Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Researchers Develop Methods of Creating Bio-Diesel from Algae

Utah State University researchers are using an innovative approach that takes oil from algae and converts it to bio-diesel fuel. USU is currently conducting research on algae and plans to produce an algae-bio-diesel that is cost-competitive by 2009. Algae, plainly referred to as pond scum, can produce up to 10,000 gallons of oil per acre and can be grown virtually anywhere.

The world today relies on fossil fuels to supply much of its energy, and there are currently 13 terawatts of energy used per year, a number that is expected to double by the middle of this century. Bio-diesel is a clean and carbon-dioxide-neutral fuel that is becoming more popular, but most of the current product comes from soybean and corn oil. As supply and demand grows, so does the price of soybeans and corn. People and animals rely on soybean and corn as a food commodity, eventually causing competition between commodities and growing enough product. Meeting this demand would require the world to use virtually all of its arable land.

Creating bio-diesel from algae would be a huge step forward toward a renewable energy source, and would greatly improve environmental output compared to today's petroleum-based gasoline engines. Algae grows just about everywhere (whether you want it to or not), so it would be readily available in many parts of the world, creating a more dispersed source of fuel than we have currently.

Monday, January 29, 2007

New Technique Developed for Gene Activation

Researchers at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center have developed a new technique that employs RNA, a tiny chemical cousin of DNA, for activation of genes. The new technique demonstrate the most effective and consistent method to date for coaxing genes into making the proteins that carry out all of life’s functions – a process formally called gene expression.

In its experiments, the UT Southwestern team used strands of RNA that were tailor-made to complement the DNA sequence of a specific gene in isolated breast cancer cells. Once the RNA was introduced into the protein mix, the gene was activated, ultimately resulting in a reduced rate of growth in the cancer cells.

Current methods to block gene expression, such as RNA interference, rely on using RNA strands to intercept and bind with messenger RNA. While RNA interference is an effective tool for studying gene expression, Dr. Janowski said, it’s more efficient to use RNA to control both activation and de-activation at the level of the chromosome.

This research is important because it could result in better methods for genetic therapies, allowing better treatment of cancers, as well as various genetic disorders. As I know several people who suffer from genetic disorders, so I view anything that can improve treatments for them to be a good thing.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Test for String Theory?

Researchers at University of California, San Diego, Carnegie Mellon University, and University of Texas at Austin have developed what they believe will be a means of testing String Theory, the leading candidate for unifying the laws of physics into a single theory.

The process involves testing one of the three underlying mathematical assumptions used by String Theory, that there is a smoothness criteria for the scattering of high-energy particles after a collision. They propose to test this assumption by using the Large Hadron Collider to investigate the scattering of W bosons. If the W bosons do not scatter according to the predictions made by String Theory, physicists will know that there is a flaw in the theory.

“If the bounds are satisfied, we would still not know that string theory is correct,” said Jacques Distler, a professor of physics at The University of Texas at Austin.

One of the main criticisms of String Theory has been that it is largely untestable. And while this test is not a perfect test, it will allow researchers to test at least a part of the theory, and that's at least progress toward a better understanding of our universe.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Hey Buddy, Wanna Be an Ornithology Researcher?

Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology has a program to which amateurs can contribute called Citizen Science. I'm going to be lazy and re-post some information from their webpage describing the program.

What is citizen science?

It is a partnership between the public and professional scientists. People across the continent are gathering data to better understand and conserve birds.

Who can participate?

EVERYONE is invited to participate! No matter your location, age, or experience we have a project for you.

How do I participate?

Each project has easy-to-follow instructions describing how to count the birds and record additional information. Once you have submitted your data to the Lab you have succeeded as a citizen scientist and contributed valuable data to bird conservation and population monitoring efforts.

They also have programs for Winter, Spring/Summer, and Year-Round research. Take a look and contribute to the study of birds!

Grand Challenges

The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) has officially launched what they call a "worldwide brainstorming session" called Grand Challenges for Engineering. The purpose is to identify the major engineering challenges to be addressed during the 21st Century.

The project grew out of a brainstorming session to determine the greatest, highest-impact engineering feats of the 20th Century. Anyone can submit ideas (this means you) to the list, and many people already have. The list will be reviewed by a panel of experts including J. Craig Venter, Larry Page, Dean Kamen, Ray Kurzweil, and William Perry, among others. If you don't know who these people are, you should... go to the website and read their bios.

