Archive for March, 2012

Women Can Make New Eggs After All

March 31, 2012

Women may make new eggs throughout their reproductive years—challenging a longstanding tenet that females are born with finite supplies, a new study says. The discovery may also lead to new avenues for improving women’s health and fertility.

A woman has two ovaries, which release eggs during her monthly ovulation. Previous research had suggested that a woman is born with all the egg cells she will ever have in her lifetime.

But in recent experiments, scientists discovered a new type of stem cell in the ovaries that—when grown in the lab—generates immature egg cells. The same immature cells isolated from adult mouse ovaries can turn into fertile eggs.

What’s more, scientists down the road could potentially use a woman’s egg stem cells to create an “unlimited supply” of eggs, which could improve or even replace difficult fertility treatments. Learn more here.


Oceans acidifying at unprecedented speed

March 30, 2012

Humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions may be acidifying the oceans at a faster rate than at any time in the last 300 million years. The sheer speed of change means we do not know how severe the consequences will be.

As well as warming the planet, carbon dioxide seeps into the oceans and forms carbonic acid. As a result the water becomes more acidic.

The pH is currently dropping by about 0.1 per century. This ocean acidification harms organisms such as corals that rely on dissolved carbonate to make their shells. It also disrupts behaviour in some animals.

Acidification is not the only threat to the oceans from greenhouse gases. Marine life also faces a threat from rising water temperatures and less dissolved oxygen.

We have to think about these effects co-occurring. While we have information on the consequences of each individual factor, we have no idea what the combined effect will be. Learn more here or here.

How to synchronise heart beats

March 29, 2012

It’s not always easy to follow your heart. But for human babies and their mothers, following each other’s hearts may be as simple as sharing a smile.

A new study shows that 3-month-old infants and their mothers can synchronize their heartbeats to mere milliseconds. Researchers sat 40 pairs of mothers and infants face-to-face, equipped with sticky skin electrodes on either side of their hearts. Beat for beat, mother-and-child hearts thumped together almost instantly as they shared loving looks or contented coos. This cardiac coupling worked only for moms with their own babies, and only when the duos synchronized smiles and other cheerful social behaviours. Learn more here.

Evolution of the Moon by NASA

March 28, 2012

The man in the moon might not change from month to month, but the lunar surface didn’t always look this way.

A new NASA video depicts the fiery history of the moon, showing how the familiar shapes we see each night were actually caused by barrages of asteroids and blazing flows of magma.

Learn more here.

1,000+ Potential New Planets Found

March 27, 2012

More than a thousand potential new planets have been found outside our solar system—nearly doubling the number of candidates discovered so far by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, according to a new study.

The fresh batch of Kepler Objects of Interest, or KOIs, emerged from an analysis of mission data gathered between May 2009 and September 2010.

The data revealed 1,091 possible new planets, bringing the total count to 2,321—up from 1,235 candidates formally announced last February.

Aside from the sheer number of new candidates, astronomers are excited that a substantial fraction of the haul appears to be made up of small, cool worlds that are more similar to Earth than many of the previous finds.

For example, Kepler’s latest discoveries include 196 new Earth-size planet candidates, nearly quadrupling the number of similar candidates announced last year. Learn more here.

Glowing Blue Waves Explained

March 26, 2012

Pinpricks of light on the shore seem to mirror stars above in a picture taken on Vaadhoo Island in the Maldives.

The biological light, or bioluminescence, in the waves is the product of marine microbes called phytoplankton—and now scientists think they know how some of these life-forms create their brilliant blue glow.

The most common type of marine bioluminescence is generated by phytoplankton known as dinoflagellates. A recent study has for the first time identified a special channel in the dinoflagellate cell membrane that responds to electrical signals—offering a potential mechanism for how the algae create their unique illumination. Learn more here.

The latest map of Everything

March 25, 2012

In infrared, this is what Everything looks like. The map of the whole sky was compiled by NASA’s infrared space telescope, WISE, and is made up of 560 million stars, galaxies and other objects.

The Milky Way’s disk and central bulge are traced out in blue, representing infrared light with a wavelength of 3.4 micrometres, which mainly comes from stars.

The bluish blobs to the bottom right are our two largest satellite galaxies, the Large and Small Magellanic clouds, more than 150,000 light years away. Andromeda forms a small blue streak to the lower left, and the image is dotted with more distant galaxies. Learn more here or here.

Like to have 10PB in your pocket?

March 24, 2012

Talk about doing more with less. A dozen atoms have been made to store a bit of data magnetically – a feat normally performed by a million atoms. The work could one day help shrink the devices that store computer data.

Today’s hard drives record data using a tiny electromagnet to align the spins of atoms in a metallic film that rotates below it. When the spins of about a million of these atoms are aligned in the same direction, their collective magnetic field can be detected by the electromagnet on its next pass. This means the million-strong group stores a single bit of data, a 1 or a 0 in binary code.

Using a scanning tunneling microscope, scientists have now been able to encode a bit of data in just 12 iron atoms kept at a temperature just a few degrees above absolute zero.

The team then placed eight of the 12-atom bits side by side, creating a byte of data made of 96 atoms. Because no magnetic field strayed from each cluster of 12 atoms, the bits could be placed together very closely, creating a byte 100 times as dense as those used in today’s hard drives.

Get ready for 10 PetaByte USB keychain drives! Learn more here.

Why you think your team is the best

March 23, 2012

Ah ref! Now you have an excuse for thinking your team always performs best. Your brain perceives the actions of people in your own team differently to those of a rival team.

Scientists divided 24 volunteers into two teams and had them judge the speed of hand actions performed by two people, one from each team.

As expected, most of the volunteers were biased towards their own team, judging their players as faster, even when the two actions were performed at identical speeds.

Surprisingly, brain scans taken during the task showed that this bias arises from differences in brain activity during perception of the hand action and not during the decision-making process. Learn more here.

Earth is losing weight

March 22, 2012

Taking into account human spacecraft going up and cloaked alien ships coming down, is the Earth gaining or losing mass? Some scientists have accounted for all of the material leaving and arriving on Earth.

Overall, they have calculated that the Earth – including the sea and the atmosphere – is losing mass. They points to a handful of reasons.

For instance, the Earth’s core is like a giant nuclear reactor that is gradually losing energy over time, and that loss in energy translates into a loss of mass.

But this is a tiny amount – no more than 16 tonnes a year.

And what about launching rockets and satellites into space, like Phobos-Grunt? Scientists discount this as most of it will fall back down to Earth again.

But there is something else that is making the planet lose mass. Gases such as hydrogen are so light, they are escaping from the atmosphere.

The conclusion is that the Earth loses 50,000 metric tonnes each year. Fortunately, compared to the immense size of the world, this is a tiny difference, a loss of just 0.000000000000001%. It would take trillions of years to empty the earth’s oceans and since the planet is only about 5 billion years old, there is nothing to worry about. Learn more here.