By Ramiro Carrillo Since 2009 about a dozen new species of fish, animals and corals, among them a spectacular pink iguana, have been discovered on or around the Galapagos Islands. The Pacific Ocean archipelago, where Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was hatched, is proving to be an endless source of work for biologists and scientists delighted by the discoveries. Co-ordinated by the Galapagos National Park, dozens of researchers and biologists from institutions from different countries work tirelessly to observe the ecosystems on the islands, which are a province of the South American country of Ecuador. What might be the world’s most pristine habitat shelters fragile life forms that might never have established a footing elsewhere. In July, biologists from the University of San Nicolas de Hidalgo in Mexico and the Ecuadorean Environment Ministry confirmed the existence of two new fish species, the Scorpaenodes sp. And Gobiomuros sp., which measure between 10 and 25 centimetres. They swim in the rocky waters and reefs surrounding the islands of San Cristobal (Chatham), Santa Cruz (Indefatigable), Santa Fe (Barrington), Espanola (Hood) and Isabela (Albemarle). “The discovery of these two new marine species confirms that the Galapagos are a living laboratory and that we still do not know all the species that co-exist in it,” said the director of the Galapagos National Park, Arturo Izurieta in remarks to dpa. “This contributes to the knowledge of marine fauna, science and research of the Galapagos’ unique ecosystems.” The two fish species join the 2,900 species that have already been identified on this island marine reserve, 25 per cent of which are native to the region. In early 2009 scientists made a surprising discovery on the Wolf Volcano on Albemarle Island. Researchers from the University of Rome Tor Vergata found a pink iguana with features that were different from the black sea iguanas and the land iguanas whose backs and crests are of a yellow colour. The discovery of the pink iguana, described as a “living fossil,” is fascinating to scientists. “It is surprising to have made a discovery of this nature in the 21st century,” said Ecuadorean biologist Washington Tapia. In 2012 scientists catalogued a new shark catfish species: Bythaelurus giddingsi, which lives at a depth of between 400 and 600 metres in the ocean surrounding the Galapagos Islands. It can measure 30 centimetres and has light-coloured spots on brown skin. The Galapagos sea has recently spawned a new coral species. Researchers from the US and British universities of Miami and Southampton identified three coral organisms in the reefs and rocky volcanic shorelines of Darwin and Wolf islands. One of these species, earlier thought to have been extinct, was able to survive the fierce weather of the El Nino weather phenomenon. This finding made scientists realize that “some coral species are more resistant than we thought,” said chief researcher Terry Dawson. The Charles Darwin Foundation, working on the Galapagos since 1959, in 2010 offered the results of work with lichens and announced the discovery of 10 new species. In 2013, local fishermen delivered to authorities a rare fish belonging to the Uranoscopidae family with a round mouth and elongated body, with characteristics different to others found elsewhere in the world. After focussing their work on the small island of Daphne, British scientists Peter and Rosemary Grant, from Princeton University, published in the US National Academy of Sciences results of research they had conducted for 28 years on a new class of finch. The object of their study had a bird song and beak that differentiated it from other finches on the islands and was registered as a new species in 2009. Finches varying in size and beak function from one island to the other were key for Darwin to write his landmark book on natural selection, The Origin of Species. Currently, computer technology and robots for land research as well as submarine robots make scientists’ work easier. “These contributions will help us identify priority sites for preservation and interest we must focus on,” said Izurieta. Potential subjects for research programmes appear limitless. For example, scientists recently launched a project to investigate hydrothermal vents, formed when seawater meets hot magna, located on the oceanic spreading ridge near the Galapagos Islands. This habitat, which is low in oxygen, lacking sunlight and with gases and fluids at temperatures of up to 400 degrees Celsius, is, for animals living in its vicinity, unlike any other in the world. As it contributes new species to the world, the Galapagos Islands face the risk that flora and fauna found on them could die out. Man’s predatory activity has already led to the spread of species such as goats, rats and weeds that are difficult to control. In 2012 the world watched the death of Lonesome George — the last living specimen of a type of giant tortoise unable to reproduce to keep it from going extinct on the island of Pinta. Fortunately, scientists recently located specimens that are very close genetically to Lonesome George. The Galapagos Islands, declared a World National Heritage Site by UNESCO, thus provide daily lessons on the importance of protecting nature and wildlife. -DPA
Russian search and rescue team members pose for a photo with Russian cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev (front-2nd L), Alexander Skvortsov (C) and US NASA astronaut Steven Swanson (front 2nd R) after the landing of the Soyuz TMA-12M spacecraft near the Kazakhstan city of ZhezkazganAFP/Zhezkazgan, KazakhstanTwo Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut returned to Earth on Thursday after spending more than six months working together aboard the International Space Station, as tensions between their countries soared over the Ukraine crisis. American Steven Swanson and Russians Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev, who left on March 26, landed in the Kazakh steppe at 0223 GMT aboard a Soyuz capsule, the Russian space agency Roscosmos and its US equivalent NASA said in statements. The trio, who worked together in cramped quarters aboard the ISS as relations between their countries plummeted to levels unseen since the end of the Cold War over Ukraine, smiled broadly, gave thumbs up signs and waved in the sunshine as they spent their first minutes back on the planet. The three spent a total of "169 days of science and technology research in space, including a record 82 hours of research in a single week" in July, NASA said in a statement. The crew orbited the Earth more than 2,700 times and travelled more than 71.7 million miles, NASA said. "One of several key research focus areas during Expedition 40 was human health management for long duration space travel as NASA and Roscosmos prepare for two crew members to spend one year aboard the orbiting laboratory in 2015," it said. The ISS is now being commanded by Max Suraev of Russia, with crewmates Reid Wiseman of NASA and Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency, with three new crew members -- Barry Wilmore of NASA and Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova of Roscosmos -- due to arrive in two weeks, blasting off from Kazakhstan on September 25.
HOME: Hairy roosting bats hang by their claws in a cavity between tiles and joists in the attic of the Kaubisch family home at Grosskmehlen, outside Berlin, Germany. The family permits the bats to raise their young in the roof area and has left an access hole for the flying mammals to enter and leave. By Anna Ringle-Braendli There are times when Anne Kaubisch finds her very own house creepy. Whenever she opens the trapdoor leading to the attic, she never knows what will happen next. A 38-year-old pharmacist, Kaubisch and her two children live under the same roof as about 100 bats. Every spring the scary-looking little mammals return to her house in the municipality of Grosskmehlen, an hour’s drive south of Berlin, to raise their young. She gets a lot of encouragement from conservationists and recently even got an award. But this summer, she got the creeps again. When she opened the trapdoor to remove bat droppings from the attic, a bat flew right at her. “I jumped off the ladder very fast, ran downstairs, flung open all the windows, sat down on the patio and waited — for a really long time — for it to find its way out of our house,” she recalled. The Kaubisch family moved to the rural area seven years ago not knowing that every year around April scores of uninvited guests would move in with them. “At first we thought someone was walking around up there in the evening, or that it was a raccoon,” she said. Evenings, when Grosskmehlen grows quiet, the bats become active. “They squeak, scratch and flap,” Kaubisch said. They head out into the twilight to hunt. Some bat species, such as the serotine, the kind that resides with the Kaubisch family, roost in buildings during spring and summer to raise their young. There they live in roof spaces, crevices or cavity walls. The environmental agency of Brandenburg, the state where the house is located, has expressed regret that many householders’ roof renovations deprive bats of a habitat. “The renovated roofs are then hermetically sealed off from the animals,” said Jens Teubner, a biologist at the agency. Christiane Schroeder, a species conservation expert for Berlin-based charity NABU (Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union) who has been counting bat populations for 20 years, sees some progress, however. Architectural firms and housing companies are increasingly taking bats into account before undertaking renovations. Kaubisch, too, has a heart for the furry fliers. Her bats might never return if she had the old grey tiles taken off the gabled roof and replaced by new ones, she said, so she decided against it. “The repairs would only have been cosmetic anyway,” she noted. For this she recently received a plaque from the state environment agency and state environment ministry. It reads, in German: “We give bats a home.” Created in 2009, the award has gone to 11 recipients so far. According to the environment agency, some of the 18 bat species in Brandenburg are slowly multiplying. One indication of this is NABU’s International Bat Museum at Julianenhof in Brandenburg’s Maerkische Schweiz Nature Park, which reported 808 bats in the attic in June compared with 238 in 2006. The non-profit group BUND (Friends of the Earth Germany) has also registered growing numbers of bats in various quarters. Kaubisch’s attic is a popular bat hangout. Eighty-eight lived there three years ago, and now NABU counts about 100, Kaubisch said. Their noisy presence for many weeks every year has its benefits, though. “The bat droppings are great fertiliser for my garden,” she said. -DPA
