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For new form of male birth control, scientists turn to poison arrows

10 hours 25 min ago

Enlarge / Aim carefully. (credit: Getty | Brian Seed )

According to scientists, a poison arrow in the quiver may let loose a very sticky nether-region massacre.

The poison in question has spattered from the tips of African weapons for centuries, rubbing out wild beasts and halting the hearts of warriors. But, according to a study in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, a crotch shot of an ancient toxin called “ouabain” can also take out sperm. By tweaking the poison’s chemical backbone (or scaffold), it can selectively paralyze trouser troops and prevent them from storming eggs, the authors report.

The study’s authors, led by Shameem Sultana Syeda of the University of Minnesota, are optimistic that, with further aiming, the poison’s progeny could one day strike as a safe, reversible male contraceptive.

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A randomly generated, totally novel enzyme rescues mutant bacteria

Sat, 01/20/2018 - 15:30

Enlarge / Colorized scanning electron micrograph of Escherichia coli (E. coli), grown in culture and adhered to a cover slip. (credit: NIAID / Flickr)

Proteins are chains of amino acids, and each link in the chain can hold any one of the 20 amino acids that life relies on. If you were to pick each link at random, the number of possible proteins ends up reaching astronomical levels pretty fast.

So how does life ever end up evolving entirely new genes? One lab has been answering that question by making its own proteins from scratch.

Way back in 2016, the same lab figured out that new, random proteins can perform essential functions. And those new proteins were really new. They were generated by scientists who made amino acid sequences at random and then kept any that folded into the stable helical structures commonly found in proteins. These proteins were then screened to see if any could rescue E. coli that were missing a gene essential to survival.

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Can we zero-in on Earth’s sensitivity to CO₂?

Fri, 01/19/2018 - 14:25

Enlarge (credit: Kristin Andrus)

If it were easy to pin down the exact value for our planet’s sensitivity to greenhouse gas emission, it would have been done a long time ago—and you wouldn’t be reading yet another news story about it. It's not like we have no idea how sensitive the climate is. The range of possible values that scientists have been able to narrow it down to only spans from “climate change is very bad news” to “climate change is extremely bad news.”

But the difference between “very bad” and “extremely bad” is pretty important, so climate scientists aren’t throwing up their hands any time soon—as two new studies published this week show.

There are several basic strategies available for calculating the climate's sensitivity. These range from studying climate changes in the distant past to building and evaluating climate models to analyzing the warming over the last century or so. Each strategy has pros and cons. A handful of studies looking at the last century made waves a few years ago for yielding oddly lowball estimates of the impact of CO2 on warming, for example. Later studies have found problems that push those estimates upward when corrected, but one of this week’s studies demonstrates that the entire strategy is inherently problematic.

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Categories: News

The global state of science

Fri, 01/19/2018 - 12:59

Enlarge (credit: Oak Ridge National Lab)

By law, the National Science Foundation is required to do a biennial evaluation of the state of science research and innovation. This is one of the years it's due, and the NSF has gotten its Science and Engineering Indicators report ready for delivery to Congress and the president. The report is generally optimistic, finding significant funding for science and a strong return on that investment in terms of jobs and industries. But it does highlight how the global focus is shifting, with China and South Korea making massive investments in research and technology.

Science isn't a monolithic endeavor, so there's no way to create a single measure that captures global scientific progress. Instead, the NSF looked at 42 different indicators that track things like research funding, business investments, training of scientists, and more. All of these measures were evaluated for the globe, in order to put the US' scientific activity in perspective.

Show me the money

Overall, science funding is on a good trajectory. In 2005, global R&D spending was just under a trillion dollars; by 2015, it had cleared $2 trillion. In total, 75 percent of that is spent in 10 nations; in order of spending, these are the United States, China, Japan, Germany, South Korea, France, India, and the United Kingdom. The US alone spends about $500 billion. China, which was at roughly $100 billion a decade ago, has now cleared $400 billion.

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The Zuma failure has emboldened critics of SpaceX

Fri, 01/19/2018 - 10:25

Enlarge / The Zuma mission launched on Jan. 7 from Florida. (credit: SpaceX)

The space community has not learned much about the apparent loss of the Zuma payload launched by SpaceX on January 7, but the mystery has had one clear after effect: critics of SpaceX, including several far-right publications, have weaponized the failure of a national security satellite in their continued stream of attacks on the company.

