The big, weird world of creatures inside you may be even bigger and weirder than anybody thought.
Fungi are the latest addition to human menagerie, joining bacteria and viruses in forming the teeming, biological kingdom-spanning superorganisms of our bodies.
“We were all fascinated with the diversity and sheer mass of microorganisms that live inside our intestines,” said immunobiologist David Underhill of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “So we started asking: What do we know about fungus in the gut?”
In a June 8 Science study, researchers led by Underhill and postdoctoral student Ilian Iliev link gut fungus to colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease.
While the findings may be presently useful to colitis researchers, the implications are sweeping: Scientists might ask the same questions of internal fungi as they do internal bacteria, the importance of which is now a buzzing research frontier.
In the last decade, researchers have linked resident communities of bacteria — which outnumber human cells in a body by 10 to 1 — to diseases and fundamental processes, from diabetes and heart disease to metabolism and immune system function. Even viruses are in on the act.
Appreciation of this so-called microbiome represents a sea change in awareness of bacteria: No longer are they external entities that sometimes cause disease, but rather an essential, positive component of human health.
Whether fungi also play a part is a question relatively few researchers have asked. A handful of studies have suggested a limited role, primarily in skin and mouth conditions.
Dutch researchers have invented a biological concrete that can seal its own cracks, preventing water ingress and corrosion of reinforcement.
The technique uses a special strain of mineral-eating bacterium that can tolerate high alkaline environments such as those found in concrete. Millions of dormant bacteria are incorporated in the aggregate during concrete production along with packets of chemical “feed”.
If the concrete is cracked and oxygen and water are introduced, the bacteria become activated. The bacteria then convert the feed into calcite, which seals the crack. Once plugged the bacteria return to their dormant state.
Delft University of Technology in Holland has successfully trialled the concrete and is working to make it commercially viable. The bacteria and feed currently costs €80 (£78) per cubic metre, roughly doubling the price of per cubic metre of concrete.
The work has been led by research scientist Henk Jonkers. He said the cost of the bacteria is small in terms of overall construction costs, but is still keen to make it more competitive.
He is working with industry partners to cut the cost of the bacteria and feed mix to £17/m3. If costs can be brought down, Jonkers believes the technique will first be used in tunnel lining segments.
“It’s difficult to persuade industry to invest in the upfront cost,” said Jonkers. “We hope to have something suitable on the market within two years for the tunnel sealant and are developing ways to reduce the cost to about £17/m3,” he added.
Jonkers and his team has spent four years perfecting the technique. “It took me over a year to come up with the right combination that would not adversely affect the concrete properties, then another three years of testing,” he said.
“The new concrete would be perfect for structures which are difficult to maintain, like underground buildings, motorways or oil rigs,” said Jonkers.
“It is extremely durable. The bacteria are specially adapted to extremely alkaline environments, and can survive dormant inside the concrete for up to 50 years.”
Astronomers have spotted another candidate for a potentially habitable planet - and it is not too far away.
The star HD 40307 was known to host three planets, all of them too near to support liquid water.
But research to appear in Astronomy and Astrophysics has found three more - among them a "super-Earth" seven times our planet's mass, in the habitable zone where liquid water can exist.
Many more observations will be needed to confirm any other similarities.
But the find joins an ever-larger catalogue of more than 800 known exoplanets, and it seems only a matter of time before astronomers spot an "Earth 2.0" - a rocky planet with an atmosphere circling a Sun-like star in the habitable zone.
HD 40307, which lies 42 light-years away, is not particularly Sun-like - it is a smaller, cooler version of our star emitting orange light.
But it is subtle variations in this light that permitted researchers working with the Rocky Planets Around Cool Stars (Ropacs) network to find three more planets around it.
What is Red Shift?
-The term "redshift" arises from the fact that light from more distant objects shows up on Earth more red than when it left its source
-The colour shift comes about because of the Doppler effect, which acts to "stretch" or "compress" waves from moving objects
It is at work in the sound of a moving siren: an approaching siren sounds higher-pitched and a receding one sounds lower-pitched
-In the case of light, approaching objects appear more blue and receding objects appear more red
-The expansion of the Universe is accelerating, so in general, more distant objects are moving away from us (and each other, and everything else) more quickly than nearer ones
-Exoplanet hunters use the same red- and blueshift of stars' light as evidence of planets tugging on them
The team used the Harps instrument at the European Southern Observatory's La Silla facility in Chile.
Harps does not spot planets directly - it detects the slight changes in colour of a stars' light caused by planets' gentle gravitational tugs - the "redshift" and "blueshift" that small motions cause.
Most recently, the instrument was used to spot an exoplanet circling our second-nearest stellar neighbour, Alpha Centauri B.