By Ralf E. Krueger The quagga — a zebra whose stripes appear to have washed off in the rain — roamed the South African plains up to the end of the 17th century, but European settlers saw them as competition for scarce grazing land and wiped them out. The last quagga died in Amsterdam’s zoo in 1883, making the species extinct. That was until zoologist discovered that the quagga’s DNA was very similar to that of Burchell’s zebra, a subspecies of the plains zebra. A project has been under way since 1987 which claims it can breed the quagga back through selective crossing of zebras showing quagga characteristics. While many are fascinated by the idea, there has also been considerable debate about the validity of this genetic tinkering — and its usefulness, but it has now made considerable progress and reaches a major milepost. “The project is on course, but we are not at our goal,” says Angela Gaylard, an ecologist with the South African National Parks (SANParks). “It’s an ongoing process and so it’s difficult to say whether we already have a quagga. But after four generations we have up to 12 quagga-like animals, although they lack the dark brown colour to some extent.” That colour is now starting to come through, and the fifth generation born last December is likely to be decisive for the project’s success — exactly as the project’s German-born initiator, Reinhold Rau, once predicted. Gaylard is convinced that Rau, who died in 2006, was “correct with his hypothesis on all points.” There is already some evidence of the brown colour. “We are going to discuss strategy and advertise the fact that we have a fifth-generation foal after our annual general meeting at the end of August,” said project manager Bernard Wooding. “It’s a female that we have called Frederica.” He said the announcement of the December birth was delayed because foals are vulnerable in their first six months. Photographs of the foal, born in the Nuwejaars Wetland Special Management Area near Bredasdorp, close to Africa’s most southern tip, show a brown colour, along with the stripes occurring only on the forequarters — a characteristic typical of the quagga. Some 27 years after the start of the project there are now 89 quagga-like animals scattered over various game farms and national parks. SANParks has withdrawn from the project on grounds of cost, leaving a single representative on the project committee. It is instead focussing its declining budget on combating the rhinoceros poaching that increasingly bedevils South Africa’s parks. But it also has doubts of a more fundamental nature. There is now a risk of interbreeding between zebra subspecies, particularly in the Mountain Zebra National Park. “We have photographs of hybrids of Cape mountain zebras and the quagga-like animals, and we can’t take a chance on this. We must maintain the purity of the mountain zebra gene pool,” Gaylard says. This particular national park was created primarily to save the threatened subspecies. “We have decided to take the quaggas out of the Mountain Zebra National Park, and in future also out of the Karoo National Park,” she says. They will be relocated to farms. Zoologists have long viewed the project with some scepticism. “I see the whole thing from a scientific point of view as not really necessary,” says Dan Parker, professor in the Department of Zoology at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. “There is this romantic idea that we should bring back the quagga to the world because we were involved in eliminating it — that we should correct that,” Parker says. Critics say a species is defined by its complete genome in all its complexity, not by its coat, so the new animals will not be true quaggas. Despite his general scepticism, he acknowledges that he is awaiting the fifth generation and what it will look like with anticipation. And even if the animals merely look like quaggas, there will be considerable potential for tourism, Parker believes. “People will probably pay a lot of money to see something like that,” he says. The question remains what to call these animals. Wooding has a solution to the problem. “We call the quagga-like animals ‘Rau’s Quagga’,” he says. -DPA
AFP/Paris Far from being perfectly round, the Moon has a weird shape, with a highland bulge on the side facing the Earth and another bulge on its far side -- a riddle that has fascinated scientists for decades. In theory, the Moon should be a nice sphere, sculpted by rotational forces since its creation some 4.4 billion years ago. That round shape is indeed comfortingly familiar to us on Earth when we look at a full Moon. But if we could see the Moon from a different angle, it would look very slightly like a lemon, say astronomers. Those giant bulges on its topography would form nubbly tips, aligned in an axis towards Earth. How did they get there? The answer, according to research published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, lies in mighty gravitational forces exerted by Earth during the Moon's super-heated infancy. Believed to be the result of an impact between a roving Mars-size planet and Earth, the Moon was initially a molten lump of rock before it started to cool and solidify. In the same way that lunar gravity causes sea tides, Earth -- with six times more mass than the Moon -- exerted powerful tides on its newborn satellite during this critical period. It squeezed and stretched the Moon, a flexing process that generated heat through friction, thus warming the semi-fluid body at a time when its surface was also cooling. The heat from this dynamic process was not distributed universally, and the outcome had consequences for how the lunar crust formed. "Early tides heated the Moon's crust in different places, and those differences in heating in different areas gave the Moon most of its shape," explained Ian Garrick-Bethell, an astrophysicist at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "Later on, those tides warped the outside of the Moon while it was cooling, and it froze in that warped shape," Garrick-Bethell said in an email exchange with AFP. "It also froze in a little bit of its rotational shape at the same time." The tidal forces gave the Moon "a slight lemon shape" that became locked in after its crust cooled, according to the researchers. - Lunar shape - The Moon's asymmetrical shape may be the key to understanding some of the unusual geological events that followed, Garrick-Bethell said. "For example, only one side of the Moon has extensive volcanic plains known as maria," he said. "Those are the dark parts of the Moon when you look at it at night. The other side, which you can't see without flying over it in a spacecraft, is largely devoid of such volcanism." Inspiration for the team's attempt to solve the lunar dilemma came from Europa, a moon of Jupiter which is believed to have a shell of ice on top of a layer of liquid water. "Jupiter's tides flex the ice shell of Europa, and cause heating in it, sculpting its shape," said Garrick-Bethell. "Long ago, the Moon was similar: it had a layer of rock floating on top of a layer of liquid rock. The strong, early tides from the Earth flexed this floating shell, heated it and sculpted its shape." An essential part of modelling the Moon's shape was to analyse the body without its gigantic basins and craters -- impacts from gargantuan rocks in its youth that flung lots of crustal material around. The craters have long complicated efforts to explain the Moon's shape. But, said Garrick-Bethell, they could be stripped out of the calculations about the shape, because they were created after the cooling and solidification.
AFP/Paris Tropical Asian birds have a penchant for red and black -- a proclivity that likely prompted jungle plants to sprout fruit in these colours, scientists said on Thursday. It has long been suspected that an abundance of red and black fleshy fruits in nature was partly inspired by a pigment preference of the keen-eyed birds that eat them and spread the seeds. A team in China decided to test the theory by determining once and for all whether birds do have colour favourites. To eliminate possibly confounding influences of smell, shape or taste, the team manufactured artificial fruits from a mixture of apple, pear, banana, wheat and corn flour rolled into small balls and dyed black, red, yellow, green or blue using tasteless food colouring. They then put the fruit balls in front of different species of bulbul and barbet birds native to tropical Xishuangbanna in southwest China. The birds, both wild-caught and hand-reared, were left to choose for themselves what they wanted to eat. All favoured red fruit, followed by black, the scientists found, and all avoided green ones, whose seeds in nature are generally dispersed by insects and other non-avian animals. The results were similar in experiments with real fruit. "The preferences were constant over time, supporting the hypothesis that bird colour preferences are a contributing factor driving fruit colour evolution in tropical Asia," the team wrote in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.
AFP/Washington Fossilized bird bones uncovered in the US state of South Carolina represent the largest flying bird in history, with a wingspan of 6.4 meters (21 feet), according to a study out on Monday. The Pelagornis sandersi's wings were twice as long as the biggest modern-day seabird, the royal albatross, said the research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Coupled with its long beak and sharp bony teeth, the enormous wings likely helped the bird master long periods of gliding over water in search of seafood some 25 to 28 million years ago. However, the bird might have needed some help getting airborne, given that its wings were simply too long to flap easily from the ground. Scientists believe it may have made a running start downhill, or used air gusts -- much like a hang glider -- to make its way aloft. Once in the air, study author Dan Ksepka of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, North Carolina, said the bird could probably soar for miles without ever flapping its wings. "That's important in the ocean, where food is patchy," Ksepka said. P. sandersi lived after the dinosaurs became extinct but before the first humans are known to have inhabited North America. The bird's wing and leg bones along with its complete skull were first discovered in 1983 near Charleston, South Carolina, during excavation work for a new international airport. "The upper wing bone alone was longer than my arm," said Ksepka, recalling that a backhoe was called in to help unearth the bones. The bone measurements suggest that the bird's wingspan was between 6.06 and 7.38 meters (19.9 to 24.2 feet), according to the PNAS article. The previous size record holder was an extinct, six-million-year-old bird found in Argentina, named Argentavis magnificens. Its wingspan was estimated at about 21 feet. The fossils of the P. sandersi shed light on the flying ability of a remarkable bird, but also raise new questions about the group of bony toothed seabirds known as pelagornithids, which disappeared some 2.5 million years ago. These ancient birds were "remarkably efficient fliers" that were found across all seven continents, making "the cause of their ultimate extinction all of the more mysterious," said the study.