For example The Federalist, a publication that defended the dating habits of Alabama Judge Roy Moore in his Senate campaign, opined about the accident, "It is concerning, to say the least, that American taxpayers have become the guinea pigs who will bear the risks and the costs before a final determination can be made." The conservative Washington Times also published a critical piece, noting that, "Taxpayers are tired of getting ripped off."

These articles were written by individuals with little apparent knowledge about the aerospace industry. The Federalist author lists, among his qualifications, that he "helped the 2014 freshmen Republican class to set up offices." The Times author notes on his LinkedIn profile that he is a "professional coalition builder."

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Wind with batteries? Build it quickly and it could cost $21/MWh in Colorado

Fri, 01/19/2018 - 08:35

Enlarge / A couple of wind turbines, part of the Cedar Point Wind Energy Project in Limon, Colorado. (credit: Getty Images)

Proposals for renewable electricity generation in Colorado are coming in cheap, like, $21/MWh-cheap for wind and battery storage. Though there are a few caveats to those numbers, federal incentives and quickly falling costs are combining to make once-quirky renewable projects into major contenders in an industry where fossil fuels have comfortably dominated since the 19th century.

Early last year, Colorado energy provider Xcel Energy requested proposals for new electricity generation. Specifically, the company needed 450 megawatts of additional generation to meet future demand. In a separate request called the Colorado Energy Plan, Xcel said (PDF) it would consider replacing two coal plants providing 660MW of capacity with "hundreds of megawatts of new wind and solar as well as some natural gas-fired resources" if new resources could be found cheaper than what those coal plants cost to operate (including costs to shut down the plants early).

By late November, energy companies had submitted their best offers. Although exact details of the offers aren’t available yet, Xcel Colorado was required to make public a summary of the proposals (PDF) in the month after the bids were submitted.

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NASA has pulled Jeanette Epps just months before her first flight

Thu, 01/18/2018 - 19:00

Enlarge / Jeanette Epps, left, served as a back-up crew member to Expedition 54 to the space station. (credit: NASA)

NASA issued a short news release on Thursday evening stating that Jeanette Epps will not be a part of the International Space Station crew set to launch in June. (That flight would launch from Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz rocket.) The release gave no reason why Epps was pulled from the flight.

In a response to a request for more information, Johnson Space Center spokeswoman Brandi Dean told Ars, "A number of factors are considered when making flight assignments. However, these decisions are personnel matters for which NASA doesn’t provide information."

According to NASA, Epps had returned to the active Astronaut Corps at the space center to assume duties in the astronaut office. She will be considered for assignment to future missions. Had she flown this year, Epps would have become the first African-American astronaut to live as a crew member aboard the International Space Station. Only three other African American women have flown into space. Epps' assignment in January 2017 garnered a fair amount of favorable publicity for the space agency.

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Peeved by price gouging and shortages, hospitals will now make their own drugs

Thu, 01/18/2018 - 16:28

Enlarge / Former pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli. Jail for him, competition for his kind. (credit: Getty | Drew Angerer )

For four of the country’s largest hospital systems, enough is enough.

Sick of drug companies’ eye-popping price hikes and ridiculous shortages, the feisty hospital systems announced Wednesday that they’ve banded together and formed an unnamed non-profit to make their own steady supply of affordable generic medicines.

The leading hospital system, Intermountain Healthcare, released a statement explaining:

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Planet finally stops setting warmest year records; 2017 merely finishes Top 3

Thu, 01/18/2018 - 12:03

Enlarge / The results from NASA's dataset (showing temperature above the 1951-1980 average), which ranks 2017 as the 2nd warmest year on record. (credit: NASA)

Last year had its fair share of attention-grabbing natural disasters, so you can be forgiven for not keeping an eye on the global average temperature as the months rolled by. But NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the UK Met Office all announced their final tally today: 2017 ranks as the second or third warmest year on record, depending on which dataset you ask.

In the NASA dataset, 2017 comes in a few hundredths of a degree Celsius above third-place 2015, while NOAA puts 2015 a touch above 2017. The UK Met Office dataset also ranks 2017 in third. The datasets use slightly different methods, including different approaches to handling the polar regions, where weather stations are sparse.

