Category - Science

Under a Farmer’s Field: A Woolly Mammoth in Michigan

New York Times, By Nicholas St. Fleur, October 2

Buried beneath a Michigan farmer’s soy field were the butchered remains of a woolly mammoth. Paleontologists think that the skull, tusks, jaws and other parts that they uncovered on Thursday were stored there by early humans in a primitive fridge more than 10,000 years ago.

Last Monday James Bristle, the farmer, came across what he thought was a fence post while digging in his yard, only to discover that it was actually a rib, according to The Ann Arbor News. He contacted researchers from the University of Michigan to investigate, and together they unearthed the prehistoric beast.

Daniel Fisher, a paleontologist who led the dig, said the mammoth most likely roamed the area 11,700 to 15,000 years ago, and was around 40 years old when it died.

In addition to the skull and tusks, the team also recovered vertebrae, a pelvis, shoulder blade pieces and one kneecap. Missing from the find were most of the mammoth’s fore and hind limbs, which the team presumed were either buried elsewhere or had already been eaten.

NASA to hold urgent press conference to announce major science finding from Mars

News.Com.Au, By Matthew Dunn, September 28

Speculation that NASA’s Curiosity Rover has found life on Mars has been thrown into overdrive with the space agency announcing an urgent press conference.

In a press release, NASA said it would be holding a conference to detail “a major science finding from the agency’s ongoing exploration of Mars”.

This is not the first time NASA has used a press conference to announce a groundbreaking discovery, with the space agency doing the same earlier this year to reveal it had discovered the Earth-like planet Kepler-452b.

Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA, and Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program, will be leading the announcement.

Researchers Apply For Permission To Alter DNA Of Human Embryos

Some say gene editing shouldn’t be performed on human embryos until its effects are better understood.

The Huffington Post, By Sam Levine, September 18

The first British researchers have applied for permission to alter the DNA of human embryos to better understand the reason women have miscarriages, amid a broader debate over whether the testing is appropriate.

Earlier this year, Chinese scientists became the first in the world to modify human embryos. Researchers from the Francis Crick Institute are the first to seek permission to use the technique in Great Britain, where it is currently illegal except for research purposes.

The researchers hope to better understand the key genes involved in the first stages of fertilization and ultimately to determine the reason some women miscarry, according to The Guardian. The embryos, which are donated by couples who have a surplus after IVF treatment, would be destroyed after the research is completed. They cannot legally be studied for longer than two weeks.

Homo Naledi, New Species in Human Lineage, Is Found in South African Cave

New York Times, By John Noble Wilford, September 10

Acting on a tip from spelunkers two years ago, scientists in South Africa discovered what the cavers had only dimly glimpsed through a crack in a limestone wall deep in the Rising Star Cave: lots and lots of old bones.

The remains covered the earthen floor beyond the narrow opening. This was, the scientists concluded, a large, dark chamber for the dead of a previously unidentified species of the early human lineage — Homo naledi.

The new hominin species was announced on Thursday by an international team of more than 60 scientists led by Lee R. Berger, an American paleoanthropologist who is a professor of human evolution studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The species name, H. naledi, refers to the cave where the bones lay undisturbed for so long; “naledi” means “star” in the local Sesotho language.

In two papers published this week in the open-access journal eLife, the researchers said that the more than 1,550 fossil elements documenting the discovery constituted the largest sample for any hominin species in a single African site, and one of the largest anywhere in the world. Further, the scientists said, that sample is probably a small fraction of the fossils yet to be recovered from the chamber. So far the team has recovered parts of at least 15 individuals.

“With almost every bone in the body represented multiple times, Homo naledi is already practically the best-known fossil member of our lineage,” Dr. Berger said.

PBS Nova: Dawn of Humanity – to air this Wednesday, September 16th
National Geographic: New Human Ancestor Discovered: Homo naledi (Exclusive Video)
National Geographic: This Face Changes the Human Story. But How?
Washington Post: The caves that tell the story of humankind, including the latest, Homo naledi
Washington Post: A squeeze down a narrow crack, and then an amazing discovery

…and in other news, Boing Boing: National Geographic sold to Rupert Murdoch

Quantum ‘spookiness’ passes toughest test yet

Experiment plugs loopholes in previous demonstrations of ‘action at a distance’, against Einstein’s objections — and could make data encryption safer.

Nature, By Zeeya Merali, August 27

It’s a bad day both for Albert Einstein and for hackers. The most rigorous test of quantum theory ever carried out has confirmed that the ‘spooky action at a distance’ that the German physicist famously hated — in which manipulating one object instantaneously seems to affect another, far away one — is an inherent part of the quantum world.

