Thursday, December 21, 2006

New Imaging Method Allows Early Identification of Alzheimer's

Researcher's a UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior have developed an innovative new method of using positron emission tomography (PET) imaging with a small molecule invented at UCLA to non-invasively identify amyloid plaques and tangles in the brain, allowing for the detection of diseases such as Alzheimer's disease in their early stages.

Study results found that the new method was able to track disease progression over a two-year period and was more effective in differentiating patients with Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment from normal study subjects when compared to conventional imaging techniques. Researchers are working with Siemens Medical to begin a clinical trial using this new molecular marker in order to obtain Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval so that it will be available in the future for use by physicians with their patients.

The results will be published in the Dec. 21 New England Journal of Medicine.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Carl Sagan Memorial Blog-A-Thon

Carl Sagan died ten years ago today, and to commemorate his life, Joel Schlosberg has announced the organization of a blog-a-thon in Sagan's memory.

Carl Sagan had many contributions to science and technology, including discoveries that led to an understanding of the high surface temperatures on Venus, as well as contributions to NASA's Mariner program and others. He was also a best-selling novelist, producing such works as Cosmos, Pale Blue Dot, and the novel Contact, among others.

But Sagan's greatest contribution was in the form of education and advocacy. He advocated for SETI, co-founded the Planetary Society, hosted the PBS television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, and made numerous appearances on the Tonight Show. In doing so, he helped give a popular face to science (astronomy in particular) and introduced people (including me) to the wonders of the universe.

While Sagan's contributions to science were noteworthy, the inspiration he provided to so many others was, in my opinion, held much greater value. As brilliant as he was, Carl Sagan was only one man, and as such could only conduct so much science himself. By advocating and educating, he introduced and inspired a new generation of scientists and thinkers whose discoveries and reach will far surpass anything Sagan could have accomplished by himself.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Europe Launches 54 Billion Euro R&D Program

The European Union will launch the 7th Framework Program (FP-7) on December 22, a program that aims to increase Europe's growth and competitiveness, recognizing that knowledge is Europe's greatest resource. The seven-year (2007-2013) program has received 54 billion Euros (about $70 billion) in funding.

From the EU's FP-7 webpage:

What are the key research areas defined by the European Commission?

FP-7 comprises 4 programs:

The cooperation program accounts for over 60% of the available funding and allows European researchers to work together on collaborative research projects to advance knowledge, to propose solutions to some of the major issues facing us today and to develop new technologies for the future. It promotes cooperation among universities, industry and research centers across the European Union, as well as with the rest of the world. This program focuses on research in: health; food, agriculture and biotechnology; information and communication technologies; nanosciences, materials and production technologies; energy; environment; transport; social and economic sciences; space; and security.

The ideas program is implemented through a new body, the European Research Council (ERC), and provides on average 1 billion Euro per year for investigator-driven frontier research in cutting-edge, “risky” areas.  The first call for proposals focuses on early-stage independent investigators – those ready to set up their own team for the first time. Future calls will cater to all experience levels. Applicants do not have to be in Europe to submit a proposal – but the work must be done in Europe if selected.

The people program provides increased funding for Marie Curie actions, which promote the training and mobility of researchers at all research career stages. This includes fellowships for Europeans wanting to work in another European country; specific international activities to fund non-European researchers to work in Europe and to fund Europeans to work outside Europe; and reintegration grants for European researchers to return to Europe from abroad. European researchers in the US will be eligible for most actions.

The capacities program enhances research and innovation capacity in Europe through activities such as funding access for researchers to major European infrastructures; support for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to develop their research potential or to outsource their research; international cooperation and science and society.

In my opinion, this is a very positive thing for the European Union. It allows their scientists, including small research shops, better research opportunities across the whole of the EU. It will improve cooperation and competition in research endeavors, both of which have been shown to improve research results.

This program will also benefit more than just the EU, as the research results will be shared with the world, much like the research programs funded by the NSF. Cheers to the the EU for launching this initiative.

Innovative New Malaria Vaccine Enters Testing

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health are testing a new vaccine aimed not at curing malaria in an individual patient, but at eradicating the virus from a region.