It turns out that the cold weather in the eastern United States around the holiday season was not indicative of what was happening on the rest of the planet, much less for the rest of the year. President Donald Trump may have been tweeting that "we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming," but he was doing so during an exceedingly warm year.

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Russia now looking to sell its prized rocket engines to China

Thu, 01/18/2018 - 09:30

Enlarge / The Atlas V rocket is powered by a single RD-180 rocket engine. (credit: United Launch Alliance)

Ever since the Crimean crisis in 2014—precipitated by Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian-held peninsula—Congress has increased pressure on the US aerospace industry to end its use of Russian-made rocket engines. In particular, legislators want United Launch Alliance to stop using the RD-180 engine in its Atlas V launch vehicle. This booster, with a 100 percent mission success rate, launches many of America's national security payloads.

As United Launch Alliance plans to transition to US-made engines early next decade, and with other US rockets already flying or soon coming online, the Russian RD-180 manufacturers are looking to other markets. In doing so, they've found willing buyers in China, although this has come with some concerns.

Even though the rocket engine technology behind the RD-180 is 40 years old, it remains one of the highest performing engines in the world, with a near-perfect service record. With 860,000 pounds of thrust (about 3.8MN), the RD-180 also happens to be three times more powerful than any Chinese rocket engine.

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Scientists racing to save vital medical isotopes imperiled by shabby reactors

Wed, 01/17/2018 - 18:10

Enlarge / A dose of Tc-99m to be used in an upcoming scan. (credit: Getty | Rene Johnston)

There’s a mad dash for a vital radioactive isotope that’s used in about 50,000 medical procedures every day in the US, including spotting deadly cancers and looming heart problems. Currently, access to it hinges on a shaky supply chain and a handful of aging nuclear reactors in foreign countries. But federal regulators and a few US companies are pushing hard and spending millions to produce it domestically and shore up access, Kaiser Health News reports.

The isotope, molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), decays to the short-lived Technetium-99m (Tc-99m) and other isotopes, which are used as radiotracers in medical imaging. Injected into patients, the isotopes spotlight how the heart is pumping, what parts of the brain are active, or if tumors are forming in bones.

But, to get to those useful endpoints, Mo-99 has to wind through a fraught journey. According to KHN, most Mo-99 in the US is made by irradiating Cold War-era uranium from America’s nuclear stockpile. The US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration secretly ships it to aging reactors abroad. The reactors—and five subsequent processing plants—are in Australia, Canada, Europe (Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, and the Czech Republic), and South Africa, according to a 2016 report by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Private companies then rent irradiation time at the reactors, send the resulting medley of isotopes to processing plants, book the final Mo-99 on commercial flights back to the US, and distribute it to hospitals and pharmacies.

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Immigrant-friendly policies make most whites feel welcomed, too

Wed, 01/17/2018 - 14:01

Enlarge (credit: National Park Service)

Immigration policy in the US has grown increasingly contentious, seemingly pitting different communities and ideologies against each other. But a new study suggests that a large majority of Americans appreciate a welcoming policy toward immigrants. Only a specific minority—white conservatives—generally feels otherwise. And the effect isn't limited to policy, as it influenced whether citizens felt welcome in the place that they lived.

The research, performed by a collaboration of US-based researchers, focused on New Mexico and Arizona. These states have similar demographics but radically different policies toward immigrants. Arizona has state policies that encourage police to check the immigration status of people they encounter; controversial Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio ended up in trouble with the court system in part due to how aggressively he pursued this program. New Mexico, by contrast, will provide state IDs and tuition benefits to immigrants regardless of their documentation status.

The researchers reasoned that these states would provide a reasonable test as to how immigration policies align with the feelings of the public. So they surveyed nearly 2,000 residents of the two states, including immigrants, naturalized US citizens, and people born in the US, focusing on the states' Caucasian and Hispanic populations.

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NASA’s internal schedule for the commercial crew program is pretty grim

Wed, 01/17/2018 - 13:51

Enlarge / Despite her smiles here, NASA's commercial crew program manager has concerns about schedules for Boeing and SpaceX. (credit: NASA)

Publicly, both Boeing and SpaceX maintain that they will fly demonstration missions by the end of this year that carry astronauts to the International Space Station. This would put them on course to become certified for "operational" missions to the station in early 2019, to ensure NASA's access to the orbiting laboratory.

