Iceland’s new island is an exclusive club – for scientists only

From Iceland’s new island is an exclusive club – for scientists only.

Buckled in? Check. Life jacket secure? Check. Noise-reduction headphones on? Check. No seeds in any of your belongings? Check. You sure? Yes. And up lifts the Icelandic Coast Guard’s Super Puma helicopter ferrying me to Iceland’s jealously guarded natural gem, Surtsey Island.

Though it was named this summer to the UNESCO World Heritage List – joining other natural heritage sites like the Great Barrier Reef, the Galapágos and Yellowstone National Park – no tourist will ever get to visit.

Located 20 miles off Iceland’s southern coast, Surtsey – named after Surtur, the fire giant of Norse mythology – was created in a volcanic eruption that began not millions of years ago, but on Nov. 14, 1963. It was a fresh specimen of geological and biological evolution. And even as the eruption was still in progress in 1965, the Icelandic government designated the island a nature reserve – for scientists only; a place they could document the evolution rock by rock, blade by blade, bird by bird.

Geneticist Sturla Fridriksson has been here from the beginning, and my feet had barely hit the island before its white-maned icon was chuckling to me that he’s "twice as old as these hills… Here in Iceland we talk about the trolls getting very old. And the trolls are as old as the mountains." [continue]

Scientists target mouse memories to erase

From the Globe and Mail: Scientists target mouse memories to erase.

It seems like a movie plot, but scientists have developed a way to erase specific memories in mice while leaving others intact and not damaging the brain.

By manipulating levels of an important protein in the brain, certain memories can be selectively deleted, researchers led by neurobiologist Joe Tsien of the Medical College of Georgia reported in the journal Neuron.

While some experts have suggested there could be value in erasing certain memories in people such as [continue]

New life found in ancient tombs

From Science Daily: New Life Found In Ancient Tombs.

Life has been discovered in the barren depths of Rome’s ancient tombs, proving catacombs are not just a resting place for the dead. The two new species of bacteria found growing on the walls of the Roman tombs may help protect our cultural heritage monuments, according to research published in the September issue of the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology.

The Catacombs of Saint Callistus are part of a massive graveyard that covers 15 hectares, equivalent to more than 20 football pitches. The underground tombs were built at the end of the 2nd Century AD and were named after Pope Saint Callistus I. More than 30 popes and martyrs are buried in the catacombs.

"Bacteria can grow on the walls of these underground tombs and [continue]

Body exhumed in fight against flu

From the BBC: Body exhumed in fight against flu.

The body of an aristocrat who died nearly 90 years ago has been exhumed in the hope that it will help scientists combat a future flu pandemic.

Yorkshire landowner Sir Mark Sykes died in France in 1919 from Spanish flu.

Sir Mark was buried in a lead coffin which scientists hope may have helped preserve the virus.

They believe his remains will help piece together the DNA of Spanish flu, which could have a similar genetic structure to modern bird flu.

This knowledge, added to major breakthroughs by American scientists last year, could help prevent a modern pandemic through the development of new drugs. [continue]

Study may boost forecasts for Vesuvius blasts

From Study may boost forecasts for Vesuvius blasts.

The magma pool feeding the Italian volcano that destroyed Pompeii in AD 79 has shifted in the past 2 000 years, a discovery that could help in predicting future eruptions, researchers said in the journal Nature.

Vesuvius is in southern Italy near Naples, one of the most densely populated volcanic regions in the world. Its crater is 1 280m above and 20km away from Naples, Italy’s third largest city.

Scientists had thought the pool remained constant over the past 4 000 years but new investigations detailed on Wednesday showed the chamber had actually shifted higher between the Pompeii eruption in AD 79 and the Pollena one in AD 472.

Knowing the location of the lava pool is important because [continue]

Build a tree-ring timeline

From Build a Tree-Ring Timeline

If you’re the skeptical type, you might raise an eyebrow when you hear that a particular Viking ship was built in the year 819. How could anyone determine the age of such an aged object so precisely, especially when there are absolutely no records to verify the date?

Well, tree-ring dating, or dendrochronology, can be this precise, and even more so. Dendrochronologists showed that an ancient wooden road uncovered in southwestern England not only was built in 3806 B.C., but that the trees used for the road were chopped down in the winter of that year (the winter of 3807-3806). The science can also reveal the origin of old pieces of wood. In one case, archeologists determined not only the age of a Viking ship found in Denmark, they also learned that it was built in Ireland.