Swati Gupta (left) and Tei Laine, two Singapore-based scientists, in a Humboldt University classroom in Berlin at a workshop on deception as a social strategy held recently.By Jean-Baptiste PigginIn a crowded room, you would not pick out Swati Gupta and Tei Laine as two of the world’s top experts on how to lie and deceive: they are nice and seem impeccably honest.Indian-born Gupta actually got her doctorate in England writing a study of politeness. Their secret: they have concluded that our everyday diplomacy demands a certain degree of deception from all of us.“People deceive all the time. You might say, ‘You look nice today’,” explains Finnish-born Laine. That can help restore confidence to a friend who is not feeling the best. “It’s social glue to make someone feel good,” she says.The two scientists from Singapore’s Institute of High Performance Computing were in Berlin recently, with Gupta chairing a day-long academic workshop on deception as a social strategy. “Sometimes when you meet other people, you want them to form a good impression of you, so you engage in different types of communication tactics which may or may not include deception,” says Gupta. “You present yourself in such a way that the belief they have about you is very positive — or negative, depending on your goal.”Humans use this kind of low-level deception as a means to ends which might include impression management, getting someone else to comply with what you are trying to do, persuading them, negotiating or fitting into a group.What humans find easy, is, it turns out, extraordinarily difficult to programme into robots, which are not geared to be diplomatic at all. Gupta says software needs to be smarter about presenting information where a hearer could be sensitive.She gives the example of a robot or avatar designed to teach little children. It must behave like real-life teachers, whose corrective responses have been well studied in academia.“Whenever a student is wrong, how does the teacher correct them? That has a lot of motivational or de-motivational effect on the student. So a teacher isn’t always truthful about how the student is doing, but is like, ‘You’re doing well. You’ll get there you know.’“So if you are designing a tutor that is to teach little children, you have to embed aspects of what we call deception in the tutor’s language,” she says. Another example is presenting medical information diplomatically to patients.“If someone has a life-threatening disease, do you say ‘You’re going to die in two months. On September 3, I predict, you’ll be no more’?” Computers will have to be taught to present information more humanely than that.Singapore has gathered a cluster of cognitive scientists to study such questions, along the way to developing artificial intelligence that could be built into products of the future such as digital tutors or devices to help care for the elderly.Gupta and Laine are part of a computational social cognition team that was set up in 2008 with scientists from different backgrounds from around the globe.To be able to replicate deception, the experts first had to figure out how humans dissemble, ranging from whoppers of deceit down to the teacher’s mundane “You’re doing well.” Among the results was a catalogue of the types of verbal deception.Like a listing of animal species, it includes the obvious forms of deception, such as fabrications, denials and half-truths, but also types that had not previously been pinned down in the rich psychological literature dealing with deceit, although they have existed for time immemorial in the wild.Gupta calls one of these new-found species “augmentation,” where you add something gratuitous to the truth to mislead people. “Let’s say John and Mary are colleagues and recently started dating, and went out to dinner. But because it’s the beginning, they don’t want to make the relationship public,” she says. “Another colleague the next day says to John in a hinting way, ‘I saw that you and Mary were having dinner last night’.”To forestall the truth, John replies, “Yes, you did; we used it as an opportunity to discuss important project issues.”Gupta says piling on a true but irrelevant fact like this is the mirror image of a half truth, the type where you omit a key fact.Their workshop on verbal deception was held at the four-day annual meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, a global group of psychologists, artificial-intelligence experts and philosophers.“I think lying per se is not evil. It’s the motive behind deception that matters more,” says Gupta.“We talk to people and say, ‘We’re working on generating deception,’ and everyone is like, ‘Oh you’re doing an evil thing.’“But if you think of it, even a little deeply, it’s not deception that’s wrong. We deceive all the time in our everyday lives,” she said.“Our definition of deception is that whenever you don’t present a fact as it is, even if you only manipulate it a little bit, you’re being deceptive. If you go to somebody’s place for dinner and the food tastes horrible, you don’t say it’s horrible. “Then you’re being deceptive. You’re not being honest. Politeness is a form of deception.” – DPA
* Professor Shari Forbes at a bone site she created in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, Australia. She says dogs can detect many faint smells: “There’s no reason why we couldn’t teach dogs to detect the latest drugs being used in sport. It’s very complex. You can’t see it. The offender wouldn’t smell it. It could get us very much ahead of the game.” Photograph: Sid Astbury By Sid Astbury Shari Forbes is digging up the dead animals she buried months ago in a secret forest clearing in the Blue Mountains north of Sydney. The forensic scientist bottles the odours of rotting flesh and bone to take back to her laboratory to build a chemical profile of the around 800 active compounds involved in decomposition odours. Professor Forbes is a world expert on the smell of putrefaction and her regular digs are inching us closer to understanding how sniffer dogs find things. Cadaver-detection dogs help find bodies in police investigations or after natural disasters. They locate their quarry by homing in on just a few of those 800 compounds in decomposition scent. If we knew which ones they focused on, we could synthesise them and use them to train sniffer dogs and speed up their work. Ultimately, the data could be fed into what is called an electronic nose and some of the basic functions of a cadaver dog could be automated. “It’s not my intention to put the dogs out of business,” Forbes said. “If we brought the electronic noses out, we’d use them as a screening tool. We would still use the dog as the confirmatory tool.” A dog’s sense of smell is a thousand times better than a human’s. And even a human’s sense of smell is hundreds of times better than the very latest electronic nose. Forbes is still amazed at how good dogs are at smelling death. “I test them and they recognise a decomposition odour,” she said. “I take that same sample back to the lab and my instrument tells me there’s nothing there. So we know the dogs are better. And they will be for a long time to come.” In life, we all smell different; in death, we all smell the same. But there are different smells at different stages of decomposition. Cadaver dogs surely know this but what the dogs smell is probably not what we smell. To us, putrefaction smells universally bad. But to dogs, there are gradations and distinctions. These are still hidden from us. “The other issue with odours is that when you change the ratio of the compounds, that changes the odour,” Forbes said. “So we could have two identical compounds in different ratios giving off two different odours.” Dogs are absolute magic because they will not be fooled by different ratios in compounds. Will we ever get instrumentation as good at the job as they are? “Probably never,” Forbes said. Animal carcasses are used to collect smells because genetically they are very close to humans. Working on corpses, banned in Australia, is permitted in the United States. Forbes visits there every year to see how close animals and humans are. “There are some minor differences which could in fact be the compounds that the dogs recognise as human decomposition,” she said. Forbes helps train cadaver dogs and is called on to help in criminal investigations. She was drawn to what has become her vocation by a police request years ago. “They were out looking for a grave and the dogs were trying to locate it,” she explained. “The police said ‘we really don’t know what the dogs are doing’ and I thought ‘I could help with that. I know the chemistry behind the odour. They know the dogs’ behaviour. We can tie this together.’” Her expertise has been called on to help police find drugs, weapons, cash and explosives. She has also helped police find a dead cadaver dog, because they thought it would be too upsetting for all involved to set a live dog to find a fallen comrade. Dogs can be trained to detect anything; all that is needed is the substance and to train them on it. If it were possible to isolate a likely selection of the active compounds that Forbes reckons the dogs home in on, the dogs themselves could be set the task of picking the right ones. “What we can do is improve their success rate by screening away all the interfering background odours and just present them with the target odour and say ‘Is this what we’re looking for?’ When presented with those odours, they have phenomenal success and that’s really the aim.” — DPA
First isolated in June 2012 in the city of Jeddah, Mers has infected at least 77 people and killed at least 40 of them. Now, the deadly virus has prompted global battle plans. By Eryn Brown In a war room of sorts in a neatly appointed government building, US officers dressed in crisp uniforms arranged themselves around a U-shaped table and kept their eyes trained on a giant screen. PowerPoint slides ticked through the latest movements of an enemy that recently emerged in Saudi Arabia — a mysterious virus that has killed more than half of the people known to have been infected. Here at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, experts from the US Public Health Service and their civilian counterparts have been meeting twice a week since the beginning of June to keep tabs on the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus. Mers-CoV, as the pathogen is known, causes fevers, severe coughs and rapid renal failure as it attacks the lungs of victims. Since it was first isolated in June 2012 in the city of Jeddah, Mers has infected at least 77 people and killed at least 40 of them. The number of confirmed cases has quadrupled since April, and patients have been sickened as far away as Tunisia and Britain. Most troubling to health experts are reports of illnesses in patients who have not been to the Middle East. The virus has not yet emerged in the US, and perhaps it never will. But in July and August, towards the end of the holy month of Ramadan, around 11,000 American Muslims will travel to the Arabian Peninsula. In the meantime, millions more will fly between continents, citizens of today’s globalised world. “A person from New York could go to Saudi Arabia for business and carry the virus home on the way back,” said Matthew Frieman, a virologist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. “There’s zero reason why that couldn’t happen.” Many of the scientists working to understand Mers are veterans of the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars. A previously unknown coronavirus — a sphere-shaped virus spiked with proteins that make it look like it has a corona, or halo — jumped from its bat hosts and started infecting and killing people in China and Hong Kong. By July 2003, more than 8,400 people around the world had become ill with Sars, which spread rapidly in hospitals. There were no fatalities in the US, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned travellers to avoid Toronto after 16 deaths there. The epidemic was over within a year thanks to effective infection-control practices like wearing masks, identifying patients quickly and treating their symptoms promptly. By then, more than 800 people had died and local economies suffered $30bn in losses, according to WHO estimates. Scientists hadn’t thought coronaviruses, known for causing colds and stomach woes, could be so dangerous. After Sars, they started taking the viruses seriously. So when a coronavirus killed the patient in Jeddah, researchers pounced. “We’ve always speculated that there could be another outbreak that could be as lethal as Sars,” Frieman said. Teams around the world starting sequencing the virus’ genetic code. They determined that Mers must have emerged sometime in 2011. Other researchers kept track of Mers victims. They reported sporadic cases in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, then in England, France and Italy, where patients had gone to seek medical treatment. Most