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Science

New Research Suggests the Appendix Has a Purpose After All (qz.com) 133

The appendix is an organ thought to have gone the way of our wisdom teeth and body hair: At one point we all needed them, now people can get by just fine without them. However, it turns out, at least the appendix has some purpose in the body. From a report: Scientists, though, have never been certain what the appendix used to do -- and if it is still, in fact, useless. On Jan. 9, a team of researchers led by scientists at Midwestern University Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine published a review study proposing an answer: the appendix is a secondary immune function that both catalyzes immune cell responses and floods your gut with beneficial bacteria when they've been depleted. And it still plays that role, in a limited fashion, in human body function."We can function okay without it, but the appendix does provide some degree of immunity and beneficial bacteria,â Heather Smith, an anatomist and lead author of the paper said.
Earth

Alcohol Switches the Brain Into Starvation Mode In Mice, Increasing Hunger and Appetite, Study Finds (bbc.com) 130

An anonymous reader quotes a report from BBC: In tests on mice, alcohol activated the brain signals that tell the body to eat more food. The UK researchers, who report their findings in the journal Nature Communications, believe the same is probably true in humans. The mice were given generous doses of alcohol for three days -- a dose being equivalent to around 18 units or a bottle-and-a-half of wine for a person. The alcohol caused increased activity in neurons called AGRP. These are the neurons that are fired when the body experiences starvation. The mice ate more than normal too. When the researchers repeated the experiment but blocked the neurons with a drug, the mice did not eat as much which, the researchers say, suggests that AGRP neurons are responsible for the alcohol-induced eating. The study authors, Denis Burdakov and colleagues, say understanding how alcohol changes the body and our behavior could help with managing obesity. Around two-thirds of adults in the UK are overweight or obese.
Earth

An Asteroid Passed By Earth At About Half the Distance Between Our Planet and Moon (smithsonianmag.com) 133

On Monday at 7:47 A.M. EST, an asteroid thought to be between 36 and 111 feet wide passed roughly 120,000 miles from Earth -- and astronomers didn't spot it until Saturday. Smithsonian reports: According to astronomer Eric Edelman at the Slooh Observatory, 2017 AG13 is an Aten asteroid, or a space rock with an orbital distance from the sun similar to that of Earth. AG13 also has a particularly elliptical orbit, which means that as it circles the sun it also crosses through the orbits of both Venus and Earth. Lucky for us, 2017 AG13 wasn't a planet killer; according to Wall, the asteroid was in the size range of the space rock that exploded in Earth's atmosphere over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in February, 2013. According to Deborah Byrd at EarthSky, that meteor exploded 12 miles in the atmosphere, releasing 30 times the energy of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb. Not only did it break windows in six cities, it also sent 1,500 people to the hospital. That meteor also came out of the blue, and researchers are still trying to figure out its orbit and track down its origins. While 2017 AG13 would have caused minor damage if it hit Earth, the close call highlights the dangers of asteroids.
Earth

MIT Unveils New Material That's Strongest and Lightest On Earth (futurism.com) 148

A team of MIT researchers have created the world's strongest and lightest material known to man using graphene. Futurism reports: Graphene, which was heretofore, the strongest material known to man, is made from an extremely thin sheet of carbon atoms arranged in two dimensions. But there's one drawback: while notable for its thinness and unique electrical properties, it's very difficult to create useful, three-dimensional materials out of graphene. Now, a team of MIT researchers discovered that taking small flakes of graphene and fusing them following a mesh-like structure not only retains the material's strength, but the graphene also remains porous. Based on experiments conducted on 3D printed models, researchers have determined that this new material, with its distinct geometry, is actually stronger than graphene -- making it 10 times stronger than steel, with only five percent of its density. The discovery of a material that is extremely strong but exceptionally lightweight will have numerous applications. As MIT reports: "The new findings show that the crucial aspect of the new 3-D forms has more to do with their unusual geometrical configuration than with the material itself, which suggests that similar strong, lightweight materials could be made from a variety of materials by creating similar geometric features."
Government

