Animal armory

• The legend of rocket cats.

• How does the internet get from here to there?

• Two words to brighten your day: beekeeping donkey.

• It turns out your teeth can teach scientists about how to make glass stronger by cracking it.

• Study well, and one day you, too, can unlock the secrets of the Universe.

• Space is really, really big, right? Contemplate our solar system with interactive models from BBC Future and Josh Worth.

• The name of your next band? Try earthquake lights.

• It’s not all in the wrist; the “flat loop” rope trick is also in the thumb and forefinger.

That’s Right: Artificial Chromosome

Dan Vergano brings an astounding lede for National Geographic:

National GeographicIn a biological first, an international team has inserted a man-made chromosome into brewer’s yeast, producing a life form that thrives and successfully passes the designer genes on to its offspring.

The “synthetic” biology advance—the first synthesis of a working artificial chromosome in an organism more complex than a bacterium—opens the door wider to man-made microbes that may someday be designed to manufacture better fuels, food, and medicines.

“We can shuffle genes into these chromosomes like a deck of cards,” says Jef Boeke of the NYU Langone Medical Center’s Institute for System Genetics, who led the study reported in the journal Science.

The Persistence of Life

Perhaps at first glance it looks like evidence of an extraterrestrial invasion, a field of Teletubby egg sacs spread across the rocky plain. It is, in fact, la llareta (Azorella compacta, neé A. yareta), apparently a relative of parsley. The dense-growing evergreen perennial flowering shrub is found in South America. What makes llareta fascinating is not that the flowers are hermaphroditic, nor even that the species’ adaptations over the years make it unsuitable for growth in shade. Rather, it is that these organisms live for thousands of years. Some llareta in the Atacama are known to have survived over two millennia.

And if that isn’t enough to blow your mind, Katherine Brooks brings the news about a new book by Rachel Sussman, The Oldest Living Things In the World:

Photograph by Rachel Sussman.For nearly a decade, photographer Rachel Sussman has been traveling the globe in search of the world’s oldest living things. From the Mojave Desert to the Australian Outback to Greenland’s icy expanses, she captures portraits of life forms so relentless they’ve managed to survive eons of planetary change. An 80,000-year-old colony of aspen trees in Utah and a 43,600-year-old self-propagating shrub in Tasmania rank amongst Sussman’s unlikely subjects, just two of the many plants, fungi and invertebrates catalogued by her lens.

Gathered together in a book published this Spring, and aptly titled “The Oldest Living Things in the World,” the collection of age-old organisms serves as a stunning visual history of Earth’s extreme inhabitants. The collision of art and science is hardly just a visual feast of the past, it’s also a reminder of what the future might leave behind, as climate change and human endeavors threaten the existence of these millennia-old characters.

Sussman worked with biologists to complete the research for the project (not to mention science writer Carl Zimmer has provided the foreword and Hans Ulrich Obrist the essays for the new tome), and the photographer has worked tirelessly to bring awareness to the fragile nature of stromatolites, moss and other overlooked living things. Her 2010 TedTalk educated the world on 2,000-year-old brain coral off the coast of Tobago, while an article posted to Brain Pickings lamented the death of a 3,500 year old Cypress tree.


Image credit: Rachel Sussman via Huffington Post.

Postcard From Cassini

PIA17157 detail
There is always this. Given the times, and the scale of science fiction, perhaps the idea of a holiday snap featuring four moons does not necessarily strike us as anything special. But then we stop to think about it:

Two pairs of moons make a rare joint appearance. The F ring’s shepherd moons, Prometheus and Pandora, appear just inside and outside of the F ring (the thin faint ring furthest from Saturn). Meanwhile, farther from Saturn the co-orbital moons Janus (near the bottom) and Epimetheus (about a third of the way down from the top) also are captured.

Prometheus (53 miles, or 86 kilometers across) and Pandora (50 miles, or 81 kilometers across) sculpt the F ring through their gravitational influences. Janus (111 miles, or 179 kilometers across) and Epimetheus (70 miles, or 113 kilometers across) are famous for their orbital dance, swapping places about every four years. They are also responsible for gravitationally shaping the outer edge of the A ring into seven scallops.


Just to go clockwise, that’s Epimetheus, Prometheus, Pandora, and Janus.

Seriously, though … anyone have a holiday snap to match? Didn’t think so.

Chris Hadfield Still Rocks

A brief note aside: Yes, we know. Every once in a while it behooves us to check the instructions. It really is that easy to embed a tweet. This Unfortunately Requisite Duh has been brought to you by Diving Under Many Bogus Assumptions. Take the note.