of the victims were men, and many already had problems like heart disease and diabetes that may have contributed to their illnesses. Epidemiologists started noticing clusters of Mers cases in families and in hospitals, in people who had close contact with victims. That made researchers worry that the virus might evolve to spread more easily from person to person — a prerequisite for a pandemic. One such instance was described in May in the medical journal Lancet. It began in mid-April with a 64-year-old man who had diabetes and had received a kidney transplant in 1998. Five days after travelling from Dubai to France, he developed a cough and breathing problems and was admitted to a hospital in Valenciennes, where he shared a room with a 51-year-old man being treated for a blood clot in a vein in his arm. After three days, the older patient was transferred to an intensive care unit, where his respiratory symptoms worsened and his kidneys began to fail. Doctors began to suspect Mers on May 1, and their suspicions were confirmed about a week later. The patient died of multiple organ failure. Meanwhile, the younger man was discharged from the hospital on April 30 but started having respiratory troubles about a week later. He had a history of heart disease, and his bed had been five feet away from the patient with Mers. He was admitted to an intensive care unit, where tests revealed he was infected with the same virus. He developed a fever, and his lungs and kidneys began to fail. He spent several weeks in the intensive care unit and was still alive when the report was published in May 29. By the end of May, health officials had identified a particularly large cluster of 26 people who fell ill in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ahsa region, as well as smaller clusters in Britain, Italy and Tunisia. That uptick may have reflected a surge in infections and deaths — or perhaps just health workers doing a better job of testing and reporting new cases, said Dr Ian Lipkin, an epidemiologist at Columbia University in New York. “We don’t know: Is it new information, or is it information we should have had before?” he said. There are many important details about Mers that scientists haven’t yet been able to figure out. For instance, researchers think that Mers, like Sars, comes from bats — but they aren’t entirely certain. They also don’t know whether the virus spreads to pets or livestock before it strikes people or how it would do so, said Christian Drosten, head of the Institute of Virology at the University of Bonn Medical Center in Germany. Scientists are still perfecting their methods to test for the virus in ailing patients. Swabs from nasal passages and throats don’t seem to pick up the pathogen as well as samples from deep in the lungs. Experts don’t know how many people may have been infected with Mers without getting sick from it, Drosten said. Researchers also need a more complete understanding of the health problems the Mers victims had before they got sick, Frieman said, adding that the information would “crucially affect” the work in his lab. Public health officials, meanwhile, are readying their response on the ground. The World Health Organisation is tracking the outbreak. In June, representatives from the United Nations agency travelled to Saudi Arabia to review the response to Mers, including stepped-up efforts to identify infected people and new measures to prevent infections in hospitals. The CDC response team is working with other countries and with medical facilities in the US to make sure procedures are in place to combat Mers. Hospitals have received guidelines for assessing and isolating patients to keep the virus contained. “If there are cases that come to the US, we want to be well-prepared to address them,” said CDC Director Dr Thomas Frieden. During the briefing in the CDC boardroom, the response team briskly considered a variety of issues: Which states have labs to test for Mers? How were scientists the National Institutes of Health prioritising different types of Mers research? Would it be feasible to create a video about Mers to screen on flights arriving from overseas? Could social media help alert people to the potential danger? Mers has been suspected in about 40 people in the US, but tests revealed that none had the virus. Even if that luck holds, experts insist that their efforts to understand Mers — and to bring the international community into the fold to combat it — are an investment in the future, when another mysterious pathogen starts sickening people. “This is the type of emerging infection we will inevitably see more of,” Frieden said. — Los Angeles Times/MCT
By Ulf Mauder The mammoths trapped in Siberia’s permafrost are a long way from the Palaeontological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, but senior researcher Yevgeny Mashchenko keeps close to the Ice Age giants. “Any time an entire animal is found, it’s a big event,” said Mashchenko while surrounded by skeletons and body parts of long-extinct creatures in the institute’s museum. More and more mammoth carcasses are turning up in Yakutia, a huge, remote Russian republic roughly the size of India, six time zones east of Moscow and famous for its bitter winter cold. Mashchenko, 51, has undertaken many search expeditions for mammoths in Yakutia, where frost reaches deep into the soil. “I’ve experienced it myself, the smell of rot when the earth releases parts of the animal and oxygen decomposes the flesh,” he said. The smell attracts hungry bears and arctic foxes, which eat the carcasses, aged thousands of years. This, Mashchenko pointed out, is another reason that every mammoth discovery is special. “If we find flesh and leave it exposed to air, it turns brown within an hour because the protein is denatured and the tissue decomposes rapidly.” Inhabitants of Yakutia usually find well-preserved mammoth remains during the region’s short summers, just a month and a half long. Protruding from thawing ground, they consist mostly of bones or skeleton fragments. “People’s mobility is increasing. They keep exploring new regions and come across evidence of the past,” Mashchenko said. Thanks to improved communications even in remote regions, they quickly report finds, having become “sensitised to how important it is for science.” Scientists cannot agree on why mammoths became extinct about 4,000 years ago. Mashchenko sees food shortages as a possible cause. More mammoth remains are found in Yakutia than anywhere else in the world, which has put a spotlight on North-Eastern Federal University (NEFU) in Yakutsk, Yakutia’s capital, and Professor Semyon Grigoryev. Grigoryev, who heads the university’s Mammoth Museum, recently made the most sensational discovery of his life: well-preserved remains of a female woolly mammoth, about 2.5m tall, estimated to have died at an age between 50 and 60 years about 10,000 years ago. Found on Little Lyakhovsky Island, in the Laptev Sea in Russia’s Far North, the remains were removed from the tundra on May 22. Russian state-run media cheered the discovery as the most significant of its kind in more than a century. “Fragments of muscle tissue that we found on the corpse have the natural red colour of fresh meat,” Grigoryev said in a television interview. More amazing, though, was that thick blood flowed out when he scraped the frozen flesh with a scalpel despite temperatures in the area around minus 10 degrees Celsius. “Everything must be examined very carefully,” Grigoryev remarked, adding that he wanted to determine whether mammoth blood had “cryo-protective properties” that kept it from freezing. Because the lower part of the body was trapped in pure ice, the stomach was well preserved. Delighted researchers now hope to gain insight into mammoths’ diet. The mammoth finds are helping scientists to piece together the animals’ genetic code. NEFU specialists, in particular, have spoken of plans to clone a mammoth. While Grigoryev conceded that previous discoveries had not brought scientists closer to bringing the species back to life, “we don’t rule out that the mammoth tissue we’ve just found will help to solve the cloning problem.” NEFU researchers are working on this with the South Korean Sooam Biotech Research Foundation. In March 2012, the partners said they aimed to inject DNA from mammoth cells into an egg taken from an elephant, its closest living relative, and insert the egg into the womb of an elephant meant to serve as a surrogate mother. However, top scientists back in Moscow say the plan is unrealistic. “The material is of inestimable value to the joint project of our university and Sooam to resurrect the mammoth,” Grigoryev said. “It could have disappeared had it thawed and been eaten by wild animals.” Only the head, upper back and lower left leg are skeletonised, he noted. Muscle tissue and blood are much more useful to scientists than dry, mummified or fossilised specimens. Grigoryev said that foreign experts would inspect the find in July. According to Albert Protopopov, a palaeontologist at Yakutia’s Academy of Sciences, hunters as well as collectors of mammoth teeth and tusks often find the remains of prehistoric animals in the tundra, including woolly rhinoceroses. A finder’s reward is available to them. The precious ivory tusks are coveted mainly in China, and there is a long tradition of ivory carving in Siberia. For scientists, though, tissue samples are of the most interest. Most mammoth remains are first placed in cold storage at Yakutia’s Academy of Sciences. Each object is worked on for an average of about five years, Protopopov said. As for successfully cloning a mammoth, the majority of specialists in Moscow remain doubtful. “Definitely not in the next five to seven years, as the South Koreans intend. It’s completely impossible,” Mashchenko said. Scientists in the Russian capital also reacted rather calmly to the discovery in Yakutia, in 2010, of the first well-preserved mammoth brain. “All of these discussions (on cloning) are nonsense in my view — freezing and thawing kills the cells,” said Sergei Savelyev, a biologist at the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences in Moscow. He did a CAT scan on the brain aimed at learning its internal structure. Among other things, mammoth researchers want to find out how similar their subjects are to present-day Indian and African elephants. But so long as they get no living cells, they see little chance of cloning a mammoth. Mashchenko is loath to wholly exclude the possibility, though. “Science feeds on dreams. During the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci practically foresaw the computer. It came hundreds of years later,” he said. Modern science is advancing rapidly, and experts think that genetic engineers may be able to replicate the mammoth genome in the future. They emphasise, however, that the costs will be immense. Mashchenko hopes the sensational finds in Yakutia will spur Russian leaders to allocate more funds for mammoth research. – DPA
High in the hills of East San Jose, a world-renowned institution is marking its 125th year of pioneering explorations of the night sky. And to think the plans to build Lick Observatory almost lost out to a giant pyramid. Instead, the science community in 1888 got a state-of-the-art, 36-inch Giant Refractor telescope that still is the second largest of its kind in the world. The observatory’s telescopes are used today to test the latest technology, conduct cutting-edge research and continue the search for exoplanets, which are those outside our solar system. But this scientific hotbed was built more for reasons of ego than astronomy: James Lick, the richest man in California, was out to spend his fortune on a large memorial, according to historians. He considered a greater-than-Giza-sized pyramid for downtown San Francisco or super-size statues of his family that could have been seen by ships at sea. In the end, he bankrolled the first mountaintop observatory. The Victorian-era gift of $700,000 from the eccentric California entrepreneur would be worth more than $1.2bn today, according to a ‘Forbes’ magazine article based on a 2008 paper by Alexander MacDonald, an economist for Nasa. As the son of a small-town cabinetmaker in Pennsylvania, Lick earned his first fortune building fine pianos — first in New York City and then in Argentina. Years later, when he took his wealth back home to marry the mother of his son, she spurned him. So he spent another stint in South America, then journeyed to California and arrived just before the Sutter’s Creek gold strike. While others headed for the hills, Lick staked his claims on real estate in San Francisco, Santa Clara and Lake Tahoe, to amass a richer fortune. He even owned Catalina Island at one point. When Lick commissioned the observatory’s construction, every other similar facility in the world was inside cities’ limits. But streetlights and smog were a problem even in the 19th century. Mount