Pentagon Successfully Tests Micro-Drone Swarm (phys.org) 113

schwit1 quotes a report from Phys.Org: The Pentagon may soon be unleashing a 21st-century version of locusts on its adversaries after officials on Monday said it had successfully tested a swarm of 103 micro-drones. The important step in the development of new autonomous weapon systems was made possible by improvements in artificial intelligence, holding open the possibility that groups of small robots could act together under human direction. Military strategists have high hopes for such drone swarms that would be cheap to produce and able to overwhelm opponents' defenses with their great numbers. The test of the micro-drone swarm in October included 103 Perdix micro-drones measuring around six inches (16 centimeters) launched from three F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets, the Pentagon said in a statement.
Medicine

'Tooth Repair Drug' May Replace Fillings (bbc.com) 130

Teeth can be encouraged to repair themselves in a way that could see an end to fillings, according to scientists. From a report on BBC: The team at King's College London showed that a chemical could encourage cells in the dental pulp to heal small holes in mice teeth. A biodegradable sponge was soaked in the drug and then put inside the cavity. The study, published in Scientific Reports, showed it led to "complete, effective natural repair." Teeth have limited regenerative abilities. They can produce a thin band of dentine -- the layer just below the enamel -- if the inner dental pulp becomes exposed, but this cannot repair a large cavity. [...] Scientists discovered that a drug called Tideglusib heightened the activity of stem cells in the dental pulp so they could repair 0.13mm holes in the teeth of mice. A drug-soaked sponge was placed in the hole and then a protective coating was applied over the top. As the sponge broke down it was replaced by dentine, healing the tooth.
Space

Scientists Predict Star Collision Visible To The Naked Eye In 2022 (npr.org) 125

Scientists predict that a pair of stars in the constellation Cygnus will collide in 2022, give or take a year, creating an explosion in the night sky so bright that it will be visible to the naked eye. From a report on NPR: If it happens, it would be the first time such an event was predicted by scientists. Calvin College professor Larry Molnar and his team said in a statement that two stars are orbiting each other now and "share a common atmosphere, like two peanuts sharing a single shell." They predict those two stars, jointly called KIC 9832227, will eventually "merge and explode ... at which time the star will increase its brightness ten thousand fold becoming one of the brighter stars in the heavens for a time." That extra-bright star is called a red nova. They recently presented their research at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Grapevine, Texas.
Moon

Our Moon May Have Formed From Multiple Small Ones, Says Report (go.com) 90

An anonymous reader quotes a report from ABC News: A series of cosmic collisions may have spawned multiple moonlets that morphed into the one big moon we know today. Rather than one giant impact that knocked off part of early Earth and created the moon, a number of smaller collisions may have produced lots of mini-moons, Israeli scientists reported Monday. And those mini-moons, over millions of years, may have clumped together to make one large one. The researchers conducted nearly 1,000 computer simulations and estimate about 20 impacts could do the job. They say that would explain why the moon seems to be composed of material from Earth, rather than some other planet, too. It's actually an old theory revitalized now by the Weizmann Institute of Science's Raluca Rufu in Rehovot, Israel, and his team. Their findings were published in Nature Geoscience.
Earth

2016 Was Second Hottest Year For US In More Than 120 Years of Record Keeping (climatecentral.org) 435

Last year was the second hottest year for the United States in more than 120 years of record keeping, according to the National Climatic Data Center, marking 20 above-average years in a row. While Georgia and Alaska recorded their hottest year, every state had a temperature ranking at least in the top seven. Climate Central reports: The announcement comes a week before the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which released the U.S. data, and NASA are expected to announce that 2016 set the record for the hottest year globally. Both the global record and the U.S. near-record are largely attributable to greenhouse gas-driven warming of the planet. In addition to the pervasive warmth over the last year, the U.S. also had to deal with 15 weather and climate disasters that each caused more than $1 billion in damage. Together, they totaled more than $46 billion in losses and included several disastrous rain-driven flooding events. These events, along with continued drought, lay bare the challenge for the country to learn how to cope with and prepare for a changing climate, said Deke Arndt, the climate monitoring chief of NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information. The temperature for the contiguous U.S. was 2.9 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average for 2016, displacing 2015 and ranking only behind 2012, when searing heat waves hit the middle of the country. More notable than the back-to-back second place years, Arndt said, was that 2016 was the 20th consecutive warmer-than-normal year for the U.S. and that the five hottest years for the country have all happened since 1998. Those streaks mirror global trends, with 15 of the 16 hottest years on record occurring in the 21st century and no record cold year globally since 1911.
The Military

