Levitated flies offer clues to effects of weightlessness on biological mechanisms


When in doubt about how human beings may be affected by weightless conditions in space, don’t seek answers from levitating flies. That’s because researchers at The University of Nottingham claim their magnetically levitated fruit flies can only provide information about the effects of weightlessness on particular biological mechanisms.

Quite obviously, it’s practically impossible to carry out a similar investigation on humans since there’s no existing magnet which can do the same. However, observing the effects on model organisms like the fruit fly could at least, offer an insight into the effects of weightlessness on certain biological mechanisms. A different kind of magnetism called diamagnetism in which objects are weakly repelled from the produced fields is what the majority of biological materials are affected by.

In the study, a powerful superconducting magnet was used to create a very strong magnetic field approximately 350,000 times stronger than that of the Earth’s field, or 16 Tesla, by the involved researchers. Within the superconducting solenoid magnet, the diamagnetic repulsive force on the flies was large enough to merely balance the force of gravity in order to levitate the insects. This technique was previously employed by physicist Andre Geim and colleagues at the University of Nijmegen in 1997, to levitate a live frog.

Dr Richard Hill, an EPSRC research fellow in the University’s School of Physics and Astronomy and one of the researchers involved in the project, explained, “It’s also important to remember that, in our future endeavors to explore space, setting up permanent bases on our Moon, or Mars for example, or other planets, it will be crucial to understand the effects of weightlessness on all living organisms: our long-term survival will of course require us to take with us many different biological organisms.”

“Crucially, as far as living organisms are concerned, the levitation force balances the force of gravity right down to the molecular level. This means we can compare the levitation force, which balances the force of gravity in our magnet, with the centrifugal force that balances the force of gravity on an astronaut in orbit around the Earth. In orbit, aboard the international space station for example, gravity is still present, but because an orbiting body is effectively in ‘free-fall’, the centrifugal force on the astronauts (because they’re going around the planet so quickly), is large enough to balance out the force of gravity. Here, we’re using the diamagnetic force to balance gravity instead of centrifugal force,” added Hill.

But the strong magnetic force could hardly have been expected to go unnoticed by the flies. The insects in the center of the field apparently walked more quickly, though the reason for this behavior wasn’t clear. It could be possible that the flies found moving around in weightlessness easier on their joints and muscles or maybe there was some confusion as to which way was up or down, in the absence of gravity.

The work on these magnetically levitated fruit flies was executed in collaboration with Madrid’s Centro de Investigaciones Biologicas scientists and carried out at The University of Nottingham’s superconducting magnet supplied by Oxford Instruments.

A robot with a tail in the works


Ever imagined a robot with a tail? Well, this is one idea lizards have for robots that has been reported by scientists from the University of California Berkeley. The researchers believe that tails gives lizards more flexibility to swerve away from slips and falls.

The team found that lizards manage to jump successfully even when they slip or fall. An apparent reason for this was the tail which the lizards supposedly swing in the upward direction to avoid falling directly onto a rock.

Lizard Tailbot

“We showed for the first time that lizards swing their tail up or down to counteract the rotation of their body, keeping them stable,” commented Robert J. Full, UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology. “Inspiration from lizard tails will likely lead to far more agile search-and-rescue robots, as well as ones having greater capability to more rapidly detect chemical, biological or nuclear hazards.”

Even dinosaurs used their tails in a particular manner to reflect the right attitude, the scientists believed. The study trailed a hypothesis put forth around 40 years ago, that the tails of two-legged theropod dinosaurs worked as stabilizers to ward off hindrances and attackers.

In this research, the team created a mathematical model, a toy called Tailbot and a tiny gyroscope. The latter is a toy car with a tail transfixed at the rear. When the sensors did not provide any feedback to Tailbot, it seemed to take a nose dive off the platform similar to a lizard’s movement. However, when an update regarding body positions was fed into the tail motor, the robot’s body became steady in midair.

This kind of a controlled tail appeared to effectively set back the body’s angular momentum into the swing of the tail. The phenomenon is usually seen in jumping lizards. The research has opened up a distinct area in this field termed as inertial assisted robotics.