The basis of dendrochronology lies in [continue]

Chocolate teapot experiment

Now this is the kind of science I really like: How useless is a Chocolate Teapot? From The Naked Scientists:

You have heard the saying, but it is meaningless unless you know exactly how useful a chocolate teapot actually is. We try to find out how thick the walls of a chocolate teapot would have to be to let you brew tea… [continue]

The site includes photos, a video, and look, there’s a chocolate teapot!

(Link found here at Scribal Terror.)

Continue reading

In our genes, old fossils take on new roles

From the Washington Post: In Our Genes, Old Fossils Take On New Roles.

Over the past 15 years, scientists have been comparing the inherited genetic material — the genomes — of dozens of organisms, acquiring a life history of life itself. (…) It turns out that about 8 percent of the human genome is made up of viruses that once attacked our ancestors. The viruses lost. What remains are the molecular equivalents of mounted trophies, insects preserved in genomic amber, DNA fossils.

The thousands of human endogenous retroviruses, or HERVs, sketch a history of rough times during the 550 million years of vertebrate evolution. The best-preserved one, HERV-K113, probably arrived less than 200,000 years ago, long after human beings and chimpanzees diverged from a common ancestor.

But these retroviruses are more than just curiosities. They are some of the most important enemies we ever had. They helped mold the immune system that is one of the evolutionary marvels of life on Earth. [continue]

Tahitian vanilla originated in Maya forests, says botanist

From Science Daily: Tahitian Vanilla Originated In Maya Forests, Says Botanist.

The origin of the Tahitian vanilla orchid, whose cured fruit is the source of the rare and highly esteemed gourmet French Polynesian spice, has long eluded botanists. Known by the scientific name Vanilla tahitensis, Tahitian vanilla is found to exist only in cultivation; natural, wild populations of the orchid have never been encountered.

Now, a team of investigators led by Pesach Lubinsky, a postdoctoral researcher with Norman Ellstrand, a professor of genetics in UC Riverside’s Department of Botany and Plant Sciences, claims to have traced Tahitian vanilla back to its true origins. [continue]

Bees, fish analyzed to understand serial killers

From Bees, Fish Analyzed to Understand Serial Killers.

Studying species in the animal world helps police catch human criminals — and vice versa. Originally developed to catch serial killers, a method called geographic profiling is now being used to study great white sharks, bats and bees.

In turn, criminologists expect that these biological studies will help refine their criminal studies, making it easier for them to catch criminals more quickly. Eventually they want to apply it to other fields, such as epidemiology.

"The same general geographic framework that criminologists use to catch criminals can be used by zoologists as well," said Kim Rossmo, co-author of an article in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface and a professor at the Texas State University Center for Geospatial Intelligence and Investigation.

“This makes us think that it can be applied to other areas as well, like epidemiology.” [continue]

In the summer kitchen, the thrill of the chill

From the New York Times: In the Summer Kitchen, the Thrill of the Chill.

It lasted only a moment, but it was the most refreshed I’ve ever felt at the dining table. All of a sudden my mouth was shockingly cold, so cold that I could see my breath. As the cold dissipated I could sense acidity, astringency, the aroma of lime. Meanwhile, there was the sight of my companions, eyes wide open and vapor jets shooting from their lips and nostrils. Each of them looked like Yosemite Sam blowing his stack.

The morsels that had cleansed our palates and minds were a mixture of lime juice, green tea, vodka, sugar and egg white that was whipped into a light foam, portioned into spoonfuls, and frozen. At 320 degrees below zero. In liquid nitrogen.

The nitro-poached mousse was invented in 2001 at the Fat Duck, near London, and has been much emulated since. These days there is less talk in cutting-edge kitchens about burners and B.T.U.’s, and more about the Antigriddle, a boxy flat-top appliance that keeps its surface at minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit. With it you could, for example, freeze puddles of crème anglaise and flip them into soft-center ice cream flapjacks. Cold is the new heat. [continue]

I’m tempted to try the no-tech ice cream method listed at the end of the article.

Continue reading

How a terrified expression could keep you alive

From the Guardian: Face of fear: how a terrified expression could keep you alive.

The evolutionary mystery of why our faces contort when we are scared has been solved by a team of Canadian neuroscientists.

When our facial expression shifts to one of eye-bulging, nostril-flaring fear, our ability to sense attackers or other imminent danger improves dramatically, researchers found.

The findings lend support to an idea first laid out by Charles Darwin in one of his less well-known tomes, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872. Darwin noted that [continue]

Mini subs to probe odd structures in BC lake

This is from McMaster University , via EurekAlert: Mini subs to probe odd structures in BC lake.

Single person submersibles have been called in to help scientists retrieve samples from a lake in northern British Columbia that may hold vital clues to the history of life on Earth and on other planets.

