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Archive for February, 2009


Joanie February 28th, 2009

Daily Galaxy
February 3, 2009

Dna47_3_2 DNA has been found to have a bizarre ability to put itself
together, even at a distance, when according to known science it shouldn’t
be able to. Explanation: None, at least not yet.

Scientists are reporting evidence that contrary to our current beliefs about
what is possible, intact double-stranded DNA has the “amazing” ability to
recognize similarities in other DNA strands from a distance. Somehow they
are able to identify one another, and the tiny bits of genetic material tend
to congregate with similar DNA. The recognition of similar sequences in
DNA’s chemical subunits, occurs in a way unrecognized by science. There is
no known reason why the DNA is able to combine the way it does, and from a
current theoretical standpoint this feat should be chemically impossible.

Even so, the research published in ACS’ Journal of Physical Chemistry B,
shows very clearly that homology recognition between sequences of several
hundred nucleotides occurs without physical contact or presence of proteins.  Double helixes of DNA can recognize matching molecules from a distance and then gather together, all seemingly without help from any other molecules or chemical signals.

In the study, scientists observed the behavior of fluorescently tagged DNA
strands placed in water that contained no proteins or other material that
could interfere with the experiment. Strands with identical nucleotide
sequences were about twice as likely to gather together as DNA strands with
different sequences. No one knows how individual DNA strands could possibly be communicating in this way, yet somehow they do. The “telepathic” effect is a source of wonder and amazement for scientists.

Amazingly, the forces responsible for the sequence recognition can reach
across more than one nanometer of water separating the surfaces of the
nearest neighbor DNA, said the authors Geoff S. Baldwin, Sergey Leikin,
John M. Seddon, and Alexei A. Kornyshev and colleagues.

This recognition effect may help increase the accuracy and efficiency of the
homologous recombination of genes, which is a process responsible for DNA
repair, evolution, and genetic diversity. The new findings may also shed
light on ways to avoid recombination errors, which are factors in cancer,
aging, and other health issues.


Joanie February 20th, 2009

February 20, 2009

WASHINGTON - The first gamma-ray burst to be seen in high-resolution from
NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is one for the record books. The
blast had the greatest total energy, the fastest motions and the
highest-energy initial emissions ever seen.

“We were waiting for this one,” said Peter Michelson, the principal
investigator on Fermi’s Large Area Telescope at Stanford University. “Burst
emissions at these energies are still poorly understood, and Fermi is giving
us the tools to understand them.”

Gamma-ray bursts are the universe’s most luminous explosions. Astronomers
believe most occur when exotic massive stars run out of nuclear fuel. As a
star’s core collapses into a black hole, jets of material — powered by
processes not yet fully understood — blast outward at nearly the speed of
light. The jets bore all the way through the collapsing star and continue
into space, where they interact with gas previously shed by the star and
generate bright afterglows that fade with time.

This explosion, designated GRB 080916C, occurred at 7:13 p.m. EDT on Sept.
15, in the constellation Carina. Fermi’s other instrument, the Gamma-ray
Burst Monitor, simultaneously recorded the event. Together, the two
instruments provide a view of the blast’s initial, or prompt, gamma-ray
emission from energies between 3,000 to more than 5 billion times that of
visible light.

Nearly 32 hours after the blast, Jochen Greiner of the Max Planck Institute
for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, led a group that searched
for the explosion’s fading afterglow. The team simultaneously captured the
field in seven wavelengths using the Gamma-Ray Burst Optical/Near-Infrared
Detector, or GROND, on the 2.2-meter telescope at the European Southern
Observatory in La Silla, Chile. In certain colors, the brightness of a
distant object shows a characteristic drop-off caused by intervening gas
clouds. The farther away the object is, the redder the wavelength where this
fade-out occurs. This gives astronomers a quick estimate of the object’s
distance. The team’s follow-up observations established that the explosion
took place 12.2 billion light-years away.

“Already, this was an exciting burst,” said Julie McEnery, a Fermi deputy
project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
“But with the GROND team’s distance, it went from exciting to

With the distance in hand, Fermi team members showed that the blast exceeded
the power of approximately 9,000 ordinary supernovae, if the energy was
emitted equally in all directions. This is a standard way for astronomers to
compare events even though gamma-ray bursts emit most of their energy in
tight jets.

Coupled with the Fermi measurements, the distance also helps astronomers
determine the slowest speeds possible for material emitting the prompt gamma
rays. Within the jet of this burst, gas bullets must have moved at 99.9999
percent the speed of light. This burst’s tremendous power and speed make it
the most extreme recorded to date.