More importantly, there is a reason why @Cmdr_Hadfield remains awesome.

Happy π Day

Happy π Day. Π? π? I go with π, since that’s what this is all about, anyway. right?

Well, you know, to our American friends. Never mind. Dumb joke. Predictable. Happy π Day to each and every one of you around the world and throughout the Universe.

On a related note, NASA proudly recalls the Pi Transfer:

π ManeuverOn Jan. 19, 2007, the Cassini spacecraft took this view of Saturn and its rings—the visible documentation of a technique called a “pi transfer” completed with a Titan flyby. A pi transfer uses the gravity of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, to alter the orbit of the Cassini spacecraft so it can gain different perspectives on Saturn and achieve a wide variety of science objectives. During a pi transfer, Cassini flies by Titan at opposite sides of its orbit about Saturn (i.e., Titan’s orbital position differs by pi radians between the two flybys) and uses Titan’s gravity to change its orbital perspective on the ringed planet.

Taking in the rings in their entirety was the focus of this particular imaging sequence. Therefore, the camera exposure times were just right to capture the dark-side of its rings, but longer than that required to properly expose the globe of sunlit Saturn. Consequently, the sunlit half of the planet is overexposed.

Yeah. They can do this. Happy π Day.

CDC on AMD: “Nothin’ Against Canada”

Meanwhile, in the war against … er .. um … ah … right. Anyway, politics and priorities:

We have the technology  ....Many public health experts see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the premier disease detection agency not just for the United States but for the entire planet.

Yet when it comes to employing the fastest and most precise method of spotting outbreaks of illness, the CDC is no longer at the cutting edge—and won’t be for years. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Thomas Frieden along with public health and provider groups want to turn that around by investing in a sophisticated technology called “advanced molecular detection” that determines the genetic map of the viruses, bacteria and parasites that cause disease.

The effort began paying off early this year. Appropriators for the first time in several years decided to rewrite Labor-HHS-Education spending provisions. In doing so, they included $30 million for the AMD technology in the omnibus spending measure funding the government through the end of fiscal 2014.


It almost sounds like a bureaucratic accident; indeed, the task remains for Frieden to convince Congress to maintain funding.

There are, of course, the political questions, from global health perspectives to budgetary questions, to “nightmare” pathogens that, unfortunately are not so unrealistic as the description might lead us to hope. Consider the idea of a contagion that cannot be killed with current technology, and can dance across species. The kind of thing they make bad suspense films about. Except real.

The viruses, bacteria and parasites that cause disease each have their own individual genetic makeups. Advanced molecular detection is used to determine what they are.

It does so by analyzing a small sample of virus or bacteria, for example. It prints out a sequence of the genes in the sample involved. That allows a precise match to a particular medical condition.

Also, the data can be made available within hours to the “bioinformatics” specialists who have the expertise to interpret it. These “rapid gene sequencing” techniques can be applied without the painstaking culturing of samples in labs over a period of days or weeks. It also can quickly determine whether bacteria is drug resistant—speed that could save thousands of lives, officials say.

“Imagine putting together a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle with the speed you could normally do a 100-piece puzzle—apply that to infectious disease control and that’s AMD at work,” says a CDC fact sheet on the technology. “Now imagine, while disease is spreading and people are dying, trying to put a 10,000 piece puzzle together when key pieces are missing. That’s what many CDC scientists are struggling against today” ….

…. “We’ve been concerned for a number of years that CDC is falling behind,” said Scott Becker, executive director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. He cited investments 10 to 15 years ago in a technology known as PCR and in the PulseNet food illness surveillance network as ones that kept the agency then at the cutting edge of disease detection, but no longer.

It isn’t so much that the CDC is behind other nations as it is that the technology isn’t being used when dangerous new threats are emerging, said Becker.

“It’s more that the microbes are ahead of us,” agreed Frieden. “The microbes are evolving really quickly.”

But Frieden acknowledged a “painful” story. “During the [2010] cholera outbreak in Haiti we were able to sequence the genome of the cholera bacillus, but we couldn’t interpret it. So we had to send it to Canada to have it interpreted,” he said. “You know, I got nothin’ against Canada, but I never ever want to have to send something elsewhere to have it interpreted. They were ahead of us with bioinformatics.”


Reichard, John. “CDC Plans to Map DNA of Disease-Causing Viruses”. Roll Call. March 10, 2014.

You Wouldn’t Believe ….