The experiment, performed in the Netherlands, could be the final nail in the coffin for models of the atomic world that are more intuitive than standard quantum mechanics, say some physicists. It could also enable quantum engineers to develop a new suite of ultrasecure cryptographic devices.

“From a fundamental point of view, this is truly history-making,” says Nicolas Gisin, a quantum physicist at the University of Geneva in Switzerland.

First almost fully-formed human brain grown in lab, researchers claim

The Guardian, By Helen Thomson, August 18

Research team say tiny brain could be used to test drugs and study diseases, but scientific peers urge caution as data on breakthrough kept under wraps.

An almost fully-formed human brain has been grown in a lab for the first time, claim scientists from Ohio State University. The team behind the feat hope the brain could transform our understanding of neurological disease.

Though not conscious the miniature brain, which resembles that of a five-week-old foetus, could potentially be useful for scientists who want to study the progression of developmental diseases. It could also be used to test drugs for conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, since the regions they affect are in place during an early stage of brain development.

The brain, which is about the size of a pencil eraser, is engineered from adult human skin cells and is the most complete human brain model yet developed, claimed Rene Anand of Ohio State University, Columbus, who presented the work today at the Military Health System Research Symposium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Previous attempts at growing whole brains have at best achieved mini-organs that resemble those of nine-week-old foetuses, although these “cerebral organoids” were not complete and only contained certain aspects of the brain. “We have grown the entire brain from the get-go,” said Anand.

Farming Had an Earlier Start, a Study Says

New York Times, By Sindya H. Bhanoo, July 27

Farming may have originated 23,000 years ago, thousands of years earlier than previously thought, according to a new study.

Researchers discovered a large number of seeds at an ancient hunter-gatherer site known as Ohalo II on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel. Many of the seeds had scars, a mark that distinguishes domesticated species from wild forms.

Additionally, about 150,000 plant remains were retrieved from the site, comprising more than 140 species. The mix included 13 known weeds, as well as edible cereals like wild emmer, barley and oats.

Mammoths killed by abrupt climate change

Science Daily, July 23

New research has revealed abrupt warming, that closely resembles the rapid human-made warming occurring today, has repeatedly played a key role in mass extinction events of large animals, the megafauna, in Earth’s past.

Using advances in analysing ancient DNA, radiocarbon dating and other geologic records an international team led by researchers from the University of Adelaide and the University of New South Wales (Australia) have revealed that short, rapid warming events, known as interstadials, recorded during the last ice age or Pleistocene (60,000-12,000 years ago) coincided with major extinction events even before the appearance of man.

Published today in Science, the researchers say by contrast, extreme cold periods, such as the last glacial maximum, do not appear to correspond with these extinctions.

“This abrupt warming had a profound impact on climate that caused marked shifts in global rainfall and vegetation patterns,” said University of Adelaide lead author and Director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, Professor Alan Cooper.

Amazonians’ ancient links to Indigenous Australians

Sydney Morning Herald, By Bianca Hall, July 22

Distant DNA links have been discovered between Aboriginal Australians and tribes living deep within the Amazon rainforest.

Researchers in the US and Denmark have established that people sharing DNA links with Aboriginal people crossed the Bering land bridge between Siberia and the Americas thousands of years ago.

The revelations, published in Nature and Science Magazine, are the strongest signs yet that there could have been multiple migrations from Siberia to the Americas tens of thousands of years ago.

The findings have captivated the international science community, with Jennifer Raff, an anthropological geneticist at the University of Texas, telling Nature on Tuesday they were, “honestly one of the most exciting results we’ve seen in a while.”

The world’s most famous climate scientist just outlined an alarming scenario for our planet’s future

Washington Post, By Chris Mooney, July 20

James Hansen has often been out ahead of his scientific colleagues.

With his 1988 congressional testimony, the then-NASA scientist is credited with putting the global warming issue on the map by saying that a warming trend had already begun. “It is time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here,” Hansen famously testified.

Now Hansen — who retired in 2013 from his NASA post, and is currently an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute — is publishing what he says may be his most important paper. Along with 16 other researchers — including leading experts on the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets — he has authored a lengthy study outlining an scenario of potentially rapid sea level rise combined with more intense storm systems.

It’s an alarming picture of where the planet could be headed — and hard to ignore, given its author. But it may also meet with considerable skepticism in the broader scientific community, given that its scenarios of sea level rise occur more rapidly than those ratified by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its latest assessment of the state of climate science, published in 2013.

The authors conclude that 2 degrees Celsius global warming—the widely accepted international target for how much the world should limit global warming—is “highly dangerous.”

Climate Progress: Climate Scientist Warns Sea Levels Are Rising Faster Than We Thought