I haven't submitted my ideas to the list yet, but I will. First, I'm going to list some thoughts here:

  • Mind-Machine Interface - Our knowledge and understanding of the human brain and the human mind have advanced more in the past 15 years than they had in all the time leading up to that time. We now have systems that can detect a person's thought patterns and behave according to a prescribed set of rules, systems that have allowed paralyzed people to operate machinery. Improvements in this technology will result in true cybernetics, replacement limbs, paralysis cures, and eventually devices that help the blind to see and the deaf to hear.
  • Low-Cost Orbital Access - And by "low-cost" I mean around the current price of an airline ticket. Rockets are never going to reach that pricing level, and it's time to stop pretending that they will. There are, however, some means that will work. A space elevator, while massively expensive to design and build, would lower cost-to-orbit dramatically. And gravity control, while firmly in the realm of science fiction for now, would be an enabler of so many things I can't even list them in this post. The hurdles in both cases are mainly engineering challenges (though in the case of gravity control, there is some basic science yet to be done), and they are hurdles that can be overcome.
  • Anti-Senescence - There are a limited number of causes of cell death, and we are close to understanding many of them. The challenges remaining are in both the realms of science and engineering, but they are no insurmountable. Understanding and being able to control cell death could lead to cures for cancer, Alzheimer's disease and many other diseases as well as rejuvenation therapies. Some people believe it may even be possible to eliminate aging as a cause of death.
  • Clean, Reliable Power Generation - Most of our current means of generating electricity are destructive--coal, natural gas, and oil all create pollution in various amounts, and nuclear energy leaves us with large amounts of waste that will take eons to decay. Only renewable, non-polluting sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal will ease our energy demands without irreparable damaging the planet we live on. Solar power satellites beaming power as microwaves to ground receiver stations, supplemented by huge geothermal projects, could supply all of the energy we need to grow in the 21st Century.
  • Asteroid Mining - Earth has a finite number of resources, and they're difficult to get to. A typical asteroid, meanwhile, has trillions of (2007) dollars worth of precious metals, and we could mine them without polluting our water sources here on Earth. The first organization that does so will truly open up the space market by making massive profits and will create a "gold rush" in space.
  • Artificial Intelligence - True artificial intelligence is not that far away (although it's also not as close as some people would like to believe). There will be varying levels of it, ranging from slow-thinking, distributed neural network-based systems to very limited, task-specific (but portable) devices to handle your day-to-day chores, such as driving. Autonomous vehicles would virtually remove the human-error element from automobile and airplane travel, surgery, and commerce. Artificial intelligence will be used (even in the near term) to aid in product design, by means of evolving designs using genetic algorithms, allowing the rapid design of improved products.

These are just some of the (many) ideas I have for engineering challenges to be addressed in the 21st Century. In a way, it makes me sad that I'm not an engineer.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Hey Buddy, Wanna Be a NASA Researcher?

In 2001, NASA started a pilot program called Clickworkers to allow the general public to participate in their research. Through the program, you can analyze data returned from NASA's Mars missions, such as the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, to help NASA identify landmarks and surface details on Mars.

You can also analyze data from Mars Global Surveyor's Mars Orbital Camera (MOC) to help identify the landmarks that NASA should be pointing HiRISE at for further study.

If Mars isn't your cup of tea, they also have data returned from the Dawn mission that you can analyze to mark crater impacts on asteroids (starting with the NEAR asteroid). Doing so will help NASA determine some of the history of the asteroid and our solar system.

With the recent cuts to NASA's science budget, they're going to need all the help they can get, and this is a perfect opportunity to help keep NASA science going in these tough times.

Get started by visiting the Clickworkers website.

Project Profile: ClimatePrediction.Net

This week's project profile is for, a massive project to model and forecast weather in the 21st Century.

The software, like the other projects profiled so far, operates on the BOINC platform for distributed computing. The system uses the unused background cycles of its members' computers to simulate a large number of possible climate scenarios to determine how each individual variable affects the overall climate picture.

These simulations are then studied individually and merged together into one and tweaked as additional data becomes available. The more data runs that are performed, the more accurate the models will become.

