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Submission + - Rat brain—or a smidgeon of it—is modeled in a computer (

sciencehabit writes: An international group of neuroscientists claims to have made a small but significant step toward simulating the entire human brain in a computer. Today, the researchers unveiled one of the most detailed digital reconstructions of brain tissue ever built: a simulation of 30,000 neurons, connected at almost 40 million contact points, in a piece of rat brain about a third of a cubic millimeter in size.

The long-awaited paper is the main outcome of the Blue Brain Project, a 10-year program spearheaded by Henry Markram, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, and funded in part by the Swiss government. Markram sees it as a validation of plans for the Human Brain Project (HBP), a hugely ambitious project he initiated that aims to model the entire human brain in silico.

Submission + - Mars once hosted lakes, flowing water (

sciencehabit writes: Last week, NASA announced they’d spotted occasional signs of flowing water on Mars. These briny flows, discerned from orbit, originated on the steep slopes of valleys or craters at four widely scattered sites in the planet’s southern hemisphere. Now, a comprehensive analysis of images gathered by NASA’s Curiosity rover provides the strongest evidence yet that Mars once was warm and wet enough to have lakes and flowing water year-round and for extended periods of time—possibly for millions of years. The findings hint that the Red Planet once had a climate hospitable enough for microbial life to develop and evolve.

Submission + - Elephants don't get cancer. Here's why (

sciencehabit writes: The surprisingly low cancer rates in elephants and other hefty, long-lived animals such as whales—known as Peto’s paradox after one of the scientists who first described it—have nettled scientists since the mid-1970s. So far, researchers have made little progress in solving the mystery or determining how other long-lived species beat cancer. Now, a new study shows that the animals harbor dozens of extra copies of one of the most powerful cancer-preventing genes, p53. These bonus genes might enable elephants to weed out potentially cancerous cells before they can grow into tumors. The researchers say they are now trying to determine whether they can make human cells more elephantlike, for example by inserting additional copies of the p53 gene or by identifying compounds that duplicate the effects of the extra copies.

Submission + - Homosexuality may be caused by chemical modifications to DNA (

sciencehabit writes: Over the past 2 decades, researchers have turned up considerable evidence that homosexuality isn't a lifestyle choice, but is rooted in a person's biology and at least in part determined by genetics. Yet actual “gay genes” have been elusive. A new study of male twins could help explain that paradox. It finds that epigenetic effects, chemical modifications of the human genome that alter gene activity without changing the DNA sequence, may have a major influence on sexual orientation.

Submission + - Most worker ants don't actually do any work (

sciencehabit writes: Ants and bees have reputations as efficient team players. Division of labor is common, with workers specializing in tasks like foraging, building, and brood care. But new research shows that many ants in a colony seem to specialize in doing nothing at all. Lab videos of ants reveal that, out of the “workers,” 71.9% were inactive at least half the time, and 25.1% were never seen working. A small fraction of the ants, just 2.6%, were always active during observation. Previous studies have postulated that inactivity might be temporary, with ants working in shifts dictated by circadian rhythm. But the new results show that the lazy workers stay lazy no matter the time of day.

Submission + - Proof that neutrinos change identity bags physics Nobel (

sciencehabit writes: A weird identity shifting among ghostly particles called neutrinos has won the 2015 Nobel Prize in physics for the leaders of massive underground experiments in Japan and Canada. Takaaki Kajita of the University of Tokyo led researchers working with the Super-Kamiokande detector in a zinc mine 250 kilometers northwest of Japan's capital that made its key discovery in 1998. Arthur McDonald of Queen's University in Kingston, Canada, led the team working with the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) in a mine in Canada that confirmed and expanded on the Super-Kamiokande result in 2001.The results kicked off the study of such "neutrino oscillations" which is now one of the major thrusts of particle physics, involving huge experiments in which neutrinos are fired hundreds of kilometers through Earth to distant detectors. The study of such oscillations could eventually shed light matters as fundamental as how the universe generated so much more matter than antimatter.

Submission + - Climate scientist wants to use anti-mafia law to prosecute climate deniers (

sciencehabit writes: A climate scientist who wants the feds to investigate firms financing climate denial has been threatened with investigation himself by House Republicans. He had called for White House to use the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)—originally developed to combat organized crime and corrupt unions—to investigate industry-funded groups that have challenged climate science. But conservative lawmakers are saying he may have misused federal research grants.

Submission + - DNA vaccine sterilizes mice, could lead to one-shot birth control for cats, dogs (

sciencehabit writes: Animal birth control could soon be just a shot away: A new injection makes male and female mice infertile by tricking their muscles into producing hormone-blocking antibodies. If the approach works in dogs and cats, researchers say, it could be used to neuter and spay pets and to control reproduction in feral animal populations. A similar approach could one day spur the development of long-term birth control options for humans.

