit at a table (of butterfly wings), surrounded by a field (of crystallized vitamin C), under a flock of flying geese (a.k.a. aphids), atop a colourful explosion (of mold spores).

I like this one too, but have no idea what it is. Something to do with a worm, perhaps?

There's lots of other c
ool entries, including some science websites, such as Exploring Life's Origins, that are worth a gander too.

The full details seem to be at the NSF website, with links to past winners too, and Science also has a spread on the competition.

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Step towards safer stem cells

Researchers have turned adult cells into stem cells using a virus that doesn't fuse with the cell's genome, providing a potentially safer way to generate stem cells, Konrad Hochedlinger and colleagues reported in Science.

Scientists have made huge advances in stem cell biology of late, and can reprogramme adult human cells into induced so-called pluripotent stem (iPS) cells by overexpressing a set of proteins. Although these reprogrammed cells provide great promise for stem cell therapy — they can alleviate symptoms of Parkinson's and sickle cell anemia in mouse models, for example — there are still many barriers to their safe therapeutic use. For one thing, scientists have had to reprogramme target cells with a virus that fuses with the host genome, and this fusion process increases the risk of tumour development.

To address this considerable limitation, Hochedlinger and colleagues used adenoviruses, which don't fuse with the host genome, to reprogramme adult mouse cells. These so-called adeno-iPS cells are similar to conventional iPS cells — they can differentiate into various tissue, including lung, brain and heart — but do not increase the risk of tumour formation or fuse with the host's genome.

If these findings can be replicated in human cells, adeno-iPS cells may represent a source of safe stem cells, that can be tailored to individual patients' needs, with broad implications for stem-cell therapy.

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Friday, 19 September 2008

Ejaculation - 1, sudafed - 0?

Or, Put away that tissue, and grab a tissue?

The title of this recent Medical Hypotheses article pretty much says it all: "Ejaculation as a potential treatment of nasal congestion in mature males."

Sina Zarritan makes the logical (?) argument that as ejaculation stimulates adrenergic receptors, and as stimulation of adrenergic receptors relieves cold symptoms, masturbation/sex can be used to treat a stuffed nose.

A more in-depth analysis of the article is available at Neurotopia.

Not every one is having it though. In "Ejaculation as a treatment for nasal congestion in men is inconvenient, unreliable and potentially hazardous", also published in Medical Hypotheses, Mohammad Fakhree disagrees. Again the title says it all really. His insightful arguments include:

"...in some males there are limitations in the number of ejaculation per day..."


"Furthermore there are some limitations in using of ejaculation or masturbation as treatment of nasal congestion such as not being applicable out of home and not having any sex partner."

Brilliant!! More on Fakhree's disagreement is available at The Lay Scientist.

Sudafed sales set to fall?

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Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Fruit - up close and personal

Fruit, a new book by Rob Kesseler and Wolfgang Stuppy, provides an amazingly up close examination of the colourful fruits and seeds that make our world so tasty. Kesseler and Stuppy use electron microscopy to showcase seeds, sometimes providing insight into the ingenious ways in which fruits make sure their seeds get spread. The photos are beautiful.

Scarlet pimpernel. When an animal brushes past the scarlet pimpernell, it knocks the outer casing open so that the seeds can escape. Seeds that fall onto the animal catch a free ride to distant fields.

Creeping carrot. This seed has wings, which allow it to fly in the wind, and spikes, which allow it to attach to passing animals. In either case, it can go far.

Strawberries. Mmmmmmmmm.

Peach skin. The short and long hairs make up the peach fuzz. The interspersed spots are fruits the breathing pores.

Poppy. When the wind blows the poppy, its tiny little seeds are thrown out of the open holes at the top of the capsule, like salt from salt shaker.

Three corner jack (Emex australis). Now matter how this seed falls, it always has a sharp spike that will stick up into the air, so that it can lodge itself into the foot of a passing animal and hitch a ride.

A fig. You will never see flowers on fig trees - oddly, the fig flowers are closely packed together inside the fruit, as is shown above.

Japanese wineberry.

Mulberry. Unlike blackberries and raspberries, which form from a single flower, the mulberry forms from a cluster of flowers, with each flower creating a single tasty segment of fruit.

Kiwi skin.

This seed has lots of hooks, which allows it to cling to the outside of animals. Apparently many herbs use this technique to ensure the dispersal of their seeds.

And some others that you need to buy the book to find out more about:

An interesting slideshow of some of these photos is available here. Time to go make a fruit salad now.

PS: Thanks to Hackosphere for helping me to use selective expandable posts.