The new technique involves not only removing the parasite from the infected patient, but at transfering antibodies capable of eradicating the virus into the mosquitoes that carry the infection. By removing this source of infection, the scientists hope to prevent the spread of the disease.

The vaccine was developed with conjugate technology, which joins or "conjugates" molecules the immune system has great difficulty recognizing to molecules the immune system can recognize easily. Primed by the conjugate vaccine,the immune system begins making antibodies — immune proteins that target specific molecules. The antibodies then eliminate molecules the immune system would fail to detect.

Read the NIH press release HERE.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Project Profile: Einstein@Home

This week's profile is for the Einstein@Home project. Like last week's profiled project, Rosetta@home, Einstein@Home uses the BOINC software as a distributed computing platform.

The Einstein@Home project uses the idle resources of a distributed network of computers to search for pulsars, which are spinning neutron stars. The software analyzes data gathered by the LIGO and GEO gravitational wave detectors.

From the Einstein@Home Screensaver description:

The Einstein@Home Screensaver has a number of elements related to current efforts to detect gravitational radiation from periodic sources such as pulsars. The primary element of the screensaver is a rotating celestial sphere showing the known constellations, along with the current zenith positions of three gravity wave detectors. The positions of the detectors relative to the stars changes periodically over a 24 hour period. If you went to one of the detector sites, the stars visible directly overhead at any time are the same ones that appear next to the detector on your screensaver. (This assumes of course that your computer's time and timezone are correctly set!) Also shown are the positions of the known pulsars and supernovae remnants, and a marker indicating the positions being searched as the calculations proceed. When the graphics are shown in a separate window (not as a screensaver) the user can control the display with the mouse and keyboard.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Microsoft Releases Robotics Studio

This week, Microsoft® released a new product called Microsoft Robotics Studio, designed to be a universal platform for robotics for everything from toys to industrial and military applications.

The folks at Microsoft are understandably excited about this new product, as they see many parallels between the robotics industry today and the computer industry of the mid-to-late seventies.

The software includes a visual programming tool that enables non-programmers to easily write software for robots using a drag-and-drop interface, along with a 3-D simulator (using the PhysXTM engine from AGEIATM) to allow you to evaluate how your robot will behave without having to build it first.

I think this is an excellent step toward building better robots, as it makes it possible for hobbyists (licenses of MRS are free for non-commercial use) to participate in advancing the robotics industry, much as they did with personal computers in the late seventies and early eighties.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Researchers Working on System for Harvesting Corn Stover

A research team at Iowa State University is designing systems for simultaneous harvesting of grain and stover (the stalks, cobs and leaves) during corn harvesting, with the goal of providing the raw materials for cellulosic ethanol processing.

The researchers are developing stover attachments that can be used on standard combines. The result would be an additional cost to farmers of about $10,000 to $15,000 instead of the six figures it would take for a separate combine to harvest stover. The attachments would also allow farmers to harvest grain and stover with one pass through a field.

Although tests of the prototype machine have been successful, the researchers acknowledge that there is still much work to be done in terms of stover harvest capacity, transportation, storage, and soil composition.

Read more information here.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Researchers Develop Better Alzheimer's Test

Researchers at Cornell University and Weill Cornell Medical College have developed the first real diagnostic test for Alzheimer's Disease. Currently, diagnoses are dependent upon clinical judgment of a physician, which can sometimes have difficulty distinguishing between Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. In some cases, the diagnosis is not confirmed or rejected until the autopsy table, obviously far too late for any future treatments to do any good.

The new technique involves sampling cerebrospinal fluid for a panel of twenty-three protein biomarkers. The Cornell study combined cutting edge "proteomics" technology, detailed image analysis, and complex computational and statistical analyses to simultaneously compare 2,000 cerebrospinal fluid proteins from 34 patients with autopsy-proven Alzheimer's disease to those of 34 age-matched controls without the disease.

For more information, read the whole story here.

Researchers Discover Self-Assembling Nano-Ice

A research team at University of Nebraska-Lincoln have discovered a new type of nano-ice that self assembles, inside carbon nano-tubes and at high pressures, into double-helixes.