The findings will be published in the journal, Nature.

Sea snail research could help in enhancing memory

John Jack Byrne A number of species in the animal kingdom are related to humans in many ways, which is why rodents and apes are increasingly used for related analyses. Now experts from the University of Texas have unraveled a species of sea snails called Aplysia californica, which provide new insights on disorders related to learning and memory.

In this trial, 2 sets of snails were exposed to 5 learning sessions. While one group was given learning sessions at irregular time frames, as indicated by a mathematical equation, the other group received training sessions at regular intervals of 20 minutes.

A span of 5 days after the sessions, a substantial rise in memory seemed identifiable in the group trained going by the mathematical model. However, no elevation in memory appeared to be found in the group trained at regular intervals.

“When you give a training session, you are starting several different chemical reactions. If you give another session, you get additional effects. The idea is to get the sessions in sync. We have developed a way to adjust the training sessions so they are tuned to the dynamics of the biochemical processes,” commented John H. “Jack” Byrne, Ph.D., senior author and chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the UTHealth Medical School.

Around 10,000 different permutations and combinations were sorted by the computer to locate the schedule that is likely to play a role in improving memory. The team examined the nerve cells in the brain of snails and found that those receiving enhanced training sessions appeared to function better.

The mechanism involved gauging the apt time for learning in the brain, which consecutively scheduled the learning process at such prime periods. This procedure presumably led to considerable increase in memory.

The investigators concluded that computational methods to aid in designing training schedules for improving memory could be useful. The research is published in the journal, Nature Neuroscience.

Neutrinos not faster than light?

IceCube Observatory

An international team of professionals challenged the theory of relativity and urged other scientists from all over the world to have a look at their research. In one such experiment, scientists from the Ohio State University have closely examined if certain particles called neutrinos travel faster than light.

In the trial, the neutrinos were timed as they traveled through Earth while covering about 730km to Gran Sasso. The team believed that if these particles moved at the speed of light, they would have reached about 60 nanoseconds faster than the time they took.

For creating the neutrinos, the team hit fast-moving protons on a still target while producing tons of pions in the process. The latter supposedly decayed into a number of muons and neutrinos. While the muons ceased to move towards the end, the neutrinos surpassed the blocks and paced in the direction of the Gran Sasso laboratory.

The scientists are of the opinion that if the neutrinos coming out via the process of pion decay were faster than the speed of light, the pion life span would have been extended too. Also, in this case the neutrino would carry some amount of energy present in the muon.

“We are saying that, given physics as we know it today, it should be hard to produce any neutrinos with superluminal velocities, and Cohen and Glashow are saying that even if you did, they’d quickly radiate away their energy and slow down,” commented Ramanath Cowsik, PhD, professor of physics in Arts & Sciences and director of the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

Moreover, the complexities could rise if the energy of the pion increases. As per the findings of the neutrino observatory called IceCube, high-energy pions apparently decayed into neutrinos approaching the speed of light, but did not manage to surpass it.

The report is published in the journal, Physical Review Letters.

Fishes first started walking on woodlands, says research

Flooded Woodland

The constraints of nature may be capable of altering even deeply hardwired attributes of creatures. Signifying this aspect, experts from the University of Oregon have disclosed a unique theory which suggests how certain fishes got transformed into amphibians.

An extensive trial conducted at various sites indicated that the transitional fossils of fishes were not related to dried ponds or desert locations. Rather, they were found near humid woodland soils which implied that our remote ancestors evolved in an ambience which was moist and warm.

“Judging from where their fossils were found, transitional forms between fish and amphibians lived in wooded floodplains. Our distant ancestors were not so much foolhardy, as opportunistic, taking advantage of floodplains and lakes choked with roots and logs for the first time in geological history,” remarked Gregory J. Retallack, professor of geological sciences.

Gregory Retallack

The scientists believed that limbs were essential to overcome woody barriers while a flexible neck helped the fishes stay in shallow water. However, according to this new hypothesis, the limbs and neck that appear distinctive in salamanders and fish may not have been formed from hardcore adventures in deserts. These body parts would have been nurtured steadily in humid air covering wooded floodplains.