Hamilton, therefore, was an attractive site. As the years passed, Lick’s savvy choice of location has allowed the observatory’s hilltop telescopes to employ adaptive optics, the special “glasses” that clear the blurry vision caused by the atmosphere when light streams down from distant stars. These customised instruments help astronomers search the night sky for dimly lit stars that are otherwise outshone by their brighter neighbours. Although the road to the summit is switchbacked and long, Lick Observatory is still easier for scientists to reach than telescopes in Chile or Hawaii. “We’re the first test bed,” said Elinor Gates, senior astronomer. Recently, a radical new superconducting sensor for astronomical cameras got a trial run on the 3m Shane telescope on the San Jose summit. ARCONS (ARray Camera for Optical to Near-IR Spectrophotometry) translates incoming light so fast it can make movies of the Crab Pulsar, a neutron star that spins 33 times per second, said Ben Mazin, a University of California, Santa Barbara, physics professor and one of the camera’s developers. “It’s really valuable to have the 3m telescope at the Lick Observatory so close,” Mazin said. Even Nasa headed for the local hills to test an infrared camera on the observatory’s 1m Nickel telescope before sending the technology aloft. The optical technology has down-to-earth applications, too, Gates said. The instruments that enable astronomers to see distant stars can also help doctors look at cells in the back of the eye. Although nine telescopes have a home on Mount Hamilton, only four get put to work on a regular basis: the Shane, the 1m Nickel, the automated KAIT, which looks for supernovae, and the 36-inch Giant Refractor. Of these, the Shane reflector is the workhorse for which scientists regularly book research time, Gates said. The showboat of the telescopes is the Giant Refractor, used to give visitors their “big wow” views of Jupiter or Saturn on clear, dark nights, Gates said. The astronomical relic weighs 25,000 pounds and dwarfs everything else under the steel dome of the observatory. Yet, the 57-foot-long telescope tube is so finely balanced, Gates can grab the arms-width steering wheel and move the instrument by hand to get a better view of the next nebulae. The observatory itself reflects Lick’s early life as the son of a woodworker. The walls are built with locally milled redwood, and the floor under the Giant Refractor is planked with concentric circles of maple and mahogany. Hydraulic pumps built in 1881 still smoothly raise the floor — as high as 16 feet — when the telescope is angled too high overhead for an astronomer to reach the eyepiece on their own. In the main building, rooms with extra-high ceilings boast original oak doors that swing on hinges with intricate designs. There’s even a walk-through safe between the observatory and the director’s office, built so astronomers could remove and rescue the valuable 36-inch lenses from the telescope in case of wildfires. More than 150,000 glass photographic plates in small, white envelopes overflow the drawers of file cabinets wedged inside the dry, dusty archives. An adjoining area is stacked floor to ceiling, with laboratory books filled with decades of astronomers’ penciled observations. There are also shelves of reduction books, the meticulous notations of “the lady computers” — the women who were not allowed to be astronomers but did the painstaking work of analysing all the information collected. The 125th anniversary marks the official consignment of the Lick Observatory to the University of California on June 1, 1888. Unfortunately, for its benefactor, he never got to look through the eyepiece of the Great Refractor. Lick died almost 12 years before the telescope was completed — and a small brass plaque commemorates his final resting place under the finely milled floorboards of his observatory. — San Jose Mercury News/MCT
Kepler spacecraft’s breakdown changesNasa mission’s course. By Lisa M Krieger With problems on several fronts, the Kepler spacecraft’s planet-hunting days are likely over. But its discoveries may be yet to come. Scientists have only begun to dig through its vast trove of data, where proof of another Earth-like planet may be hiding. “The signals are there, in the data we have now — we have to search for them,” said William Borucki, a space scientist at Nasa’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, and the Kepler mission’s principal investigator. For the past four years, the $600mn Kepler has been a prolific planet detector from its lonely orbit, fixing its metre-wide lens, a photometer, on stars to detect the subtle dimming that occurs every time a planet passes in front of — or “transits” — its sun. The project has been a stunning success, changing our view of the universe. Before Kepler, we knew little about other solar systems in the Milky Way galaxy. Now we have a huge inventory; it has taught us that planets orbit virtually every star in the sky, spurring the field of planetary science. The spacecraft lived as long as it was supposed to, but scientists had hoped it would survive far longer. That’s because planet hunting proved tougher than anticipated. For instance, other astrophysical signals can masquerade as a transiting planet, and stars naturally fluctuate in brightness. If the spacecraft and programme funding had lasted until it ran out of fuel — in 2019 — it would have collected so much data that signs of an Earth-like planet would have been easily confirmed, the researchers said. The Kepler programme has paved the way for two more planet-seeking missions. “We’ll work with what we have,” said co-investigator Alan Gould at the University of California, Berkeley. “We need to make the most of the data that it has already gotten and is still in the pipeline.” Since July, two of Kepler’s four gyroscopes have broken, making it unable to take a steady photographic aim at distant stars. Engineers will try to bring the failed devices back into service, or find other ways to salvage the spacecraft. So far, Kepler’s first 22 months of data have found planets that are quite obvious, but most are in the wrong neighbourhoods to sustain life — either too close, or too far away, from their suns. Or they’re very big and gaseous, like Jupiter or Saturn. Most recently, it revealed some planets circling in the right orbit — the “habitable zone” — around stars Kepler 62 and 69. Two years of data await study. “We haven’t seen the most interesting data,” said Natalie Batalha, deputy science team leader for the Kepler mission and a professor at San Jose State. “The most important discoveries are yet to come. ... They’re in our back pocket,” she said. “If true Earth-sun analogs exist, they’re lurking there just waiting to be pulled out.” More years of study would have given scientists the chance to see more transits, confirming an orbit like the Earth’s. They also could have better estimated the planets’ mass, size and other properties — and ruled out errors. “It’s so frustrating. It’s such a nail-biter,” said Laurance R Doyle of the SETI Institute. “We are almost there. “We really wanted to go the next mile to nail down an earth and to tell if there are moons,” he said. “The extended mission, with extra transits, would have told us that.” Added UC Berkeley’s Gould: “The longer you go ... the more certain you are that it is a planet.” Because Kepler’s data flow has stopped, it is even more important to understand the existing data and look more closely for subtle patterns that might suggest an Earth-like planet. The pressure is on such computer experts as Erik Petigura, a UC Berkeley astronomy graduate student who works with Kepler scientist Geoff Marcy to process the data. “We will extend and improve the software. ... There are more improvements to be made,” Petigura said. “But all the simple and easy things have already been implemented,” he cautioned. “Eventually we’ll hit a limit.” While lamenting what could have been, the scientists said they are excited by what remains. “It could have all ended on the launchpad,” Gould said. “We are delighted to have been a part of such a beautiful and almost perfect mission.” — San Jose Mercury News/MCT
Virtual safety tests could allow more innovation in aerospace engineering. By Roy Wenzl Gerardo Olivares likes to crash-test dummies on a crash-test sled at the National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) in Wichita. He cranks them back, shoots them forward. Heads, arms and legs snap forward, and their waistlines collapse, crushed in painful-looking imitations of what happens when a body folds around a seat belt at high velocity. He uses dummies, he said with a grin, “because it’s really hard to get live volunteers to ride the crash-test dummy sled.” Dummies do valuable work, as his boss, John Tomblin, said. But it is not the work that Olivares will be known for, Tomblin said. Instead it is possible, Tomblin said, that Olivares will go down in aerospace history as the guy who showed how to do aerospace safety tests in three-dimensional virtual models on a computer screen — making dummies much less important than they are now and making costly physical tests less important. Olivares is getting the dummies out of aerospace. It will not only save lives, Tomblin said; it will save the industry hundreds of millions of dollars. The most important work aerospace people have done since the Wright brothers is physically test every part that goes into a plane, Tomblin said. This has become incredibly expensive. A first-class airplane seat, with all its engineering, can cost $120,000 to $150,000, Olivares said. Break a prototype of one of those, and you’ve spent real money. Aerospace engineers ruin lots of prototypes in tests. At NIAR, they crank up their giant wind tunnel. They stick electronic parts in a giant microwave oven. They bend, twist, pound, drill, smash, shake, burn and freeze things. Beechcraft Corp engineers, when they do their own testing, even cover planes and parts with dust and dirt to see how they perform in a desert environment, said John Kraft, the manager of advanced technology for the company. “Smashing things from every conceivable angle and every temperature is what shows us how things might break and how to prevent them from breaking,” Tomblin said. Wrecking a costly seat prototype in a test is one thing. Wrecking them in repeat tests is still another thing. “But now imagine doing a drop test on an air frame section made from composite materials,” Olivares said. Drop tests of frame sections — in which a section is lifted with a crane and then dropped — have been standard for decades. But those airframes cost millions. The cost of getting a plane safety-certified became astronomical years ago, Tomblin said. “A clean-sheet airplane, a new airplane design that starts with a blank sheet of paper, can now cost half a billion dollars to develop,” he said. Olivares has thought for years that aerospace needed to convert much of its testing to virtual models, in programmes that look like some video games. (“They are not video games,” Olivares said with a grin. “They are ... mathematical models.”) Other aerospace people are working with virtual programmes, too, Tomblin and Kraft said, but Olivares has pioneered how to do “crash-worthiness testing” and has made NIAR the premier place where that testing is quickly moving to what might be called reality. Kraft said Olivares has been “incredibly innovative” in pioneering virtual testing. He’s not only reshaping how the industry can do it but is also training people. About half of the 40 people who work for Olivares at NIAR are master’s or doctoral students who, after training, will get jobs in the aerospace industry. “He’s trained dozens, probably more than a hundred people, who go on to get jobs in aerospace and can pass this knowledge along,” Kraft said. “Everywhere I go now, I run into someone trained by him.” The Federal Aviation Administration is so confident about his work that it has given him more than $700,000 to do it, Olivares said. The industry has matched that. Since 2005, he and his team have worked on more than 60 crash-worthiness projects paid for by clients from 12 countries. Olivares now supervises 40 people as director of the NIAR’s Crash Dynamics & Computational Mechanics Laboratory. Much of what he’s done in his pioneering work occurred while working shoulder to shoulder with other NIAR researchers, he said. “It wasn’t just me.” He started by creating virtual testing for that most mundane of parts: the passenger seat. Then he moved on to airplane interiors, creating programs so realistic that you can see reflections on walls and windows, how light plays inside a cabin. Eventually, he said, his researchers will create virtual reality for structures so realistic that no one will build expensive airplane mock-ups anymore. Tomblin said aerospace engineers now understand how valuable this work is. “Some of them would still say, ‘I still want to see the (physical) test,’ “ Tomblin said. “But in the past, most simulation testing has always followed physical testing. Gerardo figured out how to show them virtual tests that showed them exactly how their physical tests were going to turn out. They repeatedly saw how the test part always broke in the exact place that Gerardo’s simulation showed. “They got real excited, too. They even said simulation testing was going to drive more than future testing. Some said, ‘Do you realise what we can do now with future aircraft designs?’” He’s right, Kraft said. In part because of Olivares’ work, designers using virtual models can try literally hundreds of variations with a new design during development. “With the old way, they might try no more than eight or 10,” he said. Crash testing is only part of what Olivares’ team works on. They are also working on bird strikes and flight testing. And Olivares has decided the industry needs to dispense with those clunky, old crash dummy models. So he and his team, for their virtual tests, are scanning humans at local hospitals and creating virtual model humans complete with detailed, realistic spines, bones and internal organs. After he perfects virtual testing, Olivares hopes to use his tools to do another thing that many air passengers say has never been done: He plans to make airplane seats comfortable. — The Wichita Eagle/MCT