The research, conducted by chemistry professor Xiao Cheng Zeng and his team on the university's PrairieFire supercomputer, could have major implications for scientists in other fields who study the protein structures that cause diseases such as Alzheimer's and bovine spongiform ecephalitis (mad cow disease). It could also help guide those searching for ways to target or direct self-assembly in nanomaterials and predict the kind of ice future astronauts will find on Mars and moons in the solar system.

Another implication, Zeng said, is that these self-assembling helical ice structures may give scientists and engineers a different way to think about weak molecular bonds and the self-assembly process as they try to develop ways to direct self-assembly in making new materials. He said that while scientists have a good understanding of covalent bonds (the strong type of bonding where atoms share electrons), knowledge is not as complete about the weak bond, such as hydrogen bonds, that are essential to the self-assembly process. In weak bonding, atoms don't share electrons.

Read the full story HERE.

Monday, December 11, 2006

New Method for Forming Tissues from Stem Cells

Bioengineering researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh and stem cell biologists from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine have combined to create a new system for helping stem cells grow into complex tissue systems.

The research involves laying a foundation of nurturing proteins on a glass slide, which was then coated with a pattern of proteins specific to the type of tissue they were trying to create. Muscle-derived adult stem cells were added on top of the protein pattern, and derive into tissue. In this case, the stem cells derived into bone-like cells. A control group, not grown on the specialized protein pattern, derived into muscle-like cells.

Usable therapies are likely decades away, using this technique, but this research is an important first step.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Discovery Beats the Odds

Despite predictions of bad weather threatening the launch, the space shuttle Discovery made NASA's first night launch in four years tonight, rocketing off the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

This launch is one of fourteen remaining launches for the space shuttle fleet, thirteen of which will focus on completing assembly of the International Space Station. The remaining flight, in 2008, will be the final servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope.

In addition to supplies and a new piece of the space station, Discovery is delivering a new crew member to ISS, American Suni Williams, and returning German astronaut Thomas Reiter.

Project Profile: Rosetta@home

This week's profile is for the Rosetta@Home project. Rosetta@home uses the BOINC software platform for distributed computing to determine the 3-dimensional shapes of proteins in research, with the stated goal of finding cures for some major human diseases.

Basically, by running the BOINC software and setting up the Rosetta@home project, your wasted CPU cycles can be put to use helping cure some of the most devastating diseases affecting humans today, such as cancer and Alzheimer's disease.

From the Rosetta@home Science FAQ:

    What is Rosetta?

      Rosetta is a protein structure prediction and design program.

    What is a protein?

      A protein is a polymer of amino acids that is encoded by a gene.

    What are amino acids?

      Amino acids are chemical moieties that form the basic building blocks of proteins. There are 20 different amino acids that are specified by the genetic code. These 20 amino acids fall into different groups based on their chemical properties: acidic or alkaline, hydrophilic (water-loving) or hydrophobic (greasy).

    What do proteins do?

      Proteins perform many essential functions in the cells of living organisms. They replicate and maintain the genome (DNA), they help cells grow and divide, and stop them from growing too much, they give a cell its identity (eg liver, neuron, pancreatic, etc.), they help cells communicate with each other. Proteins, when mutated or when affected by toxins can also cause disease, such as cancer or alzheimer's. Bacterial and viral proteins can hijack a cell and kill it. In short, proteins do everything.

    How do proteins perform all their different functions?

      Each protein folds into a unique 3-dimensional shape, or structure. This structure specifies the function of the protein. For example, a protein that breaks down glucose so the cell can use the energy stored in the sugar, will have a shape that recognizes the glucose and binds to it (like a lock and key). It will have chemically reactive amino acids that will react with the glucose and break it down, to release the energy.

    Why do proteins fold into unique structures?

      It's long been recognized that most for most proteins the native state is at a thermodynamic minimum. In English, that means the unique shape of a protein is the most stable state it can adopt. Picture a ball in a funnel - the ball will always roll down to the bottom of the funnel, because that is the most stable state.

    What forces determine the unique native (most stable) structure of a protein?

      The sequence of amino acids is sufficient to determine the native state of a protein. By virtue of their different chemical properties, some amino acids are attracted to each other (for example, oppositely charged amino acids) and so will associate; other amino acids will try to avoid water (because they are greasy) and so will drive the protein into a compact shape that excludes water from contacting most of the amino acids that "hide" in the core of this compacted protein.