Accurate prediction of climate change could be vital on both the short- and long-term scales. For example, more precise climate modeling could have shown that Hurricane Katrina would strike New Orleans, rather than the predicted path that showed it striking Texas. Advanced warning could have led to better evacuation and preparation and given people an expectation of the damage before it happened.

Similarly, in the long-term time scale, climate change predictions can give us better understanding of potential warming effects such as rising ocean levels, increased storm activity, etc.

If you're interested in participating in this type of science project, you can download the software here.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Hey Buddy, Wanna Be a Longevity Researcher?

I think I'm going to call this the "Hey Buddy, Wanna Be a Researcher?" series, and this is the third installment. In this case, I'm going to talk about the Methuselah Foundation, a non-profit organization conducting research focused on remediating crucial but currently neglected aspects of the human aging process.

The Methuselah Foundation sponsors the M Prize, based on the successful X Prize programs, for extending the lifespan of an ordinary lab mouse. In addition, they are directly funding two research programs: LysoSENS and MitoSENS.

LysoSENS is where people like you and me have the opportunity to participate. The goal of the project is to reduce or eliminate the accumulation of some pathogenic material in the body. The researchers' means of reaching this goal is to search for enzymes capable of selectively degrading the respective target material in the environment.

So, you ask me, how can I help with that sort of research? It turns out that there are microbes in nature that are capable of breaking down many of these substances. If there weren't, then buried human and animal bodies would be causing massive polution to our soil in terms of cholesterols and other harmful substances. So we know that there are microbes that break down these substances in the soil in the form of decomposing plant and animal matter.

So the researchers are seeking candidate microbes by asking for the public (that's us) to send in samples that may contain these microbes. But they're not just looking for any common samples... they want exotic soils from diverse areas, not dirt from your garden or compost heap. So be creative... pick up a handful (50-100 grams) of soil from an unusual location and package it up. Ship it to the address below, and you can contribute to helping humans live longer and healthier lives.

Addresses to send your samples to:

By regular mail:

John Schloendorn
The Biodesign Institute
PO Box 875701
Tempe, AZ 85287-5701

(The above address cannot receive FedEx / UPS shipments)

By FedEx / UPS:

K. Anderson / Schloendorn
The Biodesign Institute
1001 South McAllister Ave
Tempe, AZ 85287-5701

(The above address cannot receive regular mail)

GE Lab Discovers Direct Pathway to Ordered Nanostructured Ceramics

General Electric announced today that it's research labs have developed a very simple synthesis for the polymeric precursor, which enables a very efficient path towards ordered non-oxide ceramic nanostructures.

The technology is based on a novel inorganic/organic block copolymer that forms ordered polymeric nanostructures via self-assembly. The resulting material is subsequently pyrolized to yield the desired ceramic, in which the original nanostructure is retained. The unique aspect of the invention is that the desired composition and the ability to form ordered nanostructures are built in. No external template is needed, and the process is simple and robust.

The researchers point out that while damage tolerant high-temperature ceramics could revolutionize product development in aviation and energy, structural applications are still many years away. More immediate applications could result from the ability to prepare high surface area ceramics that could be exploited in catalysis.

Unlike yesterday's nanotech news from HP, this is an example of nanotech that is years or decades from providing true results. However, this is research that can be built upon, and which brings us closer to the truly revolutionary innovations to come.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Hey Buddy, Wanna Be a Meteorology Researcher?

I've uncovered another site where the average person (that's me and you) can help contribute to scientific research. This time, it's in the field of meteorology.

Colorado State University administers the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (or CoCoRaHS for short) program. You can sign up to help measure and map rain, snow, and hail precipitation in your local community.

The team at CoCoRaHS then compiles the data into maps to track daily precipitation. The data is freely available to, and used by he National Weather Service, other meteorologists, hydrologists, emergency managers, city utilities (water supply, water conservation, storm water), insurance adjusters, USDA, engineers, mosquito control, ranchers and farmers, outdoor & recreation interests, teachers, students, and neighbors in the community.

Stay tuned as I identify more opportunities for folks like you and me to participate in research. If you know of any additional opportunities, post them in the comments below.

HP Makes Nanotechnology Semiconductor Advances

Moore's Law may be saved, and indeed accelerated, due to a discovery may by quantum researchers at HP Labs. And best of all, the new advances could be in use in chips within as little as a year.

The advances involve using nanowires to shrink the density of the chip without shrinking the transistor. The process will allow more transistors to fit into the same chip, while simultaneously reducing the amount of power used--and, thus, the amount of heat generated.