However, detailed scrutiny of transitional fossils across the globe is vital to get an insight into the atmosphere and settings when fishes first showcased their tryst with walking. Similar to this scenario is the Darwin fish of chrome clothed in car trunks which implicated a specific period and location in the lengthy evolutionary history of life on the planet.

The research is published in the Journal of Geology.

New avenue to etch semiconductors unleashed

MacEtch Process

Developing semiconductor structures for hardcore optoelectronic devices has always been a challenging job for professionals. In an attempt to make this job less troublesome, a team from the University of Illinois has created a way to chemically entrench sequenced arrays into the semiconductor gallium arsenide.

The aforesaid semiconductor is utilized in solar cells, LEDs, lasers, capacitors, sensors and FETs. Considering that III-V group substances are apparently difficult to dry etch and therefore get damaged easily, the team opted for a metal-assisted chemical etching process (MacEtch). It is a wet-etch method that was initially developed for silicon.

This method accessed a single direction from top to down unlike other wet techniques. It also seemed to be relatively swifter as compared to other dry etch avenues. In the research, the team conditioned the chemical solution and reaction states to work optimally for the III-V semiconductor gallium arsenide (GaAs).

This procedure can be done is 2 steps. Firstly, a slim layer of metal is carved on the GaAs surface after which the semiconductor with the metal pattern is dipped into the MacEtch chemical fluid. As the reaction is catalyzed by the metal, just the portions coming in contact with the metal are etched away. As the etching is done, the metal can be cleared off from the surface without any sort of damage.

“It is a big deal to be able to etch GaAs this way. The realization of high-aspect-ratio III-V nanostructure arrays by wet etching can potentially transform the fabrication of semiconductor lasers where surface grating is currently fabricated by dry etching, which is expensive and causes surface damage,” specified electrical and computer engineering professor Xiuling Li.

For generating metal film patterns, the team accessed a technique known as soft lithography. The team believed that the combo of MacEtch and soft lithiography could be an ideal way to synthesize greater area and high-aspect-ratio III-V nanostructures in a cost-friendly manner.

The research is published in the journal, Nano Letters.

2 Earth-sized planets spotted far away: NASA

2 New Exoplanets

Nasa’s Kepler space telescope has persistently been on the lookout for habitable worlds other than Earth. In one such voyage, astronomers from NASA and MIT came across 2 new exoplanets which were situated almost 950 light-years away from the Earth.

One of the planets was almost the size of the Earth while the other one was slightly smaller. The scientists believed that both the planets probably had rocky compositions and orbited a giant star like the Sun. These planets supposedly revolved around their star in a span of a few days or weeks. Owing to their firm circuitry, the planets appeared to be very hot. They were considered to be too hot to sustain life.

Co-author Sara Seager, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Planetary Science and Professor of Physics at MIT, cited, “For the Kepler space telescope, it’s extremely significant, because it proves we can reach down to Earth’s size. It’s a massive accomplishment just to find anything at all like this.”

These new planets apparently orbited the star Kepler 20 and were related to the five-planet system. They have been titled Kepler 20e and Kepler 20f, respectively. The smaller planet Kepler 20e had the most chances of being a planet in the true sense. Its chances were even more than Kepler 20f whose possibility of being a planet was 1,370 times.

The scientists are hoping to locate even more Earth-sized and smaller than Earth-sized planets with the main objective being to locate worlds that could support life. The research is published in the journal, Nature.

The future beholds drought tolerant crops: UCR

Assaf Mosquna Left

Considering that agriculture forms a major part of the economy in many countries, crops have to be protected against harmful calamities. A team of plant cell biologists from the University of California in Riverside has revealed a new coping mechanism for plants to deliver an effective response to issues such as drought.

Most plants activate a group of protein molecules called receptors to combat the high stress encountered in the process of drought. This new technique developed by the team will cause the restructuring of cellular machinery to accelerate plants’ stress responsiveness.

In the research, a plant namely Arabidopsis was studied in the lab. The investigators were successful in stimulating the plant’s stress response channel. This was essentially achieved by enhancing the abscisic acid receptors which are responsible for optimum stress responses in the absence of water. The plant receptors were apparently supercharged in the process and could be turned on or off as per preference.