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Friday, 12 September 2008

Look, but don't touch

Alex Villegas has been photographing and recording wildlife in the Costa Rican jungle for some 15 years. This creepy crawly caterpillar, photographed by Alex, is not just visually stunning, it's also physically stunning -- if you're lucky enough to come across one of these, don't touch unless you want it to sting. More photos available on the BBC here.

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Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Successful powerup, overreported news

It's difficult to avoid news about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN today. For my part, I find it difficult to get excited about the LHC. I find it even harder to get excited at the mere fact that it has been powered up. Perhaps when protons start colliding, things might get exciting.
As to those foos who think that the LHC might cause a block hole that will destroy the earth, here is a useful website to keep you up to date: http://hasthelargehadroncolliderdestroyedtheworldyet.com/

There are some pretty stunning photos of the beast at National Geographic though.
And there is also a surprising excellent News Feature by Cory Doctorow in Nature about data storage, discussing in part how the CERN will handle the massive amounts of data that will be generated by the LHC experiments.

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Monday, 8 September 2008

Water bears in space!

Water bears, scientifically known as Tardigrades, are not only unbelievably funny looking animals, they can also survive in space!

First reported in 1773, water bears have since been described by scientists as “One of the most miraculous creatures" (by Gustav Jager in 1867) and as “strange miniaturized water animals" (by Alfred Kaestner in 1969). Though water bears are widespread around the earth, they are only 0.3 mm long, and so escape detection. Despite their small size, they have many of the characteristics of larger animals, including legs, claws, eyes and muscles. Something that makes them even remarkable, however, is there ability to enter a dried-up, and super resistant state — dried water bears can survive years without water.

Reporting in Current Biology, Petra Rettberg and colleagues now sent a minutia of dried-up water bears (what do you call a group of water bears?) into space. Amazingly, these animals were able to survive 10 days exposure to the harsh conditions of outer space — freezing temperatures, extreme desiccation and phenomenally high levels of radiation! Until now, only lichens and bacteria had survived such conditions.

Watch the video below to see a water bear doing it’s adorable victory dance. Three cheers for the water bear!

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Friday, 5 September 2008

Not science, but certainly bite size!

Really cool, and really tiny, street art by Slinkachu adorns London streets -- though I doubt it stays there for very long.

More available on Slinkachu’s blogs here and here. And, there is a BBC video on this miniature artist.

I want one.

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Thursday, 4 September 2008

Should I stay or should I go?

Flowering plants use subtle chemical cues to simultaneously attract and reject visitors, ensuring the best fertilization results, Ian Baldwin and colleagues report in Science.

Plants, for the most part immobile, have had to evolve tricky ways to get others to do their fertilizing dirty work. Flowers, with their bright colours and fresh scents, have had a key role in attracting insects and birds to spread pollen between flowers. Unfortunately, however, these visitors aren’t always there to help -- nectar thieves, for instance, hinder plant procreation by using up valuable plant resources without providing anything in return. So how can plants ensure that visitors come to their flowers (where they can pick up pollen), but then not stay too long (they need to visit other plants too for fertilization to succeed, after all) or hog the nectar?

To examine this question, Ian Baldwin and colleagues manipulated production of benzyl acetone, a floral attractant, and nicotine, a repellent, in Nicotiana attenuata, a tobacco plant. In the absence of benzyl acetone, pollinators such as hummingbirds, visited the flowers much less frequently. In the absence of nicotine, however, nectar thieves, such as moths and carpenter bees, were observed feeding on the flowers more frequently. Moreover, when the plants produced both the attractant and the repellent, as they do in the wild, they produced the most seeds – in other words, had the highest fertilization success.

Using a mix of attracting and rejecting signals, plants seem to have mastered the subtle art of seduction. Whether this explains why it’s best not to call too soon after a first date is still unclear.

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Monday, 1 September 2008

Weird and Wonderful

Don’t have a bedside table but what to read in bed? That’s not a problem -- just turn on your light spectacles.

Weird and Wonderful Gadgets and Inventions, hosted at the British Library in London, is currently hosting an inspiring exhibit showcasing a selection of some fantastic(al) and bizarre inventions. The small exhibit, made up of only 3 or 4 glass cabinets of goods, is definetly worth checking out if you happen to be in the St Pancras/Kings Cross neighbourhood. My favorites (other than the light spectacles):

Moustach protectors. Developed to keep your finely kept moustache dry. While the best of these (top right) covered your whole moustache, other versions consisted of cups and spoons with special holes that ensured liquids went straight into your mouth, not on to your moustache.

Finger stretcher. Developed in 1910, this (potentially dangerous) device let pianists stretch there fingers so that they could play difficult codes.

Route finder. Before the days of blackberries, iphones and the like, people were still able to find their way on the fly without carrying big maps... This wristwatch like route finder from the 1930s could show you the way, provided you loaded the write map into it before you set off.

More photos available here.

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