Bacteria communicate with sudden brainlike bursts of electricity

Bacteria have a public image as isolated cells twiddling about on microscope slides. The more that scientists learn about bacteria, however, the more they see that this hermitlike reputation is deeply misleading, like trying to understand human behavior without referring to cities, laws or speech.

“People were treating bacteria as … solitary organisms that live by themselves,” said Gürol Süel, a biophysicist at the University of California, San Diego.

“In fact, most bacteria in nature appear to reside in very dense communities.”

Source: Bacteria Use Brainlike Bursts of Electricity to Communicate | Quanta Magazine


Was Chaco Canyon’s ancient civilization ruled by matrilineal descent for 330 years? 

Recent research suggests that a single maternal line wielded power in ancient Chaco Canyon society through an unexpected stretch of at least 330 years and perhaps 10 generations.

Who first settled Chaco Canyon around 1,200 years ago is still a mystery.

Political and cultural ties between the ancient society and Chaco-style communities outside the canyon also perplex. Then there’s the puzzle of how people survived from about 800 to around 1300 on the rough, parched terrain.

Chaco people apparently traded turquoise objects for goods from societies in southern Mexico and Central America, up to 2,500 kilometers to the south.

It’s debatable whether Chaco Canyon’s 2,000 to 3,000 residents could raise enough crops to feed themselves or whether they had to trade for staples such as maize.

Less contentious — but far weirder — is evidence from graves and artwork that Chaco people revered community members with six toes and often created images of human feet and footprints with and without extra digits.

Of 13 ancient sandals recovered at Pueblo Bonito, seven include woven extensions on the outer border for a sixth toe.

Ancient cultures of Southern Mexico and Central America sometimes depicted their gods with six toes. Chaco folk probably regarded extra-toed peers as special but not divine. Of the three six-toed individuals given the presumed honor of a Pueblo Bonito burial, only one lay in an elaborate grave. Such treatment would have applied to all three if an extra toe signified godlike status, she says.

Second, bodies had been manipulated in unusual ways and for unknown reasons. One woman was originally found with a fetus’s fragile remains in her pelvic cavity and her own bones below the knees missing. Her body lay across a room from several intact bodies.

Many individuals buried in one of Pueblo Bonito’s oldest rooms, Room 33, shared maternal ancestry.

Room 33 is a crypt with a complex history.

Thousands of offerings, including turquoise and shell beads and pendants, were heaped around the two bodies under Room 33’s floor.

The first two men were placed there as early as 800. Additional burials took place intermittently up to 1130. Activity in Room 33 occurred as civilizations flourished throughout the Americas, from what’s now the U.S. Midwest to Central and South America.

Based on the exceptional treatment given to all deceased individuals placed in the special room, archaeologist Stephen Plog of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville suspects these folks belonged to a maternal line in which leadership was handed down from the ninth to the 12th century.

At that point, researchers suspect, many Chaco residents and possibly members of nearby communities moved to a settlement 50 kilometers north. A Chaco-style great house there was occupied from 1140 to the 1290s, consistent with an influx of people familiar with Chaco architecture.

Chaco residents constantly reworked and rebuilt Pueblo Bonito for more than 300 years, so deciphering precisely what happened in the great house’s many rooms and at particular times is daunting.

“Nothing is simple at Pueblo Bonito,” Kerriann Marden, a forensic anthropologist at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales.

Source: Chaco Canyon’s ancient civilization continues to puzzle | Science News


A company claims it can use your genome to predict what your face looks like

The California gene-hunting company Human Longevity published a paper making the bold claim that it can identify individuals using their genomes to predict what their faces looks like.

The assertion—that DNA can be used to create a photo-like reconstruction —has big implications. It would allow police to pick suspects out of a lineup using a blood spot and it would mean no genome collected for research is truly private.

Identifying someone's face from their DNA isn’t just theoretically possible, but likely to be possible a few years, says Mark Shriver, who works on genes-to-face prediction at the department of anthropology at Penn State. “I think it’s in our future for sure,” he says.

However, scientists still have work to do to know exactly how, say, your DNA influences the length of your nose or the width of your mouth, or the timbre of your voice.