“Receptors are the cell’s conductors and the abscisic acid receptors orchestrate the specific symphony that elicits stress tolerance. We’ve now figured out how to turn the orchestra on at will,” commented Sean Cutler, an associate professor of plant cell biology at the University of California, Riverside.

The scientists found that every stress hormone receptor supported a lid that functioned like a gate. For the receptor to be activated, the lid ought to be shut. By accessing various means of cell engineering and experimenting with it on almost 740 variants of the stress hormone receptor, the team developed ways with which the lid could be closed for longer durations.

Thus, when the lid remained closed for a longer span of time, it spurred better stress response in plants. The team has plans of testing this procedure, though it might take several years to reach on field.

The report is published in the journal, Science.

Origin of Stonehenge rocks explored

Stonehenge Rocks Text

The presence of large standing rocks at Stonehenge has always kept interested parties wondering as to what could have transported the heavy pieces to that place. In an important discovery from the University of Leicester and National Museum of Wales quarters, researchers have revealed some data that clue in on the transportation process of Stonehenge rocks.

The scientists conducted an extensive research by analyzing specimens from rock outcrops in Pembrokeshire. This helped them comprehend the origin of rocks at Stonehenge, which happens to be one of the most important archaeological sites on the globe.

Dr Rob Ixer of Leicester University, commented, “Being able to provenance any archaeologically significant rock so precisely is remarkable, to do it for Stonehenge was quite unexpected and exciting. However, given continued perseverance, we are determined that we shall uncover the origins of most, if not all of the Stonehenge bluestones so allowing archaeologists to continue their speculations well into a third century.”

The findings essentially disclosed that the large stones found at the Stonehenge stem from a particular 70m long region called Craig Rhos-y-felin near Pont Saeson. Further probes indicated that these rhyolites were apparently related to a specific class of outcrops. Moreover, the rhyolites found in South Wales were distinct in nature with regards to meters or tens of meters.

This helped the team correlate some samples to certain regions across the extreme northeastern threshold of the area minutely. The location is sufficiently small for archaeologists to explore what can put forth the missing parts of the story of how the rocks from Pembrokeshire traveled to Stonehenge.

The research is published in a new paper Archaeology in Wales.

New device to seperate heavy metals from water underway

CEP System

Hardcore industrial and textile industries are said to be expelling heavy metals into waterways, which could be potentially hazardous to the ecosystem. More recently, researchers at Brown University have developed a device that apparently picks out heavy metals from water.

This set up appears to collect trace heavy elements in water by elevating their proportions so that a potential metal-removal technique could be accessed thereafter. The method, namely cyclic electrowinning or precipitation (CEP) system, seemingly discarded approximately 99% of copper, nickel and cadmium, thereby giving back water which is in accordance with federally acknowledged guidelines of purity. This technique should be scalable and viable too, the scientists believe.

Joseph Calo, professor emeritus of engineering who maintains an active laboratory at Brown, commented, “Ridding water of trace metals is really hard to do. It’s like trying to put the genie back in the bottle.”

There are many methods to remove heavy metals from water, but they apparently result in harmful byproducts. The team working on the said system was on the lookout for a technique to eliminate the formation of harmful byproducts. In the initial stage of the process, the metal-laden water was incorporated into a tank after which the pH of the liquid was altered by means of adding an acid or base. This process segregated the water molecules from the metal precipitate, which got assembled at the lower panel of the tank.

This procedure was repeated till the levels of the metal ions in the fluid reached a threshold from where electrolysis could be conveniently deployed to remove the heavy metals. As this point attained, the liquid was delivered to another instrument called the spouted particulate electrode (SPE). This is where the process of electrowinning occurred and the metal cations underwent a chemical transformation to formulate into rigid metal solids which were easily removable.

Thus, the cleaner water could be sent back to another reservoir where further methods to depreciate the metal ion concentrations may be used. Such processes can be repeated as many times as possible to attain the desired level of clean water according to standards. In this trial, the CEP system was stated to have lowered the amounts of cadmium, copper and nickel to 1.50, 0.23 and 0.37 parts per million (ppm), correspondingly.