US Military Seeks Biodegradable Bullets That Sprout Plants (newatlas.com) 285

The Department of Defense is looking at ways to clean up the hundreds of thousands of training rounds used by the U.S. army. It is putting out the call for the development of biodegradable ammunition loaded with seeds that sprout plans after being discharged. New Atlas reports: At military facilities across the U.S. and indeed around the world, a huge number of rounds are fired for training purposes, ranging from low-velocity 40 mm grenades, to mortars, to 155 mm artillery rounds. All of these feature components that can take hundreds of years to biodegrade, and falling onto the ground in such great numbers means that finding and cleaning them up is no small task. But left behind, they can corrode and pollute the soil and water supplies. So the Department of Defense has put out a call for proposals through the Small Business Innovation Research agency that solve the problem. The DoD describes the solution as a naturally occurring biodegradable material that can replace those used in current training rounds. It imagines that the biodegradable composites will be capable of holding bioengineered seeds inside (a technology it says has been demonstrated previously), that won't germinate until they have been in the ground for several months. Then plants will sprout from the discharged ammunition that actively remove soil contaminants and consume the other biodegradable components. Also imperative is that animals are able to safely consume the plants.
Medicine

New Study Finds 'Mediterranean' Diet Significantly Reduces Brain Shrinkage (bbc.com) 176

schwit1 writes that 562 elderly research subjects cut their brain shrinkage in half just by changing their diet. (Paywalled article here). The BBC reports: A study of pensioners in Scotland found that those with a diet rich in fresh fruit, vegetables and olive oil had healthier brains than those with different eating habits. They suffered less brain shrinkage than those who regularly ate meat and dairy products. The study was carried out by University of Edinburgh researchers.... Scientists found that those who adhered most closely to the diet retained significantly greater brain volume after three years than those who did not... Lead researcher Dr Michelle Luciano said: "As we age, the brain shrinks and we lose brain cells, which can affect learning and memory. This study adds to the body of evidence that suggests the Mediterranean diet has a positive impact on brain health."
Power

Vast New Tomb Now Covers The Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster Site (slashdot.org) 173

The final stage of the Chernobyl clean-up took over 20 years to build -- and will seal up the site for the next 100 years. Slashdot reader MrKaos writes: 30 years and seven months since the explosion...the project known as the 'Shelter Implementation Plan' has been rolled into place, sealing the crippled Chernobyl reactor. More than 10,000 people were involved in the project, which includes an advanced ventilation systems and remote controlled robotic cranes to dismantle the existing Soviet-built structure and reactor. This sarcophagus -- or New Safe Confinement -- is taller than the Statue of Liberty and larger than Wembley stadium.
Over one million people worked on the initial clean-up, the BBC reports, calling this new sarcophagus "the largest object people have ever moved," and its installation was apparently pretty surreal. "World leaders jostle with global executives and anonymous men dressed in full camouflage as platters of shrimp, foie gras and cheesecake are passed around by white-gloved staff...just 330 feet away from the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history."
Earth

Living Near Heavy Traffic Increases Risk of Dementia, Study Finds (theguardian.com) 118

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: People living near a busy road have an increased risk of dementia, according to research that adds to concerns about the impact of air pollution on human health. Roughly one in 10 cases of Alzheimer's in urban areas could be associated with living amid heavy traffic, the study estimated -- although the research stopped short of showing that exposure to exhaust fumes causes neurodegeneration. Previously, scientists have linked air pollution and traffic noise to reduced density of white matter (the brain's connective tissue) and lower cognition. A recent study suggested that magnetic nano-particles from air pollution can make their way into brain tissue. The latest study, published in The Lancet, found that those who live closest to major traffic arteries were up to 12% more likely to be diagnosed with dementia -- a small but significant increase in risk. The study, which tracked roughly 6.6 million people for more than a decade, could not determine whether pollution is directly harmful to the brain. The increased dementia risk could also be a knock-on effect of respiratory and cardiac problems caused by traffic fumes or due to other unhealthy life-style factors associated with living in built-up urban environments. The study tracked all adults aged between 20 and 85 living in Ontario, Canada from 2001 to 2012, using postcodes to determine a person's proximity to major roads. The cohort's medical records were examined to see who went on to develop dementia, Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis. Over the study period, more than 243,000 people developed dementia, 31,500 people developed Parkinson's disease and 9,250 people developed multiple sclerosis. The scientists found no link between living near a road and Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis, but dementia was slightly more common in people living close to busy roads and the risk dropped off gradually in less built-up areas. Those living within 50 meters of a busy road had a 7% higher risk in developing dementia, the risk was 4% higher risk at 50-100 meters, 2% higher risk at 101-200 meters and there was no increase in risk in those living more than 200 meters away. Those who lived in a major city, within 50 meters of a major road and who did not move house for the duration of the study had the highest risk at 12%.
Biotech