One curious aspect of the burst is a five-second delay separating the
highest-energy emissions from the lowest. Such a time lag has been seen
clearly in only one earlier burst.

“It may mean that the highest-energy emissions are coming from different
parts of the jet or created through a different mechanism,” Michelson said.

The team’s results appear today in the online edition of the journal

NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is an astrophysics and particle
physics partnership mission, developed in collaboration with the U.S.
Department of Energy and important contributions from academic institutions
and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden, and the U.S.

For images related to this release, visit:


Joanie February 15th, 2009

BBC News
February 15, 2009

There could be one hundred billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy, a US
conference has heard.

Dr Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution of Science said many of these
worlds could be inhabited by simple lifeforms.

He was speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the
Advancement of Science in Chicago.

So far, telescopes have been able to detect just over 300 planets outside
our Solar System.

Very few of these would be capable of supporting life, however. Most are gas
giants like our Jupiter; and many orbit so close to their parent stars that
any microbes would have to survive roasting temperatures.

But, based on the limited numbers of planets found so far, Dr Boss has
estimated that each Sun-like star has on average one “Earth-like” planet.

This simple calculation means there would be huge numbers capable of
supporting life.

“Not only are they probably habitable but they probably are also going to be
inhabited,” Dr Boss told BBC News. “But I think that most likely the nearby
‘Earths’ are going to be inhabited with things which are perhaps more common
to what Earth was like three or four billion years ago.” That means
bacterial lifeforms.

Dr Boss estimates that Nasa’s Kepler mission, due for launch in March,
should begin finding some of these Earth-like planets within the next few

Recent work at Edinburgh University tried to quantify how many intelligent
civilisations might be out there. The research suggested there could be
thousands of them.


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Joanie February 5th, 2009

By Kenneth Chang
New York Times
February 3, 2009

Without quite the drama of Alexander Graham Bell calling out, ³Mr. Watson,
come here!² or the charm of the original ³Star Trek² television show,
scientists have nonetheless achieved a milestone in communication:
teleporting the quantum identity of one atom to another a few feet away.

The contraption is a Rube Goldberg-esque mix of vacuum chambers, fiber
optics, lasers and semitransparent beam splitters in a laboratory at the
Joint Quantum Institute in Maryland.

Even in the far future, ³Star Trek² transporters will probably remain a
fantasy, but the mechanism could form an important component in new types of
communication and computing.

Quantum teleportation depends on entanglement, one of the strangest of the
many strange aspects of quantum mechanics. Two particles can become
³entangled² into a single entity, and a change in one instantaneously
changes the other even if it is far away.

Previously, physicists have shown that they could use teleportation to
transfer information from one photon to another or between nearby atoms. In
the new research, the scientists used light to transfer quantum information
between two well-separated atoms.

³It¹s that hybrid approach that we¹ve demonstrated that looks to be an
interesting way to proceed,² said Christopher Monroe, a University of
Maryland physicist and the senior author of a paper describing the research
in the Jan. 23 issue of the journal Science.

Present-day digital computers store information as zeroes and ones. In a
future quantum computer, a single bit of information could be both zero and
one at the same time. (In essence, a quantum coin toss would be both heads
and tails until someone actually looked at the coin, at which time the coin
instantly becomes one or the other.) In theory, a quantum computer could
calculate certain types of problems much more quickly than digital

In the experiment, two ytterbium ions, cooled to a fraction of a degree
above absolute zero, served as the two quantum coins. A microwave pulse
wrote quantum information onto one; a second microwave pulse placed the ion
into a state of equal probabilities of heads and tails.

A laser then induced each ion to emit exactly one photon, collected by a
lens and guided through fiber optics to a beam splitter that could reflect
the photons or let them pass through. Two detectors then captured and
recorded the photons. Because it was not known which photon came from which
atom, the photons became ³entangled,² meaning that the behavior of the two
particles became wrapped up in a single equation even though they were not
in the same place. And, oddly, because the photons were emitted by the ions,
the two ions also became entangled.

³That¹s the magic of entanglement,² Dr. Monroe said. ³Now, the atoms are
entangled. The photons are gone and out of the picture.²

The information in the first ion was then measured in a way that did not
reveal the information and that teleported the information to the second
ion. (If that did not make any sense, take a look at this animated graphic.)

By repeating the experiment many times and taking many measurements of the
second ion, the researchers, from Maryland and the University of Michigan,
confirmed that the second ion contained the information that had been
originally written to the first ion.

The method is not particularly practical at the moment, because it fails
almost all of the time. Only 1 of every 100 million teleportation attempts
succeed, requiring 10 minutes to transfer one bit of quantum information.

³We need to work on that,² Dr. Monroe said.