* Paul Meijer, senior director of operations at Symantec’s identity and authentication division, stands in the company’s highly secure data centre in Mountain View, California. The building has iris scanners and other tough security measures and is called “the vault” by employees. By Steve Johnson Hidden within a nondescript building here in California is a highly secret Symantec facility protected by the sort of measures found in nuclear missile silos. Dubbed “the vault” by some employees, the bunkerlike operation bristles with guards, sensors, iris- and fingerprint-reading locks, and, deep within its labyrinthine confines, a room containing the most privileged data, to which only five people have the combination. All that is to ensure no one can sneak in and steal the information Symantec maintains to certify that thousands of widely used websites are legitimate, and that whatever is sent to and from the sites is encrypted against cyberattacks. Although company officials say hackers frequently try to break into their computer network, they say it has never been breached. And they are so proud of its physical protections, they recently let the San Jose Mercury News tour the hush-hush complex, on condition its exact location not be revealed. While Symantec and some other prominent “certificate authorities” take security seriously, experts say, others in the business are far less careful. Citing several recent incidents, these experts contend it’s often easy for hackers to compromise weak points in the system and steal credit card numbers, bank account filings, e-mails or other personal records. “Right now the whole certificate-authority model is completely broken, but at the same time we have no valid alternative,” said Jeremiah Grossman, founder of Santa Clara, California-based WhiteHat Security. “It’s going to take a disruption — something really bad will have to happen — and then we’ll fix it.” According to research firm Netcraft, the Internet has more than 670mn websites, the vast majority with addresses beginning with HTTP — for hypertext transfer protocol — which experts say often can be easily hacked. But about 2mn sites for banks, retailers and others boast HTTPS addresses. That “S” means a certificate authority, like Symantec, has verified their operators’ identity and that the information flowing in and out of the sites is encrypted. The sites bear a padlock icon in their addresses, some of which are green to indicate they’ve undergone additional verification. But some of these Web destinations aren’t as secure as they seem to be. By breaking into certificate authorities and issuing fake certificates, hackers can decrypt and steal information sent to and from these sites. In 2011, when prominent Dutch certificate authority DigiNotar was hacked, an investigation determined about 300,000 Iranian Gmail accounts were accessed. The attack — widely believed to have been launched by the Iranian government to monitor dissidents — also created havoc in the Netherlands. Its citizens were warned to avoid online transactions and to correspond with the government only via paper, because Dutch authorities feared their own websites might not be safe. As the world’s biggest certificate authority, Symantec strives to avoid being similarly victimised. While it most fears cyberattacks, it also emphasises the physical security of its location. Surveillance cameras, motion sensors and reinforced walls protect the Mountain View centre. Yet many experts say security procedures vary widely at other certificate authorities — whose numbers worldwide are estimated at anywhere from 65 to well over 100 — and that many of them aren’t nearly as cautious. No single body polices them. And the standards that industry groups have proposed haven’t been universally adopted, which has contributed to confusion about how certificate authorities operate. “It is an extremely complicated, obscure bureaucracy that only a handful of experts on the planet understand,” said Peter Eckersley of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. One troubling mystery is how often certificate authorities get hacked, which is particularly difficult to determine with operations based overseas, said Adam Langley, a senior staff software engineer at Google. Consequently, “there may be lots of small targeted attacks that we don’t know about,” he said, adding that “the general system is rather fragile.” Studies suggest many sites certified as safe may not be. The Electronic Frontier Foundation last year found that thousands of certificates “used to authenticate HTTPS sites are effectively useless, owing to weak algorithms used to generate the random numbers that are needed for encryption.” As a result, it concluded, “tens of thousands of sites across the Web are vulnerable to eavesdroppers.” The Trustworthy Internet Movement, a nonprofit group that seeks to bolster Internet security, reported in April that only 22% of the 172,598 HTTPS sites it checked were secure. And Netcraft recently warned that even when fraudulent HTTPS certificates are revoked, people can continue using those sites “for weeks or months without knowing anything is amiss,” because browsers often are slow to warn them of the problem. Recommendations for improving the system range from making more information about certifications public to requiring every site to have HTTPS encryption. But during a recent workshop on the issue, researchers with the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley, concluded, “There is no real solution in sight.” Others hope they are wrong. “All this stuff is really critical in ensuring that e-commerce continues to be viable, so we all feel safe shopping on the Internet,” said Paul Meijer, senior director of Symantec’s secret center. “That just benefits everybody.” — San Jose Mercury News/MCT Certifying safe sites The vast majority of the more-than 670mn Internet sites have addresses that begin with HTTP — for hypertext transfer protocol — which experts say often can be easily hacked. About 2mn sites operated by banks, retailers and others boast HTTPS addresses. The “S” means a certificate authority has verified the identity of the sites’ operators and that information flowing to and from the sites is encrypted. A padlock icon appears in their addresses, some of which are green to indicate they’ve undergone additional verification. But experts say security precautions vary among the scores of certificate authorities around the world, making it possible for hackers to sometimes decrypt and steal information sent to and from HTTPS sites.
For first time, stem cells are produced from cloning technique. By Melissa Healy For the first time, scientists have created human embryos that are genetic copies of living people and used them to make stem cells — a feat that paves the way for treating a range of diseases with personalised body tissues but also ignites fears of human cloning. If replicated in other labs, the methods detailed in the journal Cell would allow researchers to fashion human embryonic stem cells that are custom-made for patients with Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and other health problems. Theoretically capable of reproducing themselves indefinitely, these stem cells could be used to grow replacements for a wide variety of diseased cells — those of the blood, skin, heart, brain, muscles, nerves and more — that would not risk rejection by the patient’s immune system. The report also raises the spectre that, with a high-quality donor egg, a bit of skin, some careful tending in a lab and the womb of a willing surrogate, humans have cracked the biological secret to reproducing themselves. That is an objective American scientists have squarely renounced as unethical and scientifically irresponsible. At the same time, most acknowledge that such “reproductive cloning” will one day prove too tempting to resist. In the hope that other researchers will validate and extend their results, the scientists at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) provided an exceptionally detailed account of their techniques. But for anyone with a well-equipped fertility lab, the comprehensive guide could be a useful handbook for cloning a baby. OHSU cell biologist Shoukhrat Mitalipov led a team of 23 scientists who methodically culled the lessons learned from stem cell research on amphibians, mice and rhesus monkeys — as well as from the abundant failures of others in the field. They devised a welter of new techniques to use the DNA of a fully formed skin cell in its most primitive embryonic form. The approach they used — called somatic cell nuclear transfer — effectively strips an egg of its chromosomes and packs it instead with DNA from a donor. Nurtured by a stew of nourishing chemicals and zapped with two jolts of electrical current, many of the eggs began to divide and grew for five to six days. At that point, the embryos had 64 to 200 cells, including a dense inner cell mass from which stem cells were extracted. In past efforts to coax such an assemblage of components to life, researchers have burned through dozens of donor eggs without getting any embryos even to the 16-cell stage at which stem cells become a remote possibility. This time, the researchers said their methods were so efficient that they could create at least one embryonic stem cell line from each batch of eggs donated by 10 female volunteers. In one case, a single donor produced eight eggs of such exceptional quality that researchers were able to derive four embryonic stem cell lines. The volunteers, between the ages of 23 and 31, donated their eggs anonymously and were “financially compensated for the time, effort, discomfort and inconvenience associated with the donation process,” the study authors wrote. The success of the experiments rekindled debate among bioethicists, who have long anticipated that human cloning would become a reality. In 2002, a commission of bioethicists established by then-President George W Bush unanimously urged a ban on reproductive cloning. But the panel was deeply divided about the propriety of “therapeutic cloning” for research and medical treatment. Though 13 states have passed laws banning reproductive cloning, the United States is one of just a few industrialised countries that has not prohibited the practice. Seven states also have banned therapeutic cloning. Oregon is not one of them. The OHSU team’s success underscores the urgent need for federal rules that spell out consistent national limits on therapeutic cloning and put a clear ban on the technology’s use in fertility clinics, said Johns Hopkins University bioethicist Jeffrey Kahn. Researchers are also likely to step up their demand for donated eggs so they can conduct similar experiments. That lends urgency to the need for standardised practices for compensating women who donate their eggs. Some states have set strict limits on such payments, while others have allowed a market for donated eggs to flourish unregulated, Kahn added. Among the methodological innovations outlined in the Cell paper was a trick that stem cell scientist Michael D West, who was not involved in the study, dubbed “the Starbucks effect”. The OHSU team added caffeine to the growth medium that nourished the eggs after they were stripped of their original DNA and awaited the new DNA from a skin cell. Unlike its stimulating effect on coffee-drinkers, the caffeine chemically slowed the rush to divide and grow that had doomed earlier efforts. The OHSU scientists also studied which batches of donated eggs were most likely to thrive and survive long enough to produce