This method, if affirmed by experts, could have various applications in the commercial world and metal recovery fields. The findings were published in the Chemical Engineering Journal.

Taboos to protect lemurs no longer effective in Madagascar, says study

Indri Lemur

Those who have ever had the opportunity to visit Madagascar will agree that it is a region with remarkably unique species of animals. However, scientists from the Bangor University have reported that these conserved species such as lemurs are apparently endangered owing to increase in illegal hunting.

Some of the reasons for the rising trend of hunting down such animals could be the death of conventional taboos related to protection of lemurs, significant social changes and meat usage for food.

Study lead author Dr. Julia Jones of Bangor University, cited, “Madagascar’s amazing wildlife, especially its world famous lemurs, are so important for the future of the country. They are worth much more to the economy alive than as meat. I sincerely hope Madagascar is able to tackle this problem.”

Boy With Dead Indri

The scientists believed that most people preferred eating domestic meats like chicken or pork, but few others opted for wildlife meat due to the high cost of domestic meats in certain regions. Factors such as globalization, human mobility and changing lifestyles have supposedly put species of animals like lemurs in danger.

One solution to this problem, the scientists cited, is reliable farming of domestic meat which will make the cost relatively cheaper. This will also reduce the strain on the wild life species and cut down their risk factor considerably. Also, domestic animal husbandry avenues and disease control methods need to be improved substantially.

Though Madagascar has a clear system of laws working on this front, their implementation is seemingly poor. The article was published in the journal, Plos One.

Dark state helps in increasing efficiency of solar technology: Research

Xiaoyang Zhu We are all very much aware that harnessing solar energy is deemed to go a long way in conserving energy. New research by scientists from the University of Texas at Austin has revealed that the efficacy of solar cells may be substantially elevated, which if affirmed, holds great prospects in the realm of solar energy.

The concerned scientists have disclosed that the number of electrons heaped in by 1 photon of sunlight could be increased significantly. This can be done by two-folds via an organic plastic semiconductor material.

“Plastic semiconductor solar cell production has great advantages, one of which is low cost. Combined with the vast capabilities for molecular design and synthesis, our discovery opens the door to an exciting new approach for solar energy conversion, leading to much higher efficiencies,” remarked chemist Xiaoyang Zhu at The University of Texas at Austin.

The scientists believed that one way of elevating the effectiveness of solar-to-electric power conversion by almost 66% may be by means of getting hold of hot electrons. It was initially affirmed that semiconductor nanocrystals may aid in capturing these hot electrons. However, this process necessitated acutely focused sunlight and not the raw light which normally falls on the solar platform.

To counter these issues, the team developed an alternative. They found that a photon created dark quantum similar to a shadow state which will probably cause a set of 2 electrons to be caught suitably. This will then help in generation of additional energy in the semiconductor pentacene.

This technique should raise solar cell efficacy by almost 44% in the absence of a severely targeted solar beam. The findings may motivate extensive use of solar technology in the future. The report was published in the journal, Science.

Answer to buttercups glossy light on the chin revealed

Buttercup Under Chin

This study is surely reminiscent of childhood days when we saw the buttercup flower shimmer on the chin and instantly guessed who favored butter. Scientists from the Cambridge University have now unfolded an apparent scientific validation to it.

The team believed that this unique glittering attribute of the buttercup flower could be attributed to the flower’s one-of-a-kind anatomical structure. This kind of glossy appearance was possibly due to the interaction between the different layers of the flower’s petals.

Dr Silvia Vignolini, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Physics (Cavendish Laboratory), elaborated, “Although many different factors, such as scent and temperature, influence the relationships between pollinators and flowers, the visual appearance of flowers is one of the most important factors in this communication. Flowers develop brilliant colour, or additional cues, such as glossiness – in the case of the buttercup – that contribute to make the optical response of the flower unique. Moreover, the glossiness might also mimic the presence of nectar droplets on the petals, making them that much more attractive.”