"We essentially provided a recipe to improve the circuitry of FPGA's by the equivalent of three generations of Moore's law without having to shrink the transistor," said Stan Williams, a senior fellow and director of quantum science research at HP Labs.

In my view, this marks one of the first real advances for nanotechnology. Chemical coatings notwithstanding, nanotechnology has so far produced few commercial breakthroughs, with most projects still decades away from commercialization.

But HP's results can provide real results in the short-term. Using their new methods, computing power can be increased significantly while actually reducing the heat and power problems.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Two Studies Suggest New Cancer Treatment Path

A pair of studies conducted by the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center have uncovered a regulatory mechanism for the PTEN gene, a commonly mutated tumor suppressor gene. The regulator, NEDD4-1, controls protein stability in cells, and is found in both the cytoplasm and the nucleus.

The first study found that NEDD4-1 is a key component in eliminating PTEN from cells by adding a molecular tag, ubiquitin, to PTEN causing degradation in the cellular machinery called proteasome. The second study found that the ubiquitination of PTEN by NEDD4-1 also regulates another important aspect of PTEN, its cellular localization.

Both studies showed that the PTEN mutation in patients prevented the addition of ubiquitin by NEDD4-1, providing a molecular mechanism for the detrimental effect of the mutant PTEN protein. They showed that the single ubiquitin tagging is necessary to import PTEN into the cell nucleus where it is protected from degradation and cancer is initiated.

The researchers say that the uncovered key role of PTEN degradation provides a potential route to new therapeutic strategies. They believe that a class of drugs, the proteasome inhibitors, that selectively block the degrading effects of ubiquitination, should now be studied as possible treatments for cancers with PTEN mutations.

Hey Buddy, Wanna Be an Astronomy Researcher?

I recently discovered a website that will allow any astronomy enthusiast, even amateurs such as myself, to participate in astronomy research. The website is called systemic, and is focused on helping amateurs sift through astronomical observations to try to identify star systems with extrasolar planets.

Basically, the software allows users to simulate planetary systems and determine how well the simulated systems fit observational data. Systems that match the observations closely are then uploaded back into the database as potential matches.

As part of testing the system, the systemic team has also added the radial velocity observations for all known extrasolar planetary systems into their database to determine whether users' simulations match scientifically-accepted facts.

If you'd like to help out with some astronomy research, you can download the software here. I certainly plan to do so.

Friday, January 12, 2007

High Demand Causes Surge in Corn Prices

As predicted by many, increasing demand for corn--driven largely by ethanol plants and foreign buyers--has driven corn prices to their highest level in more than a decade. Increased corn prices will have a ripple effect on many segments of the economy.

First, the obvious: higher prices on corn that we eat. And not just corn-on-the-cob and canned/frozen corn; prices will increase for corn tortillas and shells, corn chips, and anything that uses high-fructose corn syrup. Between them, that covers a huge array of products. But corn is also widely used as livestock feed, so higher prices for corn will also increase prices for meat.

As farmers and ranchers shift to using other grains--such as wheat, oats, and barley--for feeding their livestock, the increased demand for those grains will also increase prices for products based on those... flours, breads, oatmeal, beer, and countless other products are based on the grains grown in this country.

And I haven't even mentioned the ethanol itself yet. Higher prices for corn will obviously increase the input costs for ethanol production, making ethanol less economical than it currently is.

It is increasingly obvious that corn-based ethanol will never be the cure (or even a significant part of the cure) for our energy woes. A study conducted by the University of Minnesota has already demonstrated that if all corn grown in this country were converted to ethanol (leaving nothing for animal feed, human consumption, or as corn syrup for feeding our gluttunous desire for sugar), it would be able to offset 12% of our gasoline demand.

Until cellulosic ethanol techniques are perfected, trying to use ethanol as a fuel source is a "solution" that will only benefit the farmers who are enjoying the higher prices.

NOTE: Cross posted to my personal blog, where I tend to cover topics with more of an economic focus.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Wheat Protects Self from Insects

Researchers at the USDA and Purdue University have discovered a gene in wheat that produces proteins that attack the stomach lining of Hessian flies, causing them to starve to death.

By killing the parasites, causes catastrophic losses if not controlled. Protection against Hessian flies will allow greater crop yields, which is good news for farmers and for countries with food shortages.