Now this is a paragraph:

Among the more profitable endosymbioses is one that allows the host to derive energy from sunlight. The light-harvesting machines of plants and algae, for example, are the products of an ancient merger between a photosynthetic bacterium and a microbial eukaryote. Like mitochondria, present-day plastids—including both pigmented light-harvesting as well as unpigmented nonphotosynthetic chloroplasts—are fully and inescapably integrated into the host cell. Their journey from bacterium to internal solar-powered generator is responsible for much of the success and diversity of life on earth; no other cellular invention has had a greater impact on eukaryotic evolution. In fact, as scientists continue to uncover new and bizarre plastid-bearing lineages, it is becoming clear that many eukaryotic groups lacking plastids actually descend from photosynthetic ancestors. Some species are even in the process of generating novel plastid organelles.


That is to say, just stop and consider everything in that paragraph.

Elysia chlorotica, for instance:

Elysia ChloroticaElysia chlorotica is a “solar-powered” marine sea slug that sequesters and retains photosynthetically active chloroplasts from the algae it eats and, remarkably, has incorporated algal genes into its own genetic code. It is emerald green in color often with small red or white markings, has a slender shape typical of members of its genus, and parapodia (lateral “wings”) that fold over its body in life. This sea slug is unique among animals to possess photosynthesis-specific genes and is an extraordinary example of symbiosis between an alga and mollusc as well as a genetic chimera of these two organisms.

(Encyclopedia of Life)

Is there really anything we can add to that? Behold … life!

Smith, David. “Steal My Sunshine”. The Scientist. January 1, 2013.

“Eastern Emerald Elysia”. Encyclopedia of Life. (n.d.)

Pierce, S. K., et al. “Horizontal Transfer of Functional Nuclear Genes Between Multicellular Organisms”. The Biological Bulletin. 204: 237-240. June, 2003.

Image credit: Patrick Krug via

YORP: Rock and Roll

HEIC 1405b (ESA)

“This is a rock. Seeing it fall apart before our eyes is pretty amazing.”

David Jewitt

For months, the Hubble Space Telescope has been checking in on asteroid P/2013 R3. First observed by Catalina and Pan-STARRS, observations at Keck two weeks later revealed what might be a once in a lifetime spectacle.

“Keck showed us that this thing was worth looking at with Hubble,” [David] Jewitt [of UCLA] said. With its superior resolution, the space-based Hubble observations soon showed that there were really ten distinct objects, each with comet-like dust tails. The four largest rocky fragments are up to 200 metres in radius, about twice the length of a football pitch.

The Hubble data showed that the fragments are drifting away from each other at a leisurely 1.5 kilometres per hour—slower than the speed of a strolling human. The asteroid began coming apart early last year, but the latest images show that pieces continue to emerge ….

…. The ongoing discovery of more fragments makes it unlikely that the asteroid is disintegrating due to a collision with another asteroid, which would be instantaneous and violent in comparison to what has been observed. Some of the debris from such a high-velocity smash-up would also be expected to travel much faster than has been observed.

It is also unlikely that the asteroid is breaking apart due to the pressure of interior ices warming and vaporising. The object is too cold for ices to significantly sublimate, and it has presumably maintained its nearly 480-million-kilometre distance from the Sun for much of the age of the Solar System.

This leaves a scenario in which the asteroid is disintegrating due to a subtle effect of sunlight that causes the rotation rate to slowly increase over time. Eventually, its component pieces gently pull apart due to centrifugal force. The possibility of disruption by this phenomenon—known as the YORP effect—has been discussed by scientists for several years but, so far, never reliably observed.

For break-up to occur, P/2013 R3 must have a weak, fractured interior, probably the result of numerous ancient and non-destructive collisions with other asteroids. Most small asteroids are thought to have been severely damaged in this way, giving them a “rubble pile” internal structure. P/2013 R3 itself is probably the product of collisional shattering of a bigger body some time in the last billion years.

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Shine On, Cassini

Titan Layers (detail)

“Each flyby gives us a little more knowledge of Titan and its striking similarities to our world. Even with its cold surface temperatures of minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit (94 kelvins), Titan is like early Earth in a deep freeze.”


It’s a cosmic diamond jubilee, of sorts. The clock is running, with Cassini set to undertake it’s T-99 flyby of Titan tomorrow (March 6, 2014; 0725 PST). An additional flyby undertaken after the original schedule was settled makes this officially the spacecraft’s one-hundredth survey of Saturn’s largest moon.

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