Theranos Is Laying Off 155 People, About 41 Percent Of Its Workforce (cnbc.com) 52

The embattled blood-testing company Theranos is laying off 155 people, about 41 percent of its workforce, as it struggles to recover from the backlash generated when the company failed to provide accurate results to patients using its proprietary blood test technology. The job cuts announced today are similar to the cuts announced last year in October, when the company said it would shut down its blood-testing facilities and shrink its workforce by more than 40%. CNBC reports: The start-up will let go of its workers after months of regulatory setbacks as well as lawsuits and scrutiny. That would leave 220 workers to focus on its business plans, primarily its blood testing product called the miniLab. "These are always the most difficult decisions; however, this move allows Theranos to marshal its resources most efficiently and effectively," Theranos said in a statement.
Space

SpaceX Gets the Green Light To Resume Rocket Launches (fortune.com) 44

Elon Musk's SpaceX rocket company has been cleared to resume flying following a launch pad explosion four months ago, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said on Friday. From a report on Fortune: The decision clears SpaceX to attempt to launch a Falcon 9 rocket carrying 10 Iridium Communications satellites as early as Monday, a day later than originally planned. SpaceX, owned by Tesla Motors Chief Executive Officer Musk, on Friday declined to comment about what caused the delay. Liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California is targeted for around 10:26 a.m. PST/1:26 p.m. EST. The FAA, which oversees commercial U.S. space launches, oversaw SpaceX's investigation into why a Falcon 9 rocket burst into flames on a launch pad in Florida as it was being fueled for a routine, prelaunch test on Sept. 1. The accident destroyed the $62 million booster and a $200 million Israeli communications satellite that had been partly leased by Facebook to expand Internet access in Africa.
Medicine

Fewer People Are Dying of Cancer Than Ever Before (theoutline.com) 210

The number of Americans dying of cancer has dropped to a 25-year low, equaling an estimated 2,143,200 fewer deaths in that period, says the new annual report from the American Cancer Society. In that time, the racial and gender disparities that exist in cancer rates have also narrowed somewhat, but they remain wide in many places. From a report on The Outline: Though the incidence of cancer remained stable for women and dropped slightly -- by 2 percent -- in men, rates remain overall 20 percent higher in men while rate of death for men is 40 percent higher than in women. The rates of both incidence and death vary wildly based on the type of cancer. The data that the ACS is using run through the end of 2014 for incidents of cancer and through 2013 for deaths. Lung cancer remains the leading cause of cancer death in the United States for both men and women..
Medicine

Brain Region That Recognizes Faces Keeps Growing in Adulthood (engadget.com) 47

An anonymous reader shares an Engadget report: Neurologists thought that your brain was basically set once you hit early childhood, but researchers from Stanford have discovered one part that keeps growing. Using new MRI imaging techniques, they found that the "fusiform gyrus," which is mostly responsible for recognizing human faces, keeps expanding well after other regions have stopped. The research could lead to more sophisticated cellular analysis of the brain and help patients with a disorder called "facial blindness." Normally, our brain actually loses neurons between early childhood and puberty in a process called "pruning." That applies to visual parts of the brain that identify things like cityscape or hallways, but not faces. The researchers used two different MRI machines to scan both brain activity and density in two different parts of the brain: the region responsible for identifying faces, and an area used for other types of visual recognition. They then compared those structures in the brains of children (aged five to 12) to adults between 22 to 28. It turned out that adults had thicker fusiform gyrus regions than kids, different levels of proteins and cells and more activity. By contrast, the other visual regions showed lower levels of development.
Biotech