It is by its nature a high-precision measurement, and it has only been with the team's improved analysis of the natural variations in HD 40307's light that the team could unpick just how many tugs were changing it.
"We pioneered new data analysis techniques including the use of the wavelength as a filter to reduce the influence of activity on the signal from this star," said University of Hertfordshire researcher and lead author of the paper Mikko Tuomi.
"This significantly increased our sensitivity and enabled us to reveal three new super-Earth planets around the star known as HD 40307, making it into a six-planet system."
The outermost of the three new finds, HD 40307g, orbits the star in about 200 Earth-days and has a mass at least seven times that of Earth, joining a growing class of exoplanets called super-Earths.
The team say that the next step is to used space-based telescopes to get a more direct look at the planet and assess its composition.
Skylon Spaceplane Engine Endorsed By European Space Agency
The 'biggest breakthrough since the jet' could reach anywhere in the world in just four hours or power a spaceplane into orbit with no need for rocket stages.
The Skylon, a concept spaceplane that (theoretically) could go from a standing start to orbit and back without disposing of any rocket stages, took another big step forward today as tests independently audited by the European Space Agency confirmed that the Sabre engine underpinning it is conceptually sound. It’s the second key endorsement from the ESA that Skylon and the Sabre engine have picked up in the past two years--giving Sabre-maker Reaction Engines cause to call its technology the biggest engine breakthrough since the jet.
That’s big talk for a small aerospace firm, but then Skylon is a really big idea. The Sabre engine, if successful, should be able to double the normal top speed of conventional jet engines from 2.5 times the speed of sound to 5 times the speed of sound, and it should be able to do so using atmospheric air (rather than tanked oxygen, like a rocket). At that speed Skylon could climb to more than 15 miles up. Once up there amid the much thinner air, its hybrid propulsion system would switch to rocket mode to climb the rest of the way into space.
Largest Quasar Ever Discovered Burns 100 Times Brighter Than Entire Milky Way
Astronomers have found a galaxy whose super-luminous nucleus--called a quasar--is burning 100 times as much energy as the entire Milky Way galaxy.
Though theory has long predicted that quasars this powerful should exist, the newly-discovered object, known as SDSS J1106+1939, is by far the most energetic ever observed. The quasar is powered by a supermassive black hole that lies at its center.
Scientists made the discovery using the X-shooter spectrograph instrument attached to ESO's Very Large Telescope. The spectrograph split light coming from the quasar into its component wavelengths, allowing astronomers to observe the movement of material close to the quasar. The team calculated that the quasar is spewing an annual 400 suns worth of gas and dust, at a velocity of nearly 5000 miles per second.
Giant outflows like this one may be able to answer some big cosmic mysteries, like how the black hole at the center of each galaxy affects its size, and why there are so few big galaxies in the Universe.
How to Live Forever By Turning Your Brain Into Plastic
We may never be able to freeze you at the moment of death and then reanimate you. But the good news is, there may be another way to keep your brain viable. A group of scientists have come up with a process called "chemical fixation and plastic embedding" — which essentially turns your brain into a hunk of exquisitely preserved plastic.
Here's how you can become immortal, by sealing your brain in amber.
To help us better understand the chemopreservation process, we spoke to futurist John Smart, the Vice President of the Brain Preservation Foundation (BPF), a nonprofit science research group working to evaluate the process, along with other potential preservation strategies.
By: Francie Diep
Published: 11/29/2012 02:56 PM EST on TechNewsDaily
Spaun, a new software model of a human brain, is able to play simple pattern games, draw what it sees and do a little mental arithmetic. It powers everything it does with 2.5 million virtual neurons, compared with a human brain's 100 billion. But its mistakes, not its abilities, are what surprised its makers the most, said Chris Eliasmith, an engineer and neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo in Canada.
Ask Spaun a question, and it hesitates a moment before answering, pausing for about as long as humans do. Give Spaun a list of numbers to memorize, and it falters when the list gets too long. And Spaun is better at remembering the numbers at the beginning and end of a list than at recalling numbers in the middle, just like people are.
"There are some fairly subtle details of human behavior that the model does capture," said Eliasmith, who led the development of Spaun, or the Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network. "It's definitely not on the same scale [as a human brain]," he told TechNewsdaily. "It gives a flavor of a lot of different things brains can do."
Eliasmith and his team of Waterloo neuroscientists say Spaun is the first model of a biological brain that performs tasks and has behaviors. Because it is able to do such a variety of things, Spaun could help scientists understand how humans do the same, Eliasmith said. In addition, other scientists could run simplified simulations of certain brain disorders or psychiatric drugs using Spaun, he said. [SEE ALSO: Military-Funded Brain Science Sparks Controversy]