Source: Does Your Genome Predict Your Face? Not Quite Yet - MIT Technology Review


Robot Biped

The first robot to reliably walk like a human will probably look like an ostrich 

Getting a bipedal robot to not fall on its face, much less walk, is a feat that no one has mastered. Roboticists are getting there, though.

A new robot called Cassie from Agility Robotics is a highly evolved biped, meant to escape the lab and scramble into the market, walking and balancing seemingly with ease. But behind Cassie is a mountain of physics and engineering.

“Cassie can take a fall and survive,” says Agility Robotics CTO Jonathan Hurst. “Cassie can steer, pick its direction. Cassie can stand in one place, it has ankles, it can actually balance....”

The bird-like Cassie (from “cassowary,” the giant bird from New Guinea) is also a radically different looking robot.

It’s robotic biomimicry kind of by accident, chasing the inherent efficiency and stability of organisms without copying them joint for joint and bone for bone.

It’s about building the most effective platform that the laws of physics allow.

But the beauty and promise of robotics is that there is no single right way for machines to get around. Quadrupeds, like Boston Dynamics’ scary-nimble pack mules, offer great stability. Cockroach bots might one day scramble over rubble and squeeze into tight spaces to inspect collapsed buildings.

And bipeds may have their own place in this increasingly robotic world, doing uniquely humans things like climbing ladders and turning valves in decommissioned nuclear facilities, for instance.

Source: Want a Robot to Walk Like You? Don't Expect It to Look Human | WIRED


Green Bank Observatory Science Center

A New Batch of Anomalous Repeating Extragalactic Signals

Astronomers at the Green Bank Telescope have detected 15 new mysterious fast radio burst (FRB) signals, repeating over a matter of hours.

These strong but extremely short-lived signals first detected 10 years ago can't be explained by any known celestial object, and now the mystery has deepened even further.

Theories about FRBs include pulsars and magnetars - but the problem there is that these signals pulse repeatedly, while the majority of FRBs are a one-and-done deal.

Of course, as with any astronomical anomaly, aliens have been trotted out as an explanation, with Harvard astronomers suggesting that we could be picking up noise from radio-powered propulsion systems for spacecraft.

Early on the morning of August 26, an unprecedented 15 new pulses were detected by researchers at Breakthrough Listen, an initiative monitoring for signals of possible intelligent extraterrestrial origin.

The signals were so strong that the Breakthrough Listen team sent out an Astronomer's Telegram urging the scientific community to check it out, saying "these observations may indicate FRB 121102 is currently in a heightened activity state, and follow-on observations are encouraged."

In the unlikely event that it is aliens, we still shouldn't hold out hope of communicating with them: given the enormous distance involved, these signals left their source some three billion years ago, so they probably stopped waiting for a reply long before our ancestors crawled out of the oceans. Still, there's plenty to learn from the discovery.

Source: Fifteen repeating extragalactic signals deepen the mystery of fast radio bursts


"Organoid" lab-grown brain models surprise scientists with unexpected longevity 

"Organoid" brain tissue models grown in a lab for two years can help scientists study a critical period of development just before and after birth.

Researchers are growing little balls of human brain tissue, about four millimeters in diameter, from stem cells in the lab. They're optimistic this tissue engineering will bring about a sea change in basic brain research, disease modeling, and personalized medicine.

Over the past five years, scientists have worked to make these “mini-brains,” or cerebral organoids, more like the real thing.

But the changes in brain composition across that broad span of time can be profound at even the subcellular level, a fact that would seem to curb the research value of early fetal mini-brains.

study recently published in Neuron shows the research team may have hurdled that obstacle by pushing mini-brains to unprecedented longevity.

They've nurtured their cerebral organoids for nearly two years — making them some of the longest-lasting human cell cultures on record. Some of the organoids persist even now, at over 850 days.

The “cortical spheroid” mini-brains being grown in laboratories at Stanford and elsewhere look like tiny, unassuming balls of tissue a few millimeters in diameter.

“Now we can really start to ask questions about what could go awry later in fetal development to lead to psychiatric disorder."