Submission + - Humans are worse than radiation for Chernobyl animals (

sciencehabit writes: Elk, roe deer, wild boars, and other wildlife are thriving in a radiation-contaminated preserve largely off limits to people near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, researchers have found. In a study published today, scientists report “no evidence of a negative influence of radiation on mammal abundance” in the Chernobyl exclusion zone straddling the Belarus-Ukraine border. Much of the 4200-square-kilometer zone was evacuated after the nuclear plant’s unit 4 reactor exploded in 1986, sending a radioactive plume over Europe.

“When humans are removed, nature flourishes, even in the aftermath of the world's worst nuclear accident,” says co-author Jim Smith, an environmental scientist at the University of Portsmouthin the United Kingdom. But some scientists argue that the study glosses over findings showing that the radioactive contamination has damaged individual animals.

Submission + - Ancient volcanic collapse likely triggered 800-foot-high tsunami (

sciencehabit writes: An ancient landslide on an island volcano is providing a worrisome lesson about tsunamis, thanks to some geologic sleuthing. According to a new study in the Cape Verde archipelago, a landslide triggered a tsunami more than 800 feet high--powerful enough to push massive boulders on a neighboring island onto a high plateau. The scientists warn that although such events are extremely rare, they could also be devastating if they hit a populated coastal area.

Submission + - This machine produces the largest humanmade waves in the world (

sciencehabit writes: Dutch scientists are making waves—big ones. A new experimental facility at Deltares, a research institute here, has begun producing the largest humanmade waves in the world. Like kids building sandcastles below the tideline on the beach, scientists will let the walls of water crash on dikes of different designs and other structures—sometimes until they're destroyed.

Submission + - Were there mummies in Bronze Age Britain? (

sciencehabit writes: Tightly wrapped mummies conjure up images of ancient Egypt, but very few people would think of ancient England. Now, scientists have presented evidence that the practice of preserving bodies might have been widespread in the Bronze Age Britain, from 2500 B.C.E. to 800 B.C.E. “The idea that British and potentially European Bronze Age communities invested resources in mummifying and curating a proportion of their dead fundamentally alters our perceptions of funerary ritual and belief in this period,” the researchers say in a statement.

Submission + - Volcanoes and asteroid strike may have done in the dinosaurs (

sciencehabit writes: Scientists have for decades hotly debated what killed the dinosaurs. One long-held hypothesis blames immense and long-lasting volcanic eruptions that drastically altered Earth’s climate. Another more recent hypothesis suggests that the dino die-offs occurred after a massive asteroid hit the planet near the Yucatán Peninsula. Now, research finds that the extraterrestrial impact may have led to increased volcanism in the Indian subcontinent, providing a double whammy that took out Tyrannosaurus rex and his kin.

Submission + - New additive makes fuel less explosion-prone (

sciencehabit writes: Gasoline, kerosene, and other transportation fuels are composed of highly flammable hydrocarbons—typically 5 to 14 carbon atoms in length. During an impact, these short hydrocarbons readily form a cloud of tiny fuel droplets that can ignite, producing a fireball. Fuel researchers have long known that much longer hydrocarbon chains can interact with fuel molecules, causing them to form larger droplets during an accident. These larger droplets don’t linger as long in the air, so there is less chance for a catastrophic explosion. But earlier efforts to incorporate these long molecules into fuels brought other problems. Now, Caltech scientists report that by linking together shorter molecules with sticky ends, the resulting “mega-supramolecule” can remain in one long chain. This huge polymer breaks apart under stress, leaving the fuel pump clog-free. It can also use its sticky ends to reassemble and restore its flame-suppressing activity. Most important, the new additives ensure the formation of larger droplets during an impact, warding off violent explosions.

Submission + - Physicists observe weird quantum fluctuations of empty space—maybe (

sciencehabit writes: Empty space is anything but, according to quantum mechanics: Instead, it roils with quantum particles flitting in and out of existence. Now, a team of physicists claims it has measured those fluctuations directly, without disturbing or amplifying them. However, others say it's unclear exactly what the new experiment measures—which may be fitting for a phenomenon that originates in quantum mechanics' famous uncertainty principle.

"There are many experiments that have observed indirect effects of vacuum fluctuations," says Diego Dalvit, a theorist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico who was not involved in the current work. "If this [new experiment] is correct, it would be the first direct observation of the field [of fluctuations] itself."

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not "Eureka!" (I found it!) but "That's funny ..." -- Isaac Asimov