sciencehabit writes: For the first time, synthetic biologists have created a genetic device that mimics one of the widgets on which all of modern electronics is based, the three-terminal transistor. Like standard electronic transistors, the new biological transistor is expected to work in many different biological circuit designs. Together with other advances in crafting genetic circuitry, that should make it easier for scientists to program cells to do everything from monitor pollutants and the progression of disease to turning on the output of medicines and biofuels.
sciencehabit writes: "Fairy circles"--bare patches of ground, often outlined with a fringe of tall grass, pockmark a 2000-kilometer-long strip of desert stretching from Angola to South Africa--have stumped scientists for years. Not only do they look strange, they also appear to be "alive"--appearing and vanishing at regular intervals. Now one researcher thinks he has finally cracked the mystery: He's found termites which appear to build and tend to these circles on purpose.
sciencehabit writes: The electric fields that build up on honey bees as they fly, flutter their wings, or rub body parts together may allow the insects to talk to each other, a new study suggests. Tests show that the electric fields, which can be quite strong, deflect the bees' antennae, which, in turn, provide signals to the brain through specialized organs at their bases. Antenna deflections induced by an electrically charged honey bee wing are about 10 times the size of those that would be caused by airflow from the wing fluttering at the same distance—a sign that electrical fields could be an important signal.
sciencehabit writes: Gastric bypass surgery is supposed to work by shrinking the size of the stomach, leading to rapid weight loss. But a new study reveals that the procedure changes the population of microbes in our guts, and that these microbes themselves may be helping us lose weight. When researchers transfered microbes from mice that had undergone gastric bypass to mice that hadn't, the recipeint mice loss 5% of their body weight in two weeks. No surgery required.
sciencehabit writes: Drive around Washington, D.C., and the phrase "passing gas" takes on a whole new meaning. Researchers who mapped methane concentrations on the streets of the nation's capital found natural gas leaks everywhere, at concentrations of up to 50 times the normal background levels. The leaking gas wastes resources, enhances ozone production, and exacerbates global warming—not to mention powering the city's infamous exploding manholes.
sciencehabit writes: There's nothing like suddenly going blind to spoil a good happy hour. Alcoholic beverages tainted with poisonous methanol are a scourge of the developing world, causing blindness and even death. Now, scientists in Colombia have developed a reusable wireless chip that can analyze a drink's proportion of methanol to ethanol (the good kind of alcohol) and warn consumers of any danger. This first generation device costs about $5 and still requires an antenna, but within 2 years researchers hope to have a commercial product that sends easy-to-interpret results directly to a user's cell phone. Until then, you might want to lay off the hooch.
sciencehabit writes: Armed with Q-tips, chemical coatings, and lots of elbow grease, art conservators do constant battle with tarnish, a thin layer of sulfide that forms on silver when it's exposed to air. Constant polishing can wear down artifacts, however, and the protective coatings now in use cover the objects unevenly and last less than 10 years—a short time for museums charged with preserving centuries-old objects for future generations. Now, a group of materials scientists thinks that it's hit upon a solution. Using a commercial technique called atomic layer deposition (ALD), they coated pieces of silver with layers of aluminum oxide only 1 atom thick. One application of an ALD coating could protect a silver artifact for more than 80 years, the team reports. They expect the coating to be invisible and longer lasting than standard methods, but art lovers have little to worry about if they're wrong: The process is completely reversible.
sciencehabit writes: If you've pondered whether to sink a cool couple of grand into a fancy new three-dimensional TV but didn't want to mess around with those dorky glasses, you may want to sit tight for a few more years. Researchers at Hewlett Packard Laboratories in Palo Alto, California, report that they've come up with a new 3D technology that not only doesn't require viewers to wear special glasses, but it also can be viewed from a wide variety of angles. The advance could propel the development of mobile 3D devices as well as TVs.
sciencehabit writes: Cliff swallows that build nests that dangle precariously from highway overpasses have a lower chance of becoming roadkill than in years past thanks to a shorter wingspan that lets them dodge oncoming traffic. That's the conclusion of a new study based on 3 decades of data collected on one population of the birds. The results suggest that shorter wingspan has been selected for over this time period because of the evolutionary pressure put on the population by cars.
sciencehabit writes: Samples drilled from 3.5-million-year-old seafloor rocks have yielded the strongest evidence yet that a variety of microorganisms live deeply buried within the ocean's crust. These microbes make their living by consuming methane and sulfate compounds dissolved in the mineral-rich waters flowing through the immense networks of fractures in the crust. The new find confirms that the ancient lavas formed at midocean ridges and found throughout deep ocean basins are by volume the largest ecosystem on Earth, scientists say.
sciencehabit writes: Trace the vertebrate family tree back far enough, and you'll find some interesting, um, members. Scientists have spent decades searching for the missing link between a worm called an enteropneust, which burrows into the sand and mud at the bottom of underwater environments, and its close cousin, the pterobranch, a much smaller marine worm that spends its life in stationary colonies, anchored to the sea floor by rigid tubes. It seems they finally found it in the form of a 505-million-year-old fossil from Canada's Burgess Shale: Spartobranchus tenuis. While S. tenuis moved independently around the sea floor like today's enteropneusts, it was capable of constructing fibrous a tube around its soft body, like the stationary pterobranchs, which made it look a lot like a penis. If S. tenuis is indeed the common ancestor of these two types of worms, it's likely that it's also a common ancestor of all vertebrates.
sciencehabit writes: Whether they're skating shoulder-to-shoulder to block the other team or laying each other out with body checks, roller derby players have a lot of skin-to-skin contact. That contact spreads more than sweat, according to a new study. Researchers have found that players come into a tournament bearing a team signature of bacteria on their shoulders—but leave sharing microbes with their opponents. The study adds to knowledge of how microbes colonize our skin and how much our microbial communities—or microbiomes—change when we contact other people or surfaces, whether it's a doorknob at home or medical equipment in a hospital.
sciencehabit writes: It takes 2.4 times less energy than previously thought to create a black hole from a particle collision, according to a new paper in Physical Review Letters. That's because when two particles smash into each other, their gravitational pull traps energy at two points on either side of the crash site. If enough energy gets concentrated at those points, it collapses into twin black holes that quickly gobble each other up and merge into one. Even with the new energy estimates, the chances of making a black hole in a particle accelerator are still vanishingly small. But because spotting one at the relatively low energy of the LHC would be solid experimental evidence for extra dimensions, physicists are keeping their fingers crossed.
sciencehabit writes: Every day, millions of people click on Facebook "Like" buttons, boldly declaring their preferences for a variety of things, such as books, movies, and cat videos. But those "likes" may reveal more than they intend, such as sexual orientation, drug use, and religious affiliation, according to a study that analyzed the online behavior of thousands of volunteers.
sciencehabit writes: When an adult loses a tooth, there's no hope of growing a new one—unless you've got a mouse kidney handy. In a new study, researchers injected human gum tissue extracted during oral surgery into the molars of fetal mice. After giving the cells a week to get used to each other, the scientists implanted the chimeric concoction into the protective tissue surrounding the kidneys of living mice. There, 20% of the cells developed into objects recognizable as teeth, complete with the root structures missing from artificial tooth implants. The next step is to transplant these so-called "bioteeth" back into human mouths and see if they grow into something that we can chew on—or rather, with.