    Why is it so difficult to determine the native structure of a protein?

      Even small proteins can consist of 100 amino acids. The number of potential conformations available to even such a (relatively) small protein is astronomical, because there are so many degrees of freedom. To calculate the energy of every possible state (so we can figure out which state is the most stable) is a computationally intractable problem. The problem grows exponentially with the size of a protein. Some human proteins can be huge (1000 amino acids).

    So how does Rosetta approach this problem?

      The rosetta philosophy is to use both an understanding of the physical chemical properties different types of amino acid interactions, and a knowledge of what local conformations are probable for short stretches of amino acids within a protein to adopt, to limit the search space, and to evaluate the energy of different possible conformations. By sampling enough conformations, Rosetta can find the lowest energy, most stable native structure of a protein.

    Why is distributed computing required for structure prediction by Rosetta?

      In many cases where the native structure of a protein is already known, we have noticed that Rosetta's energy function can recognize the native state as more stable than any other sampled state. When starting from a random conformation, however, we've observed that the native state is never sampled. By applying more computing power to the problem, we can sample many more conformations, and try different search strategies to see which is the most effective.

    How will Rosetta@home benefit medical science?

Toward Better Replacement Organs

The University of Michigan Medical School reported this week on advances in a new technique designed for improved engineering of replacement organs.

The research, led by Ravi K. Birla, Ph.D., of the Artificial Heart Laboratory in U-M's Section of Cardiac Surgery and the U-M Cardiovascular Center, created bio-engineered heart muscle (BEHM) cells that generated pulsing forces and reacted more like natural heart muscles than any BEHM previously produced.

The three-dimensional tissue was grown using a new technique that is faster than others that have been tried in recent years, but still yields tissue with significantly better properties. The approach uses a fibrin gel to support rat cardiac cells temporarily, before the fibrin breaks down as the cells organize into tissue.

Read the U-M press release here.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Engineered Yeast Speeds Ethanol Production

Researchers at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at MIT have engineered a new strain of yeast that can improve the speed and efficiency of ethanol production, a prospect that could do much to improve the viability of ethanol as a fuel source (or fuel additive).

The work involved modifying the expression of certain genes, allowing the yeast to survive in an environment with higher levels of glucose and ethanol. Normally, the yeast is killed by the very ethanol that it creates in the fermentation process. By strengthening the yeast to survive in the presence of ethanol and glucose, the yeast can continue to produce additional ethanol.

The end result of the new process is that the same amount of yeast can produce a larger amount of ethanol, and it can do it more quickly... 50% more quickly, according to the news release.

No Joy for Discovery

Last night's launch of the Discovery space shuttle was scrubbed due to poor weather, as expected. Since NASA has no expectation for better results today, the next attempt will be Saturday at 8:47 PM EST.

Weblog Awards

The 2006 Weblog Awards are open for voting, and it turns out that there's a category for Science Blogs. This blog was created far too late in the year to be nominated for anything (I think I launched the blog after the voting opened), but there are several other worthy blogs on there... you should be reading at least some of those, if you're not already.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

The Next Fifty Years

New Scientist Magazine, to celebrate their 50th anniversary in publication, has surveyed fifty of the most brilliant and influential scientists alive, asking them to forecast what their field of interest will be like in the year 2056.

The predictions include some that are revolutionary in scale and scope, and some that are merely evolutionary. Some I agree with, and some I don't, but you should read it and make your own determinations.

They interviewed scientists in a wide variety of areas, including mathematics, physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, medicine, paleontology, psychology, and others, so the opinions are pretty diverse.

Discovery Launch Unlikely Tonight

NASA's first night-time shuttle launch in four years appears to be in jeopardy due to weather concerns. There is only a 40% chance of decent weather at the launch site this evening. Tomorrow night, the forecast is even worse, with only a 30% chance of acceptable weather, and then the forecast goes back to 40% for Saturday night.

Additionally, the weather forecasts for the emergency landing sites in Spain and France are pretty poor. Even if the weather is pristine in Florida, NASA won't launch the shuttle unless there is clear weather at at least one of the emergency landing sites.