Source: The Oldest Mini-Brains Have Lifelike Young Cells | Quanta Magazine


Sea Dragon Skull

The largest 'sea dragon' fossil was hidden a museum archive

The largest fossil ever found of a marine reptile known as "sea dragon" has been rediscovered in a German museum collection.

Two paleontologists just published a study concluding that the fossil, which was found in the 1990s but had not been studied until now, belongs to a specimen that was between 3 meters and 3.3 meters in length and was therefore the largest Ichthyosaurus ever found.

The fossilized reptile was a female and it bears an embryo. ''It amazes me that specimens such as this [the biggest] can still be 'rediscovered' in museum collections,'' said study co-author and University of Manchester paleontologist Dean Lomax. '

The Ichthyosaurus was a marine reptile that lived 200 million years ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth.

Source: 'Sea dragon' fossil is 'largest on record' - BBC News


Glowing wreckage and gravity waves as neutron stars collide

While two merging black holes are thought to produce nothing detectable beyond a crescendo of gravitational waves, events involving two neutron stars or a neutron star and a black hole could also leave behind a glowing wreckage for telescopes to see.

There has been speculation on Twitter, in a New Scientist article and on astronomer Peter Coles’s blog that such a link has been found, based on publicly available observation logs.

LIGOWAVE
Simulations by M. Ruiz, R. N. Lang, V. Paschalidis and S. L.Shapiro at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with visualization assistance from the Illinois Relativity REU team
A simulation of the merger of a binary neutron star: magnetic field lines are in white.

“If the detection is true, it would be transformative for the field and probably one of the greatest discoveries in astronomy,” said Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who refused to discuss any specific results.

Source: What Happens When Two Neutron Stars Collide? Scientific Revolution | WIRED


Neanderthal model via BBC: http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20151116-what-did-the-neanderthals-do-for-us

How and when did we first become able to speak?

How and when did we first become able to speak? A new analysis of our DNA reveals key evolutionary changes that reshaped our faces and larynxes, and which may have set the stage for complex speech.

The alterations were not major mutations in our genes.

Instead, they were tweaks in the activity of existing genes that we shared with our immediate ancestors.These changes in gene activity seem to have given us flat faces, by retracting the protruding chins of our ape ancestors.

They also resculpted the larynx and moved it further down in the throat, allowing our ancestors to make sounds with greater subtleties.

However, other anthropologists say changes in the brain were at least equally important. It is also possible that earlier ancestors could speak, but in a more crude way, and that the facial changes simply took things up a notch.

The “Our results support the notion that evolution of the vocalization apparatus of modern humans is unique.”

However, other researchers say that the study, while important, does not tell the whole story of speech evolution.In particular, changes in the brain’s ability to process vocalizations made by others may have been just as important as the anatomical changes, if not more so, says Erik Trinkaus at Washington University in St Louis.

“Anatomy doesn’t impede primates from producing distinct vocalizations that are homologues to different human vowels,” says Adriano Lameira of the University of St Andrews in the UK.

He has previously shown that orangutans can mimic some of the sounds of human speech. What’s more, a 2016 study found evidence that monkeys’ vocal tracts could produce speech-like sounds if only their brains could control them precisely enough – although this finding is disputed.

Speech may have gradually improved over the course of hominin evolution. There is evidence that Neanderthals and Denisovans could speak, at least to some extent.

“Neanderthals most likely had brains capable of learning and executing the complex maneuvers involved in talking, but their speech would not have been as clear and comprehensible as ours, perhaps accounting in part for their extinction,” says Philip Lieberman of Brown University in Rhode Island. “I think Neanderthals could talk, but more indistinctly than us.”

Journal reference: bioRxiv, DOI: 10.1101/106955

Source: It only takes a few gene tweaks to make a human voice | New Scientist


The mystery of a meteor shower that disappeared for 60 years

Unlike some of the particularly famous annual meteor showers enjoyed by stargazers across the globe, the Phoenicids were discovered in a spectacular meteor storm that rained down just once in 1956 – and then for several decades, the fireworks virtually disappeared.

Source: Scientists just solved the mystery of a rare meteor shower that disappeared for 60 years - ScienceAlert