Greg Slater, an environmental geochemist in the Faculty of Science, says the objects of scientific interest are unique carbonate rock structures, known as microbialites because they are covered with microbes. Some of these microbialites grow at depths up to 180 feet below the water’s surface, too deep to reach by non-decompression SCUBA diving.

"Are they the result of biological or geological processes? Why are there different microbes living on them and how long have these microbial communities been preserved? These are some of our big questions," says Slater, who joined the international team researching these curious specimens three years ago. [continue]

Continue reading

Five things humans no longer need

From ABC News: Five Things Humans No Longer Need.

Vestigial organs are parts of the body that once had a function but are now more-or-less useless. Probably the most famous example is the appendix, though it is now an open question whether the appendix is really vestigial. The idea that we are carrying around useless relics of our evolutionary past has long fascinated scientists and laypeople alike.

This week we tackle vestigial organs in a feature article that looks at how the idea has changed over the years, and how it has come under attack from creationists anxious to deny that vestigial organs (and hence evolution) exist at all. To accompany the article, here is our list of the five organs and functions most likely to be truly vestigial. [continue]

Sulfur in marine archaeological shipwrecks

From EurekAlert: Sulfur in marine archaeological shipwrecks — the ‘hull story’ gives a sour aftertaste.

Advanced chemical analyses reveal that, with the help of smart scavenging bacteria, sulfur and iron compounds accumulated in the timbers of the Swedish warship Vasa during her 333 years on the seabed of the Stockholm harbour. Contact with oxygen, in conjunction with the high humidity of the museum environment, causes these contaminants to produce sulfuric acid, according to a new doctoral thesis in chemistry from Stockholm University. [continue]

Scientists discover why plague is so lethal

From Science Daily: Scientists Discover Why Plague Is So Lethal.

Bacteria that cause the bubonic plague may be more virulent than their close relatives because of a single genetic mutation, according to research published in the May issue of the journal Microbiology.

"The plague bacterium Yersinia pestis needs calcium in order to grow at body temperature. When there is no calcium available, it produces a large amount of an amino acid called aspartic acid," said Professor Brubaker from the University of Chicago, USA. "We found that this is because Y. pestis is missing an important enzyme."

Bubonic plague has killed over 200 million people during the course of history and is thus the most devastating acute infectious disease known to man. Despite this, we are still uncertain about the molecular basis of its extraordinary virulence.

"Y. pestis evolved from its ancestor Y. pseudotuberculosis within the last 20,000 years, suggesting its high lethality reflects [continue]

As some of you were discussing Y pestis in this comment thread, I thought you might be interested.

Tests confirm T. Rex kinship with birds

From the New York Times: Tests Confirm T. Rex Kinship With Birds.

In the first analysis of proteins extracted from dinosaur bones, scientists say they have established more firmly than ever that the closest living relatives of the mighty predator Tyrannosaurus rex are modern birds.

The research, being published Friday in the journal Science, yielded the first molecular data confirming the widely held hypothesis of a close dinosaur-bird ancestry, the American scientific team reported. The link was previously suggested by anatomical similarities.

In fact, the scientists said, T. rex shared more of its genetic makeup with ostriches and chickens than with living reptiles, like alligators. On this basis, the research team has redrawn the family tree of major vertebrate groups, assigning the dinosaur a new place in evolutionary relationships. [continue]

Shroud of Turin’s authenticity probed anew

From Shroud of Turin’s Authenticity Probed Anew.

The Shroud of Turin, the 14- by 4-foot linen believed by some to have been wrapped around Jesus after the crucifixion, might not be a fake after all, according to new research.

The director of one of three laboratories that dismissed the shroud as a medieval artifact 20 years ago has called for the science community to reinvestigate the linen’s authenticity.

"With the radiocarbon measurements and with all of the other evidence which we have about the shroud, there does seem to be a conflict in the interpretation of the different evidence," said Christopher Ramsey, director of England’s Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, which carried out radiocarbon dating tests on the cloth in 1988.

Venerated by many Catholics as proof that Christ was resurrected from the grave, the yellowing cloth is kept rolled up in a silver casket in Turin’s Cathedral.

Scientific interest in the linen, which has survived several blazes since it was discovered, began in 1898, when it was photographed by lawyer Secondo Pia. The negatives revealed the image of a bearded man with pierced wrists and feet and a bloodstained head. [continue]

Continue reading

Napoleon poisoning claims debunked

From Napoleon Poisoning Claims Debunked.