A Squishy Clockwork BioBot Releases Doses of Drugs Inside the Body (ieee.org) 15

the_newsbeagle writes: Making micro-machines that work inside the body is tricky, because hard silicon and metal devices can cause problems. So bioengineers are working on soft and squishy gadgets that can be implanted and do useful work. Here's a soft biobot that's modeled on a Swiss watch mechanism called a Geneva drive. With every tick forward, the tiny gizmo releases a dose of drugs. Getting the material properties just right was a challenge. "If your material is collapsing like jello, it's hard to make robots out of it," says inventor Samuel Sia.
Earth

White House Releases Strategy To Defend Against Killer Asteroids (vice.com) 135

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Motherboard: On December 30, the White House quietly released its Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy, a 25-page document outlining the United States' plans in the event that a giant asteroid is found to be on a collision course with Earth. Among the priorities outlined by the strategy are improving Near-Earth Object (NEO) detection, developing methods for deflecting asteroids, and developing interagency emergency procedures in the event of an NEO impact. Given the stakes, it's clear why NASA and the leading US defense and research agencies came together in January 2016 to form the Detecting and Mitigating the Impact of Earth-bound Near-Earth Objects (DAMIEN) working group to address the issues associated with killer asteroids. The DAMIEN group is behind the White House's new NEO strategy, and will be responsible for hashing out the specifics of the plan to save Earthlings from killer asteroids going forward. To assist in the search, the DAMIEN report calls for a space-based observatory dedicated to finding NEOs, which will work in cooperation with ground-based observatories. Since a telescope in space isn't limited by terrestrial weather conditions, it would greatly enhance Spaceguard's search capacity. The only plans currently underway for a space-based NEO telescope are being carried out by the non-profit B612 foundation whose Sentinel telescope was supposed to launch last December, but has been delayed due to difficulties securing the requisite $450 million in funding required for the project. NASA has also been considering the NEOCam, a space-based telescope that has received provisional funding for "detailed refinement." Unfortunately, during the latest round of budgeting for NASA's Discovery program, two other satellites were greenlit instead of NEOCam, but NASA said it would continue the asteroid-hunter's provisional funding, so there is still hope that NASA may go forward with a space-based NEO observatory in the future, especially in light of the recent White House strategy. In tandem, the report also recommends updating the capabilities of ground-based NEO observatories by endowing them with more powerful planetary radars and improved spectroscopy instruments (this would allow for more accurate determinations of the composition of an asteroid). But detection is only half the battle. In the event that an asteroid is found to be on an impact trajectory with Earth, NASA is also thinking about ways to deflect the killer asteroid. Some pretty far-out ideas have been proposed on this front, ranging from nukes in space to giant sun-powered lasers, but the most likely method is simply ramming into the asteroid to change its course. Finally, should all else fail, the report also considers what to do in an impact scenario.
Earth

A Coal-Fired Power Plant In India Is Turning Carbon Dioxide Into Baking Soda (technologyreview.com) 197

schwit1 quotes a report from MIT Technology Review: In the southern Indian city of Tuticorin, locals are unlikely to suffer from a poorly risen cake. That's because a coal-fired thermal power station in the area captures carbon dioxide and turns it into baking soda. Carbon capture schemes are nothing new. Typically, they use a solvent, such as amine, to catch carbon dioxide and prevent it from escaping into the atmosphere. From there, the CO2 can either be stored away or used. But the Guardian reports that a system installed in the Tuticorin plant uses a new proprietary solvent developed by the company Carbon Clean Solutions. The solvent is reportedly just slightly more efficient than those used conventionally, requiring a little less energy and smaller apparatus to run. The collected CO2 is used to create baking soda, and it claims that as much as 66,000 tons of the gas could be captured at the plant each year. Its operators say that the marginal gain in efficiency is just enough to make it feasible to run the plant without a subsidy. In fact, it's claimed to be the first example of an unsubsidized industrial plant capturing CO2 for use. schwit1 notes: "A 'climate change' project that doesn't involve taxpayer dollars? Is that even allowed?"

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