My guess would be Saturday for Discovery's launch, but that's just a guess.

The purpose of this launch is to ferry supplies to the International Space Station, add another truss segment, and re-wire some of the station's power grid.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Water on Mars

NASA just issued a press release with some major implications, revealing that images taken by the Mars Global Surveyor indicate the presence that liquid water flowed on the surface of Mars within the last seven years.

"These observations give the strongest evidence to date that water still flows occasionally on the surface of Mars," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program.

Liquid water is important, because it is believed that any microbial life existing on Mars would need liquid water (not vapors or ice) in order to survive.

Today's announcement is the first to reveal newly deposited material apparently carried by fluids after earlier imaging of the same gullies. The two sites are inside craters in the Terra Sirenum and the Centauri Montes regions of southern Mars.

"These fresh deposits suggest that at some places and times on present-day Mars, liquid water is emerging from beneath the ground and briefly flowing down the slopes. This possibility raises questions about how the water would stay melted below ground, how widespread it might be, and whether there's a below-ground wet habitat conducive to life. Future missions may provide the answers," said Malin.

Interactive Interface Technology

This isn't actually new, but it's very cool. Jeff Han of NYU's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences demonstrated a new computer interface technology at the TED conference in February of 2006, and it's very, very cool stuff. Take a look at the YouTube video here.

Processing Power

While you sit reading this blog, your computer's processor is probably sitting mostly idle. Today's computer processors are monsters when it comes to number-crunching capability, and they have to be in order to process the multimedia explosion that drives our modern society. This is especially true when it comes to computer games, which continue to tax even the most powerful systems available today with their advanced graphics, positional and dynamic audio, and artificial intelligence.

But when you're not playing high-end video games, most of that processing power sits idle. It's like the difference between driving your computer down the interstate at (or close to) top speed versus sitting at a stop light waiting to go. Your engine is still running, but it's not accomplishing anything.

With computers, though, that doesn't have to be the case. Those spare CPU cycles can be put to use for any of a large number of tasks, including searching for signals from aliens, simulating the folding of proteins to better understand the causes of diseases (and find potential cures), simulating weather to help create better predictive methods, search for spinning neutron stars by processing data from LIGO and GEO gravitational wave detectors, or many other projects.

The software that runs these projects is called BOINC, and it is designed to run in the background, using only the spare processing power. It doesn't interfere with your computer's normal processes, because it sets itself up to run in the lowest priority setting on your computer.

It doesn't cost you anything to run BOINC, and it may just help some advance some research project toward curing a disease or furthering our understanding of the universe around us.

NASA's Lunar Plans

What better topic for my first post than NASA's announcement of their plans for exploration of and a permanent outpost on the moon? Yesterday, NASA announced that it plans to land humans on the moon by 2020 and establish a permanent settlement at the lunar south pole by 2024.

While very little in their announcement constitutes news, this is, nevertheless, an exciting day. NASA gave details of their moon landers, which can be either piloted or remotely controlled and can carry crews or cargo to and from the moon's surface. Also, parts of the landers will remain behind (much like on Apollo) when the crew leaves, thus accumulating structures that will form the permanent outpost.

Most exciting to me, I think, was the suggestion by NASA associate deputy administrator Doug Cooke that part of the reason they chose their outpost site was because of the presence of of resources nearby that can be mined. The gathering of resources on the moon will be necessary to eventually make any type of permanent settlement self-sustaining. Two birds could be killed with one stone... the settlement(s) could become financially self-sufficient, and resources shipped back from the moon could buttress scarcities here on Earth.

Also of interest was the statement by NASA exploration chief Scott Horowitz that supplying oxygen to the lunar outpost could be turned over to a commercial supplier.

Blog Created

Launched this new blog today (2006/12/06) as a central clearing house on items of interest in the science and technology arenas. As I stumble upon news items that I find interesting, I'll link to them here and add my comments. I'll also try to categorize the posts with intelligent labels so that if you're only interested in certain areas, like space or nanotech, you can search for posts labeled with those topics. If you notice any interesting science and/or technology news that I fail to post and comment on, let me know and I'll make my voice heard on the topic. Thanks for reading!