stem cells. Finding that eggs fared best when they were part of a medium-sized harvest, the researchers fine-tuned their regimen of egg-stimulating drugs so that more of the women produced roughly 10 eggs per cycle. In all, the researchers produced six lines of embryonic stem cells from six separate embryos, said OHSU infertility specialist Dr Paula Amato, one of the paper’s authors. Four of them contained the nuclear DNA of a single donor whose skin cells were purchased from a commercial lab, and a fifth came from a separate donor whose cells were bought the same way. The sixth donor was a patient with Leigh syndrome, a genetic disorder that results in severe and mostly fatal neurological degeneration in a child’s first years of life. The embryonic stem cell lines faithfully reproduced the nuclear DNA of the person who contributed the skin cell. The expectation is that when cells or tissues made from these stem cells are transplanted into that person, they will slip past his or her immune system unnoticed. The stem cells showed “no gross chromosomal abnormalities,” the authors wrote, and appeared every bit as capable of differentiating into a variety of cell types as embryonic stem cells made the old-fashioned way, from excess in vitro fertilised embryos obtained from fertility clinics. “This is extremely important,” said Dr Irving Weissman, a stem cell researcher at Stanford University. Stem cell researcher Dr Robert Lanza echoed that praise, calling the OHSU team’s work “a major scientific achievement.” Lanza, the chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technology Inc, said it remained to be seen whether embryonic stem cells generated this way were more useful for studying and treating diseases than stem cells created by reprogramming adult cells to an embryonic state. The method for creating such induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, was recognised with a Nobel Prize last year. But there are lingering questions about whether iPS cells are safe for patients. Scientists use a cancer-causing virus to reprogram the cells, raising concerns that they could cause tumours in patients. And in 2011, when scientists at the University of California, San Diego, created iPS cells and reintroduced them into donor mice, the animals’ immune systems rejected them. “Some experts are now saying that somatic cell nuclear transfer may be the only way to truly reprogram cells,” Lanza said. — Los Angeles Times/MCT
Scientists track giant whales by their earthshaking calls. By Sandi Doughton AT first, the whale chatter was just a nuisance. When Seattle scientists set out to monitor earthquakes off the Northwest coast, they expected their underwater seismometers to occasionally pick up the booming voice of the fin whale — the second-largest creature on Earth. But what they wound up with was such a cacophony that they had trouble zeroing in on the actual tremors. “It was a very big pain,” said William Wilcock, a marine geophysicist at the University of Washington (UW). To separate tens of thousands of small quakes from hundreds of thousands of whale calls, he and his students were forced to write their own automated program. Now, they’re mining that mountain of discarded data for insights into one of the sea’s least-known and most endangered giants. “Basically, we can track the whales using techniques very similar to the ones we use to locate earthquakes,” Wilcock said. Second only to blue whales in size, fin whales remain shrouded in mystery because they’re so challenging to study. Nobody knows where they give birth or even why they sing. “When I started this project, I was really surprised by how little is actually known about them,” said doctoral student Michelle Weirathmueller. With seafloor seismic monitoring on the rise, her goal is to fill in some of those gaps. “The thing that’s neat about this is that we are basically piggybacking on experiments that were designed for something completely different,” she said. Already, the UW team has discovered that some fin whales migrate north in the autumn — a time when biologists assumed most of the whales would be headed south to breed. Learning more about the species’ movements, behaviour and communication patterns could bolster efforts to protect fin whales from further harm, now that they are beginning to rebound from decades of whaling, said John Calambokidis, whale biologist and co-founder of the Olympia-based Cascadia Research Collective. A recent study found that fin and blue whales are more likely to be struck by ships than any other whale species on the West Coast, he pointed out. Puget Sound residents got a gory demonstration last month, when part of a fin-whale carcass washed up on a beach near Burien. Scientists said the animal was killed by a ship and dragged into the sound. Usually, fin whales stick to deep water offshore — which is one of the reasons they haven’t been studied much, Calambokidis said. Tagging and tracking is expensive, and so are ship-based expeditions to observe and follow whales. Fixed arrays of seismic instruments offer a promising alternative. “It’s clearly going to be an important and very-cost effective future direction,” he said. Reaching up to 85ft in length and weighing in at up to 80 tonnes, fin whales earned the nickname “greyhounds of the sea” because of their sleek build and explosive speed. They also produce some of the loudest noises in the animal kingdom. “It’s just this amazing sound,” Weirathmueller said. The whales let loose with their short, basso profondo blasts roughly every 25 seconds, often continuing for a day or more. They pause only to breathe. The pattern is so regular that scientists who first recorded the song thought it was coming from some man-made device. The whales’ calls can travel thousands of miles through water. If unleashed on land, the average decibel level would be deafening to a human. But the sound is so deep — deeper than thunder or the biggest bass drum — that only the sharpest human ears could detect it. In order to listen to the sounds in the lab, Weirathmueller and her colleagues have to speed up the recordings. That low-frequency, rumbling quality is why the calls of fin and blue whales register on underwater seismometers, which are tuned to detect the rumblings of the Earth. Scientists have used the instruments to track whales before, but never in such large numbers or over such an extended period of time as in the UW studies. Doctoral student Dax Soule analysed a year’s worth of data — more than 300,000 whale calls — recorded by eight seismometers on the ocean bottom off the coast of Vancouver Island. Wilcock and his colleagues installed the instruments beginning in 2003 to record geologic activity at the Juan de Fuca Ridge, where molten rock rising from the Earth’s interior creates new seafloor and fuels underwater volcanoes and hydrothermal vents. In the winter, the number of whale calls was stunning. “There are days when it’s really like whale soup out there,” Soule said. Using a computer program of his own design, Soule was able to tease out the paths followed by 154 individual whales or groups as they passed through the area. The conventional wisdom holds that only males sing, with the goal of attracting females — but even that isn’t known for sure, Calambokidis said. Soule’s data revealed two distinct types of calls, one slightly higher pitched than the other. Most of the animals he tracked were moving south in the winter and early spring, as expected. Some seemed to travel solo, while others moved in pairs or clusters. Why some animals opted to head in the opposite direction is an open question, Soule said. One suggestion is that they might be bachelor males, with no incentive to visit the breeding grounds. But that’s just guess, he cautioned. Seismometers only detect the loudmouths, Calambokidis pointed out, which is one of the technique’s shortcomings. That’s why it would be ideal to mount a research blitz, where the signals from the seafloor instruments could be correlated with observations of the whales’ behaviour and even some tagging, he said. Similar studies of blue whales revealed that most of the animals were silent, with just a small number of voluble males making all the racket. Weirathmueller is expanding the UW studies by tapping into new seismic networks. As part of a project called the Cascadia Initiative, scientists recently deployed 70 seismometers off the Northwest coast, where they’ve been gathering earthquake data for more than a year. An underwater observatory called NEPTUNE Canada includes seismometers, and a similar array of instruments will be installed soon off the Washington coast. The additional sensors will allow Weirathmueller to follow the whales over a larger area and identify where they congregate and feed. “If we want to prevent things like ship strikes and entanglements,” she said, “the most important thing is to know where the whales are.” — The Seattle Times/MCT * Learning more about the species’ movements, behaviour and communication patterns could bolster efforts to protect fin whales from further harm caused by whaling.
Evidence points toward direct evolutionary link between modern humans and the family of human ancestors that includes the Australopithecus known as Lucy. By Monte Morin With long arms, high shoulder blades and powerful fingers, the ancient creatures were built for climbing trees. But they also had long lower limbs, flat feet and a flexible lumbar spine that gave them a distinct evolutionary edge: They could cover long distances by walking upright on two legs. After four years of intense analysis, a team of paleoanthropologists is making its most detailed case yet that a pair of ancient skeletons discovered in a grassy South African valley could represent the direct evolutionary link between modern humans and the family of human ancestors that includes the Australopithecus known as Lucy. In a series of six papers published in edition of the journal Science, the researchers argue that the “mosaic nature” of the Australopithecus sediba specimens makes them a strong candidate to be the “missing link” — the branch of Australopithecus that ultimately gave rise to the genus Homo, which includes Homo sapiens. The skeleton fossils have so many human-like features “across the whole of the body that it must be considered, at the very least, a possible ancestor,” said Lee R Berger, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, who discovered the fossils in 2008. Berger was senior author of all the new studies. But not everyone accepts this view. Critics say the skeletons are not old enough to be the precursors to Homo. Others say the similarities can be chalked up to the diversity of early hominids, but that certain aspects of A sediba’s anatomy make it an unlikely candidate for being our forebear. At a minimum, the new details revealed in the papers are causing scientists to revise, or at least question, some long-held assumptions about the anatomical makeup of our extended evolutionary family. For example, though it was long believed that Australopiths had six lower vertebrae — one more than humans and at least two more than apes — it is now clear that they had the same number as humans: five. The ape-like boy and older woman who tumbled through a sinkhole and lay buried in a deep underground cave for nearly 2mn years have also given scientists a better view of how our early relatives walked. One of the papers focused entirely on the female’s lower limbs and reconstructed the mechanics of her motion. By examining bone grooves and muscle attachments in the kneecap, thigh and lower leg bones and comparing them with those in humans and apes, the scientists were able to figure out that the roughly 4ft-tall creature walked upright. But she probably did so with a peculiar gait marked by an inward rotation of the knee and hip, causing her narrow-heeled feet to twist slightly. This type of motion is called hyperpronation, and in modern humans it’s considered a problem that needs correction. But the leg anatomy of this female suggests that A sediba was built to walk in this manner, said Jeremy DeSilva, a functional morphologist at Boston University and lead author of that part of the analysis. The team wrote that it would need to examine more fossils before it could say whether the entire species walked the same way. Berger said that if modern humans were to observe an A sediba walking by, their attention would probably not be drawn to its legs. “What would be a great difference would be how it swung its long upper limbs during that walk and the shrugged-shoulder appearance of its upper body,” he said. The researchers speculated that the animals spent their lives both in trees and walking on the ground. In other aspects of the research, scientists reported that these specimens had jaws and teeth that are recognisably human. In earlier studies, researchers concluded too that the creature’s hands were capable of precise gripping. The presence