Strikingly, the conspicuous yellow light which shines on the chin is probably due to the epidermal layer of the petal that mirrors yellow light with acuteness relative to glass. The epidermal layer of the petals seemed to possess 2 severely flat surfaces from which light is thrown out. The first structure is present on the top of the cells, while the other is present in the air gap separation of the lower layers of the petal.

This presumably gave a double shine to the flower instigated by the smooth surface and the air-gap layer. This may be the reason why buttercups are so adept at replicating light under the chin as compared to any other flower. Another interesting attribute of this flower is its capability to reflect UV light. Considering that many pollinators like bees are responsive to UV light, the buttercup is an attraction to many such creatures.

The scientists are pleased to have developed better understanding of not just a form of children’s gameplay but a phenomenon that attracted pollinators to the buttercup flower. The research is published in the journal, Interface.

God particle displays hints of its existence

Higgs Simulation

The God particle is by far, one of the most puzzling aspects of the Standard Model of physics. In one such research, scientists from the Brookhaven National Laboratory have asserted that if the Higgs boson particle ever existed, it may be sporting a mass between 116 and 130GeV as per ATLAS and in the range of 115 to 127GeV, according to CMS.

Two experiments carried out at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) seemingly discarded the area in which Higgs particle may dwell. The presence of these god particles is mostly temporary and these are deemed to deteriorate in a myriad ways. They decay into an array of particles and scientists have to discover substantial excesses of these particles rather than Higgs itself. The ATLAS and CMS experimenters examined various decay pathways, and the trials showed minute excesses in the low mass portion which was not discarded.

“We’ve now analyzed all or most of the data taken in 2011 in some of the most important Higgs search analyses. I think everybody’s very surprised and pleased at the pace of progress,” commented ATLAS physicist Rik Yoshida of Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago.

Atlas Detector

The researchers apparently found various independent measurements relating to the range of 124 to 126GeV. Considering that this trial is at a preliminary level, it cannot be affirmed that the God particle has indeed been discovered by the scientists.

The team has plans of fine-tuning their findings with the winter particle physics conference coming up in March. Uncovering the kind of Higgs indicated in the Standard Model will most probably affirm a theory unleashed in the 1960s. Even if the researchers stumble upon a particle where they may find the God particle, it necessitates more data and examinations to prove that it is the same particle talked about in the Standard model.

In case the non-Standard Model Higgs is found, it will pave the path to novel physics at the LHC’s complete design energy which is seemingly achievable after 2014. Whether the ATLAS and CMS will succeed in putting forward the Standard Model Higgs boson particle is something only time can tell.

The above report was presented in a seminar conducted at CERN.

Rats show empathy by freeing trapped mates: Research

Peggy Mason Extreme Right

Most of us believe that very few animals are instinctively empathetic towards their companions. More recently, scientists from the University of Chicago have revealed that rodents apparently exhibited empathetic attitudes as they freed their peers from a trap.

This research explored the roots of empathetic behavior prevalent since the evolutionary days. For the analysis, 1 of the 2 rats sharing the same cage was exposed to a restrainer while the other rat watched its partner getting trapped.

Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, commented, “This is the first evidence of helping behavior triggered by empathy in rats. There are a lot of ideas in the literature showing that empathy is not unique to humans, and it has been well demonstrated in apes, but in rodents it was not very clear. We put together in one series of experiments evidence of helping behavior based on empathy in rodents, and that’s really the first time it’s been seen.”

The team found that the free rat supposedly manifested increased irritation when its peer was restrained. After many such inhibiting sessions, the rat comprehended how to break open the restraint and free its mate. This possibly showed its helping attitude towards its companion.

The scientists asserted that they did not provide the rat any kind of training and the rodent intuitively acted on the restraint to relieve its comrade. In a subsequent study, a restraint containing the cage mate and a bowl of chocolates were present in front of the free rodent. Notably, the rat seemed to free the caged mate and then relish the food along with its buddy.

This truly surprised the researchers as the free rodent had a tempting opportunity to devour the chocolate all by itself. The team concluded that such a helpful tendency is innately incident in humans too.

The article titled, ‘Empathy and pro-social behavior in rats’ is published in the journal, Science.