But he said that a success rate of just 1 in 10,000 would be high enough for
some uses. Such systems could be used as ³quantum repeaters² — reading the
information from one photon and then imprinting it on a new photon for the
next leg of its communications journey.


Joanie February 5th, 2009

By Brandon Keim
February 02, 2009

For the first time since Hwang Woo-Suk’s cloned stem cells were revealed as
fakes, human cloning — for medical purposes, or even for reproduction –
appears to be a realistic possibility.

“We show for the first time that the same genes turned on in normal human
embryos are the same genes turned on in human clones,” said Robert Lanza,
scientific director of Advanced Cell Technologies and co-author of a study
published Monday in Cloning and Stem Cells.

Lanza’s team inserted human cell nuclei into hollowed-out egg cells from
both humans and animals, then stimulated them into development, a process
called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), or more informally, cloning.
When compared to a normal human embryo produced through in vitro
fertilization, the animal-human hybrids didn’t develop normally, but the
human-human cloned embryos displayed many of the genetic characteristics of
healthy development.

The research is the first step toward therapeutic cloning — making
embryonic stem cells from a patient’s own DNA capable of replacing diseased
tissue, failing organs and even lost limbs. And, theoretically, the same
technique could be used to produce a cloned person.

In 2001, Lanza’s team claimed to have made cloned human embryos, stoking
public hopes that cloning would soon produce thousands of embryonic stem
cell lines — one for every common genetic group, capable of replacing
diseased tissue, failing organs and lost limbs. It wasn’t clear, however,
whether those embryos were actually healthy, and their DNA was never

Four years later, researchers led by the now-infamous Woo Suk Hwang claimed
to have actually harvested embryonic stem cells from cloned embryos. The
findings again raised public hopes, only to be revealed as fraudulent. Hwang
now works for a controversial dog cloning company, and embryonic stem cells
taken from a human clone remains hypothetical.

However, even if the scientific challenges of so-called therapeutic cloning
are overcome, ethical problems remain. Harvesting human eggs requires women
to take ovulation-inducing hormones, a process that is arguably dangerous
and inarguably arduous. As a result, egg supplies are limited and expensive.
Some scientists hoped to solve this by substituting animal eggs for human.

Research on these hybrid embryos — as well as chimeric embryos, formed by
mixing actual human and animal DNA — was approved last year in the United
Kingdom. But that approval came after bitter public debate in which
opponents raised the specter of sentient human-animal hybrids being used as
biological parts factories.

The latest findings suggest that hybrids are incapable of growing to a
medically useful stage, much less sentience. But both cloning and induced
pluripotency — a recently-developed procedure in which adult cells are
transformed into an embryo-like state — should work.

“Science has a way to go with both of these, but we will soon have a way to
create a bank of stem cells to expand the range of stem cell therapies,”
said Lanza.

His team compared the gene expression of a human embryo produced through in
vitro fertilization with clones that incorporated human, cow, rabbit and
mouse eggs. Several thousand genes were active in the fully human clones,
but almost completely silent in their counterparts, which stopped developing
after several days.

Among these were the genetic targets stimulated during induced pluripotency,
in which adult cells are returned to an embryo-like state. Their silence
suggests that animal eggs will not be useful in making clones capable of
generating embryonic stem cells, much less growing to adulthood.

“You can never say never,” said Lanza, “but we’ve been at this a very long
time, and despite literally thousands of these attempts, we’ve never seen
one of these hybrids advance further than what we’re reporting here. And
though negative results don’t often get reported, I know for a fact that
other experts have had the same results.”

But the fully human cloned embryos could produce stem cells and, if
permitted, perhaps grow into a person.

“The DNA resembles the DNA of a normal human embryo, which raises the
question of human reproductive cloning,” said Lanza.

However, New York Medical College cell biologist Stuart Newman disagreed
with Lanza’s assessment. Though the paper “shows that interspecies SCNT is a
bust,” he said, there are still “substantial differences” between
fully-human cloned and IVF embryos.

But even if Lanza’s embryos cannot develop, other scientists may come up
with a more effective process. And though reproductive cloning has not yet
been attempted, some experts say it’s inevitable.

The procedure is illegal in the United States, but a global ban proposed in
the United Nations fell apart after the U.S. insisted that therapeutic
cloning be banned as well.

“Virtually every country agreed, but President Bush held it hostage,” said

President Barack Obama has promised to overturn President Bush’s moratorium
on federal funding of most embryonic stem cell research. Lanza hopes he will
abandon Bush’s position at the U.N. as well.

“Reproductive cloning is unsafe and unethical,” he said. “This raises the
urgency that those laws need to be passed.”