On Wednesday, during a congressional hearing, representatives from both companies reiterated this position. "We have high confidence in our plan," Boeing's commercial crew program manager, John Mulholland, said. SpaceX Vice President Hans Koenigsmann said his company would be ready, too.

However their testimony before the US House Subcommittee on Space was undercut by the release of a report Wednesday by the US Government Accountability Office. The lead author of that report, Christina Chaplain, told Congress during the same hearing that she anticipated these certification dates would be much later. For SpaceX, operational flights to the station were unlikely before December, 2019, and Boeing unlikely before February, 2020, Chaplain said.

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Meteor lights up southern Michigan

Wed, 01/17/2018 - 13:38

Enlarge / That's no moon!

Early last night local time, a meteor rocketed through the skies of southern Michigan, giving local residents a dramatic (if brief) light show. It also generated an imperceptible thump, as the US Geological Survey confirmed that there was a coincident magnitude 2.0 earthquake.

The American Meteor Society has collected more than 350 eyewitness accounts, which ranged from western Pennsylvania out to Illinois and Wisconsin. They were heavily concentrated over southern Michigan, notably around the Detroit area. A number of people have also posted videos of the fireball online; one of the better compilations is below.

A compilation of several videos from Syracuse.com.

The American Meteor Society estimates that the rock was relatively slow-moving at a sedate 45,000km an hour. Combined with its production of a large fireball, the researchers conclude it was probably a big rock. NASA's meteorwatch Facebook page largely agrees and suggests that this probably means that pieces of the rock made it to Earth. If you were on the flight path, you might want to check your yard.

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How gold nanoparticles may make killing tumors easier

Wed, 01/17/2018 - 12:26

Enlarge / Nanoparticles (black dots) sit in the remains of a cell they've helped kill. (credit: University of Michigan)

One of the ways to kill a cancer is to cook it, since heat can kill cells. The trick, of course, is to only cook the cancer and not the surrounding tissue. To do this, you need to have an accurate idea of the extent of a tumor, a precise mechanism for delivering heat, and a damn good thermometer. It may surprise you to learn that gold nanoparticles do a pretty good job of achieving the first two. The third—a good thermometer—has eluded researchers for quite some time. But, now it seems that gold nanoparticles may provide the full trifecta.

Drowning a tumor in molten gold

Some cancers—the ones most people imagine when they think of cancer—form lumps of tissue. At some point, these lumps require a blood supply. Once supplied with blood vessels, the tumor can not only grow, but it has a readily available transport system to deliver the cells that can spread the cancer throughout the body. For the patient, this is not good news.

The development of a blood supply opens up new imaging and treatment options, though. Cancer tumors are not well-organized tissues compared to healthy tissue like muscle or kidney tissue. So there are lots of nooks and crannies in a tumor that can trap small particles. And this disorganization is exactly what researchers hope to take advantage of. Gold nanoparticles are injected into the blood stream; these exit the blood supply, but, in most of the body, they get rapidly cleaned out. Except that, inside tumors, the nanoparticles lodge all over the place.

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DNA from an escaped slave who ended up in Iceland ID’d in his descendants

Tue, 01/16/2018 - 16:53

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

Hans Jonatan left Denmark in 1802 and eventually started a new life as an immigrant in Iceland. But he was an unusual Icelander. Unlike most Icelanders—and even most immigrants to Iceland—Hans Jonatan was mixed-race and a former slave. By piecing together genetic information from his descendants, scientists in Iceland have now reconstructed a substantial portion of Jonatan's own genome and genetic history.

Jonatan's history has been a subject of fascination, not only because he was an unexpected person to find in 19th-century Iceland, but because of his role in Danish legal history. His journey started in the Caribbean, where he was born to an enslaved mother in the then-Danish colony of St. Croix. Jonatan and his mother were brought along when the plantation-owning family returned to Denmark, but Jonatan managed to escape and ended up joining the Danish Navy.

When he was eventually caught and imprisoned, his lawyer argued for his emancipation on the grounds that slavery was illegal in Denmark, albeit still legal in Danish colonies. Jonatan lost the case, and the judge ordered that Jonatan should be returned to the Caribbean. He escaped again and disappeared from Denmark, turning up in 1805 in Iceland.