During the 1980s the state of Georgia suffered $28 million in lost wheat in one year after the fly overcame the plants' resistance gene used in the area at the time. The Hessian fly is particularly insidious because it actually can control the wheat plant's development.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Stem Cells from Amniotic Fluid

A study led by the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine have reported that the stem cells they drew from amniotic fluid donated by pregnant women hold much the same promise as embryonic stem cells.

The researchers were able to withdraw the stem cells from the amniotic fluid without harm to mother or fetus and turn their discovery into several different tissue cell types, including brain, liver and bone. It is uncertain at this time whether the amniotic stem cells will be capable of differentiating into all types of cells, but research is continuing.

If these amniotic stem cells are capable of full differentiation, like embryonic stem cells, then there will no longer be a need to harm embryos to generate stem cells for use in research and potential therapies. It could also mean that many more stem cells are available for therapies than would be by harvesting from discarded embryos.

In my opinion, this could be the major health sciences news story of the year, and it comes in early January. Stem cells hold the potential for treating so many devastating illnesses that anything we can do to increase availability--especially if it means doing it ethically--is a good thing.

Read the whole story HERE.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Project Profile: Seti@Home

This week's profile is for the SETI@home project, probably the most famous of all distributed computing software projects and the one that gave birth to the BOINC system.

In case you didn't already know, the SETI@home software is a distributed computing project that combs through massive amounts of data returned by radio telescopes (including the famous telescope at Arecibo) in search of signals that could have an intelligent origin. Due to the enormous amounts of data these telescopes collect, the need for computing power to analyze it is immense, and thus the idea of distributed computing was born.

I don't run SETI@home at the moment, although I did run the original SETI@home application many years ago (now called SETI@home classic). I think SETI's methods are somewhat limited, in that they only scan a very narrow band of data, and only radio waves. Any advanced society attempting to communicate would likely use a different method, so I put my computing resources into other projects. I'm not one to only push the projects that I support, however, so if searching for signals from aliens is your thing, go ahead and head to their website and get the software.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

NASA Upgrades Mars Rover Software

NASA has given the Mars rovers--Spirit and Opportunity--a gift for their third birthday. The space agency is providing the rovers with new, updated software to allow for more autonomous functionality.

In addition to allowing the rovers to complete their tasks more quickly and efficiently, the update allows NASA to test the software for use in future Mars or Moon missions.

If you're not that familiar with the Mars rovers, you should learn more about them. The twin rovers are an example of how NASA sometimes hits a grand slam. Designed for 90-missions, the rovers are about to complete their third year on the red planet, during which time they've provided massive amounts of information, more than anyone ever expected.

NASA isn't perfect. In fact, they strike out pretty frequently, and Congress screws up for them even more frequently. But when they connect, they often hit it out of the park.

Read more about the software updates HERE.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

New Method Weakens, Doesn't Destroy Bacteria

Researchers at University of Wisconsin have developed a method of dealing with bacteria in the human body that does not kill the bacteria, as antibiotics do. Rather, the new mechanism removes the bacteria's ability to harm cells within the body.

The new method involves displacing plasmids--which carry the genes responsible for bacteria's virulence and antibiotic resistance--with strands of DNA from other, less dangerous, bacteria.

By leaving the bacteria alive, this method prevents other, possibly more dangerous, bacteria from swarming into the vacancy. It also prevents benign bacteria from being killed by harsh antibiotics.

Longevity Gene Keeps Minds Sharp

I'm back from my holiday travels and ready to start blogging again, and my first item of news almost got lost in the shuffle of the holidays.

Researchers at Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City have discovered that, out of all the genes that can allow a person to reach the age of 100, only one is linked to greater mental acuity.

The gene, known as CETP VV, lowers the risk of heart attack and stroke. This is believed to be because, in patients with the CETP VV gene, the molecules of LDL and HDL cholesterols are larger than in patients without the gene. Larger molecules are believed to be less likely to clot.
BR> Centenarians are three times more likely to have the CETP VV variant than the general population. Those who did not develop dementia were five times more likely to have the favorable gene variant than those who did.

While this doesn't immediately do much for people who don't have this gene, these findings may allow researchers to create medicines that mimic the function of the proteins produced by this gene, allowing all of us to have a lower risk of heart attack, stroke, and dementia.