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Science Saturday
Author: Will in Chicago    Date: 2015-07-18 10:10:29

"There are more wonders in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in your philosphy, Horatio."

This week seems to have proven Hamlet's quote correct. As a break from politics, I thought I would examine some recent science news.

Perhaps the most covered story this week is the New Horizon mission to Pluto. The former planet is getting much attention as we now have learned much more about this distant world.


http://i.space.com/images/i/000/048/833/i02/pluto-lorri-new-horizons-high-res-color.jpg?1436883693


As often is the case, new discoveries lead to a lot of unanswered questions as indicated in this recent Space.com article.

Scientists are stunned at the incredible new images of the surface of Pluto, its largest moon Charon and its farthest-flung moon Hydra, which are just the tip of the scientific iceberg that will be sent back by NASA's New Horizons probe in the wake of its epic flyby.

New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto at 7:49 a.m. (1149 GMT) Tuesday morning (July 14), but it took almost 24 hours for scientists to get a sneak peek at the treasure trove of data that the probe picked up. It will take 16 months for the spacecraft to beam home the entire volume of information it collected during its historic Pluto encounter.

At a media briefing held today (July 15), leaders of the New Horizons team discussed some of the new images taken during and around closest approach. Among other amazing revelations, the new photos showed that Pluto's surface is surprisingly young and is studded with big, icy mountains; and that Charon has been geologically active recently and possesses canyons up to 6 miles (10 kilometers) deep. [New Horizons Probe's July 14 Pluto Flyby: Complete Coverage]


Scientists not think that Pluto may only be 100 million years old, as indicated by an absence of impact craters. Instead, we have a world of high mountains, icy hills and broad plains.

Closer to home, the American Meterological Societ has confirmed that 2014 was the warmest year on record.

In 2014, the most essential indicators of Earth's changing climate continued to reflect trends of a warming planet, with several markers such as rising land and ocean temperature, sea levels and greenhouse gases ─ setting new records. These key findings and others can be found in the State of the Climate in 2014 report released online by the American Meteorological Society (AMS).

The report, compiled by NOAA's Center for Weather and Climate at the National Centers for Environmental Information is based on contributions from 413 scientists from 58 countries around the world. It provides a detailed update on global climate indicators, notable weather events, and other data collected by environmental monitoring stations and instruments located on land, water, ice, and in space.

"This report represents data from around the globe, from hundreds of scientists and gives us a picture of what happened in 2014. The variety of indicators shows us how our climate is changing, not just in temperature but from the depths of the oceans to the outer atmosphere," said Thomas R. Karl, L.H.D, Director, NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information.

The report's climate indicators show patterns, changes and trends of the global climate system. Examples of the indicators include various types of greenhouse gases; temperatures throughout the atmosphere, ocean, and land; cloud cover; sea level; ocean salinity; sea ice extent; and snow cover. The indicators often reflect many thousands of measurements from multiple independent datasets.

"This is the 25th report in this important annual series, as well as the 20th report that has been produced for publication in BAMS," said Keith Seitter, AMS Executive Director. "Over the years we have seen clearly the value of careful and consistent monitoring of our climate which allows us to document real changes occurring in the Earth's climate system."


I expect climate deniers to keep on denying the reality of climate change. For some it is ideological. For others, it could be a matter of their paychecks. Never mind the fact that a recent report shows that human activities are endangering the health of future generations.

A new report released by The Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health, calls for immediate, global action to protect the health of human civilization and the natural systems on which it depends. The report, Safeguarding Human Health in the Anthropocene Epoch, provides the first ever comprehensive examination of evidence showing how the health and well-being of future generations is being jeopardised by the unprecedented degradation of the planet's natural resources and ecological systems.

"This Commission aims to put the health of human civilizations, and their special relationship with the larger biosphere, at the centre of concerns for future planetary sustainability. Our civilization may seem strong and resilient, but history tells us that our societies are fragile and vulnerable. We hope to show how we can protect and strengthen all that we hold dear about our world," says Dr Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief of The Lancet and one of the report authors.

The report was written by a Commission of 15 leading academics and policymakers from institutions in 8 countries, and was chaired by Professor Sir Andy Haines of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, UK. It demonstrates how human activity and development have pushed to near breaking point the boundaries of the natural systems that support and sustain human civilizations.