of several human-like features has led Berger and others to suggest that A sediba, which lived an estimated 1.78mn to 1.95mn years ago, may have been the species that evolved into the earliest members of the Homo genus. But other paleoanthropologists have pointed out several problems with that thesis. Donald Johanson, the Arizona State University paleoanthropologist who discovered Lucy in 1974, said the first Homo species appeared 2.4mn years ago in eastern Africa. Instead of giving rise to the genus Homo, A sediba would have been a contemporary. “Sediba abundantly demonstrates a unique set of anatomical features of an Australopithecus species that was most likely a dead-end branch on our tree,” said Johanson, who was not involved in the new studies. Ian Tattersall, paleoanthropologist and curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, said that A sediba’s skull, ribs and parts of its pelvis were just too different for it to be a direct ancestor. “In general, it doesn’t have the flavour of the genus Homo,” Tattersall said. One of the factors that has continued to confound experts is the paucity of fossils from early Homo species. Many discoveries in eastern Africa involve small pieces and shards of bones, the result of foraging animals spreading remains over large areas. That has forced scientists to extrapolate much of what they know from just a few bits — such as teeth or portions of skulls. This fragmentary nature of Homo fossils makes the record of when the first creatures appeared spotty and “shockingly bad,” Berger said. “Imagine if someone presented you with one car that was complete from bumper to bumper and another represented by a steering wheel, one tyre and a headlight and started to argue with you that the latter car ... is the faster one,” he said. “That is the difficulty my colleagues and I face.” Where Berger and his doubters agree, however, is that new discoveries will eventually solve the puzzle. “It’s true that our earliest evidence of genus Homo is spotty,” said Brian Richmond a paleoanthropologist at George Washington University. “It’s a palate here and a jaw there. ... I think it’s almost certain the evidence will come.” — Los Angeles Times/MCT
Japanese researchers have taken an early step toward this chimerical goal by training computers to recognise the images flitting through the minds of sleepers. By Geoffrey Mohan Dreams defy even the dreamer, slipping away as stealthily as they arrive in a mind made credulous by sleep. But what if scientists could read our dreams by using the most advanced medical imaging machines and employing the sophisticated algorithms that flag fraudulent transactions among millions of credit card purchases? Researchers in Japan have taken an early step toward this chimerical goal by training computers to recognise the images flitting through the minds of sleepers in the earliest stages of dreaming. Their results, published online recently by the journal Science, suggest that machines may be able to read our minds — at least while we’re in the anteroom of dreamland. “We’re all intrinsically interested in dreaming, but neuroscientists to this day aren’t certain what it does for us,” said Jack Gallant, who studies the brain’s visual system at University of California at Berkeley. “It would be great to have a method of decoding to allow us to know what is going on when we dream.” Like other researchers applying their brains to the brain, the Japanese scientists are probing dreams to understand how they relate to such core functions as memory consolidation and learning. The researchers put three volunteers into a functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine capable of tracking blood flow in the brain, a sign of neurons at work. They also hooked up the volunteers to electroencephalograph machines, which record the electrical activity of those neurons. Then the scientists waited for the subjects to fall asleep. The EEG readings showed when the volunteers entered an early stage of dreaming called hypnagogic hallucination. The researchers woke the subjects roughly 200 times, about every six minutes, to get verbal reports of what they “saw” before the images faded from memory. The volunteers’ responses were understandably groggy, such as: “I saw a person . . . it was something like a scene that I hid a key in a place between a chair and a bed and someone took it.” The researchers focused on the nouns in these descriptions and combined them into generic categories, which were represented by images — a human face, a key, furniture — and presented to the subjects while awake. The rest was a giant maths problem. The scientists wrote a computer program to sort through the patterns of brain activity captured by the functional MRI in both waking and sleeping states; then the program looked for links between those brain activity patterns and specific images. The computers learned to decode dream imagery with an average accuracy of 60%, according to the study. In some cases, the accuracy was significantly higher. “For some categories — like male, female and other characters — you can predict if this character was in the dream or not with an accuracy of 70% to75%,” said study leader Yukiyasu Kamitani, a neuroscientist at ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto. Dr Allen R Braun, who studies the neural basis of language at the National Institutes of Health, said the study was “an important first step to understanding visual imagery during sleep.” But he cautioned that the methods used by the Japanese team might not work for decoding dreams that occur during REM sleep, the stage characterised by rapid eye movement. REM dreams — with their complex imagery, high emotional content and bizarre jumble of logic, time and space — largely remain a mystery. Decoding such dreams could unlock the secrets of many regions of the brain, not just the visual cortices that were monitored in the study. “If you have a theory of the brain, you should be able to decode the brain,” Gallant said. The only limiting factors, he said, are “how well you can measure brain activity, how good your models are and how fast your computers are.” The fact that the computer models used data from waking minds and still made accurate predictions about dreams suggests the researchers are onto something about the links between waking and dreaming states, Gallant said. “There’s something in common between what goes on in dreaming and what goes on in perception,” he said. Although it may sound like science fiction, researchers have made remarkable strides toward reading the brain’s internal logic. One of Gallant’s computer programs managed to identify 92 % of images presented to waking subjects using only MRI readouts. Other studies were able to discern a brain’s attempt at motor control, which could lead to help for people who have lost control of their limbs. Decoding also has made shallow forays into the unconscious mind — predicting changes in perception that were unknown to subjects. One study probed the unconscious origin of racial biases, leading to speculation that it may be possible to detect individual biases. That would have important implications for such fields as law enforcement. The Japanese researchers offered a similarly tantalising suggestion: Some of the “errors” in their computerised guesses could represent images lost even to the dreamer. If so, that would mean the machine was able to understand the volunteer’s mind better than the volunteer could. — Los Angeles Times/MCT
By Melissa Healy Adults (especially parents) often find fault with the teenage brain. But they should admit that it is a powerful learning machine — and that sometimes, the grown-ups wish they could recapture its nimbleness. New research, conducted by researchers at Yale University and published recently in the journal Neuron, homes in on the genetic and chemical mechanics that could make that possible.The new research, says the study’s senior author, Dr Stephen M Strittmatter, helps point the way to therapies that might allow victims of stroke or spinal cord damage to “set back their brain’s clock” to a stage of development that would foster the rapid relearning of lost skills. And, he added, it might aid those hobbled by post-traumatic stress disorder to reconfigure their relationship to painful memories and learn to live again.The present research was done in mice, but clinical trials now in the planning stages could allow researchers to test on human adults agents that mimic the cognitive fountain of youth.“It’s about going from adulthood back to adolescence, and in general that’s something we would not want to do,” said Strittmatter, a neurologist who directs Yale School of Medicine’s programme on neuroscience, neuro-degeneration and repair. “But in some cases, it could prove very helpful.”In response to the world around it, the adolescent brain is a marvel of regeneration, wiring and rewiring itself constantly as its owner learns and refines the motor, social and perceptual skills that will form the foundation of his or her adult behaviour. That ability to adapt, respond and repair on a dime is called plasticity.Having lived through these wonder years, the adult brain becomes a bit, shall we say, plodding. Its cells continue to sprout the axons and dendrites that lash neurons together in a process we call learning. But there’s nothing like the mad re-creation of brain architecture — the constant replacement of existing neuronal connections and their replacement with new ones — that characterises the teen brain.The brain, says Strittmatter, “becomes cemented in place.” Compared with the highly plastic adolescent brain, it is hard-wired.The Yale team focused on a gene that programs for the production of a central nervous system protein called Nogo Receptor 1. Earlier research had established that Nogo Receptor 1 stimulates the growth of connections between neurons, and that when it is plentiful in the brain, mice do not recover as well from brain and spinal cord injuries.But the Yale researchers essentially took time-gap photographs of groups of brain cells and the way they connected to one another in the brains of mice. When they bred mice without the gene, they documented that even into adulthood, the cells they recorded continuously arranged themselves into constantly changing configurations themselves, at the same frantic pace seen in adolescent mice. The brains of mice with normal levels of Nogo Receptor 1, by contrast, settled down to a more stately pattern of reconstitution.Then, the Yale team tried something more audacious: When they chemically plugged up the Nogo receptors in the brains of adult mice, they found that even mice whose brains had made the transition to plodding adulthood regained the speed of an adolescent brain at wiring and rewiring itself.Adult mice with normal levels of Nogo Receptor 1 needed to live in cages that plied them with constant stimulation if their brain cells were to show evidence they were learning new skills. But the brains of adult mice whose Nogo receptors were knocked out were showing signs of intensive learning, even when they were housed in cages that offered them little stimulation.The two sets of mice appeared in all respects the same in early childhood and adolescence: It was only with the transition to adulthood that the protein’s power to tame the brain’s constant rewiring act became evident.Did the mice actually behave any differently when their brains were “reset” to teenage mode? Even into adulthood, Strittmatter noted, tests of memory and function in both sets of mice did not differ in significant ways.But there was one key behavioural difference between the groups: When researchers taught the mice to expect a shock when they heard a buzzer — a process called fear conditioning — adult mice whose brains were in “hard-wired” mode found it harder to adapt to changes intended to extinguish that fear. But fear-conditioned mice who had their Nogo receptors knocked out easily lost their fear reactions when researchers taught them they were in no danger.This may help explain why youngsters who survive spinal cord injuries and strokes, or who live through extremely traumatic events, tend to recover lost function and move on with their lives so much faster and better than do adults who’ve sustained the same injuries. Strittmatter suggests that if the brains of adult patients with stroke, PTSD or spinal cord injury could recapture the plasticity of youth, they too might repair as quickly and thoroughly as youths do.These are the kinds of advances in neuroscience that not only promise help for patients with grievous injuries, they raise a glimmer in the eyes of healthy adults bothered by the loss of cognitive agility that comes with age. Cognitive enhancement to reverse the marginal insults of aging might look awfully seductive to healthy older adults too — probably because they don’t remember the many downsides to having a teenage brain. — Los Angeles Times/MCT