Napoleon Bonaparte did not die from arsenic poisoning, a new examination of the French emperor’s hair has established. (…)

Now, Italian scientists have repeated the hair testing using a small nuclear reactor. The study will be published in the March issue of the Italian journal Il Saggiatore.

Researchers from the universities of Pavia and Milan analyzed several hair samples that had been taken during different periods of Napoleon Bonaparte’s life — from when he was a boy in Corsica, during his exile on the Island of Elba, on the day of his death on the Island of Saint Helena, and on the day after his death.

Samples taken from Napoleon II (Bonaparte’s son) in the years 1812, 1816, 1821 and 1826, and samples from Napoleon’s wife the Empress Josephine, collected upon her death in 1814, were also analyzed.

In addition to those historical samples, obtained from various French and Italian museums, the researchers tested [continue]

Viking blood in England

From Science Daily: Viking Blood Courses Through Veins Of Many A Northwest Englander.

The blood of the Vikings is still coursing through the veins of men living in the North West of England — according to a new study.

Focusing on the Wirral in Merseyside and West Lancashire the study of 100 men, whose surnames were in existence as far back as medieval times, has revealed that 50 per cent of their DNA is specifically linked to Scandinavian ancestry.

The collaborative study, by The University of Nottingham, the University of Leicester and University College London, reveals that the population in parts of northwest England carries up to 50 per cent male Norse origins, about the same as modern Orkney.

I loved the place name section of this article:

After their expulsion from Dublin in 902AD the Wirral Vikings, initially led by the Norwegian Viking INGIMUND, landed in their boats along the north Wirral coastline. Place names still reflect the North West’s Viking past. Aigburth, Formby, Crosby, Toxteth, Croxteth are all Viking names — even the football team Tranmere is Viking. Thingwall is the name of a Viking parliament or assembly (Thingvellir in Iceland) and the only two in England are both in the North West — one in Wirral and one in Liverpool. [continue]

How do you grow a glacier?

From 60 Second Science: How do you grow a glacier?.

Villagers in the Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountains have practiced "glacier growing" for centuries, according to local legend. Historically, snowmelt often hasn’t provided enough water for crops or humans in the dry, high-altitude regions, so growing glaciers became crucial to survival. How did they do it? By combining "male" and "female" glaciers to grow the glaciers larger.

Before you laugh at what sounds like old-world witchcraft, consider this: Researcher Ingvar Tveiten from the Department of International Environment and Development Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences seems to support the locals’ methods of glacier farming. While only a few villages still have glacier-growing elders, if Tveiten can refine and disseminate these techniques for glacier growing, it could go a long way to alleviating problems caused by population growth and glacier retreat in the poverty-plagued mountains of Central Asia.

So how does it work? Local tradition believes that there are two types of glaciers: [continue]

Continue reading

‘Super-scope’ shines on Mary Rose

From the BBC: ‘Super-scope’ shines on Mary Rose.

The research is taking place at the Diamond synchrotron, a beam-generating machine that covers the area of five football pitches.

Scientists are using the facility in a bid to fine-tune the conservation of the historic vessel’s timbers.

The Mary Rose, pride of Henry VIII’s English fleet, sank in 1545 and lay on the sea bed until being raised in 1982.

The work carried out at Diamond will help conservators understand more about the sulphur compounds buried deep within the ship’s timbers.

Researchers aim to find out how stable they are, as these can be converted to sulphuric acid when oxygen is present – threatening preservation efforts. [continue]

Hidden method of reading revealed

From the BBC: Hidden method of reading revealed.

The mystery of how we read a sentence has been unlocked by scientists.

Previously, researchers thought that, when reading, both eyes focused on the same letter of a word. But a UK team has found this is not always the case.

In fact, almost 50% of the time, each of our eyes locks on to different letters simultaneously.

At the BA Festival of Science in York, the researchers also revealed that our brain can fuse two separate images to obtain a clear view of a page.

Sophisticated eye-tracking equipment allowed the team to pinpoint which letter a volunteer’s eyes focused on [continue]

Out-of-body experience recreated

From the Beeb: Out-of-body experience recreated.

Experts have found a way to trigger an out-of-body experience in volunteers.

The experiments, described in the Science journal, offer a scientific explanation for a phenomenon experienced by one in 10 people.

Two teams used virtual reality goggles to con the brain into thinking the body was located elsewhere.

The visual illusion plus the feel of their real bodies being touched made volunteers sense that they had moved outside of their physical bodies.

The researchers say their findings could have practical applications, such as helping take video games to the next level of virtuality so the players feel as if they are actually inside the game.

Clinically, surgeons might also be able to perform operations on patients thousands of miles away by controlling a robotic virtual self. [continue]