"The Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Planetary Health Commission has issued a dire warning: Human action is undermining the resilience of Earth's natural systems, and in so doing we are compromising our own resilience, along with our health and, frankly, our future," said Dr Judith Rodin, President of The Rockefeller Foundation. "We are in a symbiotic relationship with our planet, and we must start to value that in very real ways. Just as Foundation leaders 100 years ago took a holistic view and launched the field of public health, the Commission's report marks a paradigm shift for a new era of global public health, one that must be integrated with broader policy decisions."

The Commission warns that a rising population, unsustainable consumption and the over-use of natural resources will exacerbate these health challenges in the future. The world's poorest communities will be among those at greatest risk, as they live in areas that are most strongly affected and have greater sensitivity to disease and poor health.

"We are on the verge of triggering irreversible, global effects, ranging from ocean acidification to biodiversity loss," says Professor Haines. "These environmental changes -- which include, but extend far beyond climate change -- threaten the gains in health that have been achieved over recent decades and increase the risks to health arising from major challenges as diverse as under-nutrition and food insecurity, freshwater shortages, emerging infectious diseases, and extreme weather events."


There also are some interesting developments in treating brain injuries and degenerative brain injuries from a Boston hospital.

Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center have developed an antibody that can target and treat the beginning causes of Alzheimer’s and other debilitating neurodegenerative diseases.

In the exciting research, funded partially by the National Institutes of Health and published this week in the journal Nature, researchers first found that a brain protein, known as the tau protein, can become misshapen as soon as 12 hours after a traumatic brain injury.

Previous research has also shown that abnormal development of the tau protein underlies Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

“Healthy tau protein is found in the brain and serves to assemble and support microtubules, the ‘scaffolding systems’ that give neurons their unique shape and are integral to memory and normal brain functioning,” said co-senior author Dr. Kun Ping Lu, chief of the division of translational therapeutics in the Department of Medicine at BIDMC and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, in a release.

Yet a traumatic brain injury – such as from a concussion or from military-related blasts, or in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s, the tau protein becomes tangled and unable to function.


Another story shows that research hints at some fundamental differences between autistic and non-autistic brains.

By turning stem cells taken from autistic patients into tiny “organoids” that closely resemble the brains of human embryos, researchers have gleaned potentially valuable insights into what may go wrong during brain development in people with autism.

The work, published today, illustrates the value of using three-dimensional brain structures, which re-create natural conditions more accurately than traditional two-dimensional cell cultures, to investigate the physical basis of poorly understood brain disorders. Though some 80 percent of autism cases have no clear genetic cause, it is generally accepted that the disorder can be traced back to things that go wrong during early brain development, and the ability to observe embryonic brain development could yield valuable insights that may reveal how to treat or even reverse it. Other researchers are now investigating the potential of using organoids to study other misunderstood diseases like schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s (see “10 Breakthrough Technologies 2015: Brain Organoids”).

Much of the investigation into the causes of autism has focused on searching through patients’ genomes for mutations and then using animal models to study the roles the affected genes play in brain development. This is the first published study using brain organoids to investigate the disorder. The researchers identified commonalities among organoids made from the cells of these patients and worked to determine their genetic basis.

Led by Flora Vaccarino, a professor of child psychiatry and neurobiology at Yale University, the researchers began by selecting autistic patients with enlarged heads, a condition that affects about a fifth of people with the disorder. They took skin cells from four patients and turned them into stem cells capable of developing into many kinds of specialized cells. Then they directed those cells to develop into the types of neurons found in the forebrain. For comparison, they did the same using cells isolated from the patients’ fathers, who did not have autism.

After growing the organoids, the researchers performed a variety of different analyses, including genetic sequencing and physiological tests, to confirm that the structures reproduced various important components present in the brain of a developing fetus. Then they compared the organoids made from the patients’ cells with ones made from the cells of their fathers, identifying certain genes that were expressed differently. In particular, they noticed that genes involved with directing the proliferation of cells were overexpressed in the autistic organoids. Further analysis revealed a disproportionate number of a certain type of neuron compared with another type that is normally present in roughly the same number.

Finally, they looked back at the gene expression data and found that the autistic organoids had much more expression of one particular gene that is important in early brain development. When the researchers engineered the DNA to reduce the expression of that gene, they were able to turn cells from the autistic patients into organoids without the neuronal imbalance they saw before.


It seems that there is more to learn than any of us could ever know. For me, this engenders an attitude of awe and humility at our universe, from the most distant objects in the universe to our own bodies. It also tells me that we need to take better care of ourselves and our world, so that future generations will discover wonders that we cannot yet imagine.

2 comments (Latest Comment: 07/18/2015 18:36:18 by TriSec)
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