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Neuron cascade may be akin to neutral selection in evolution

Tue, 01/16/2018 - 10:28

Enlarge (credit: Miguel Navarro / Getty Images)

"I am sorry, but your brain suffers from avalanches" is a diagnosis that should be a thing. The cure should involve a St. Bernard digging neurons out from under piles of neurotransmitters. Unfortunately, everyone's brain suffers from avalanches. Indeed, I can safely diagnose anyone who does not suffer from avalanches as dead. (And you thought the barriers to graduate school were intellectual?)

An avalanche in the brain is basically a small, generally inconspicuous event that triggers a massive cascade of neuronal activity. These are observed to occur without any external triggers.

So why do they occur? It has been thought that these avalanches should confer some sort of benefit, but new research suggests that it might just be a noisy accident.

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Beware a bottled booger blast—they can blow up your throat, doctors warn

Tue, 01/16/2018 - 09:01

Enlarge / Picture shows a woman about to sneeze holding a handkerchief in her hand. (credit: Getty | Bettmann)

Ah… AHHH… Choose wisely when it comes to handling that impending sneeze. Holding one in can lead to some serious damage, British doctors report Monday in BMJ Case Reports.

In their rare-disease case report, they relay the tale of an otherwise healthy 34-year-old male who managed to tear a hole the back of his throat trying to extinguish a snot explosion.

The man showed up in an emergency room with an alarming popping sensation and swelling in his throat. He was also in terrible pain and could barely talk. Subsequent X-rays and CT scans revealed that he had bubbles of air throughout his neck, including along his spine. The doctors also noted a crackling, grating sound coming from both sides of his throat down to his chest, which is a sign of gas trapped inside tissue.

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Gut bacteria linked to cataclysmic epidemic that wiped out 16th-century Mexico

Mon, 01/15/2018 - 19:55

Enlarge / Entrance of Hernan Cortes into Mexico (credit: Kurz & Allison)

In the wake of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521, waves of epidemics slammed Mexico. By 1576, the population, which had been more than 20 million before the Spanish arrived, had crashed to two million. One brutal outbreak in 1545 was estimated to have killed between five and 15 million alone—or up to 80 percent of the population.

But, like the other epidemics, the disease behind the 1545 outbreak was a complete mystery—until now.

Genetic evidence pulled from the teeth of 10 victims suggests that the particularly nasty bacterium Salmonella enterica subsp. enterica serovar Paratyphi C contributed to the scourge of fever, bleeding, dysentery, and red rashes recorded at the time. The genetic data, published Monday in Nature Ecology and Evolution, offers the first molecular evidence to try to explain what’s “regarded as one of the most devastating epidemics in New World history,” the authors conclude.

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Whatever causes fast radio bursts is sitting in an intense magnetic field

Mon, 01/15/2018 - 15:20

Enlarge / The fast radio burst in question, FRB 121102, is located in the top-right portion of the image. On the left is a large supernova remnant. (credit: Rogelio Bernal Andreo (DeepSkyColors.com))

The Arecibo Observatory may be suffering along with the rest of Puerto Rico, but some of its data made a big appearance in last week's edition of Nature. The data comes from the only object of its type we've identified yet: a repeating source of fast radio bursts. And, while the new observations don't definitively tell us what's creating the bursts, they do suggest that whatever it is, it's buried in an extremely energetic cloud of material that's generating some of the most intense magnetic fields we've yet found in the Universe. So intense, in fact, that if the source of the magnetic field is a black hole, then it is as massive as 10,000 Suns.

What is that?

A bit over a decade ago, we didn't even know that fast radio bursts existed. Then a radiotelescope accidentally captured a sudden spike of immense energy that vanished within an instant. That might be dismissed as a hardware glitch, except the observatory eventually caught a few more; over time, dedicated searches revealed that fast radio bursts are a regular, if rare, phenomenon.

The amount of energy produced in a fast radio burst typically comes from a cataclysmic event, one that destroys its source. And indeed, there was no indication of a second burst from any of these sources—but no sign of anything interesting at their location in any other wavelength. The source of fast radio bursts remained a mystery.

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