Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Barley + Space = Space Beer!

Posted: 08 Dec 2009 01:42 PM PST


I love beer, and I love space. So how could I not love beer from space? I'm not usually one for beer gimmicks, but somehow Sapporo's Space Barley is an exception.

The beer was made with grains descended from barley that spent five months in the Zvezda Service Module on the International Space Station. The very limited results, just 250 precious six-packs, will be sold through a lottery for 10,000 yen ($110) each. But only people living in Japan are eligible. Sigh.

space_beerWhy are the Russian Academy of Sciences, Okayama University and presumably Russia's space agency Roscosmos aiding this scheme? Well, science of course. And charity.

"This beer will be sold for charity, to contribute to the promotion of science education for children and the development of space science research in Japan and Russia, through donation of all proceeds to Okayama University," Sapporo stated in a press release Dec. 3.

And that sounds nice. But I think the real reason is: Space Beer!

Also, what will astronauts drink on future extended spaceflight missions? They can't take multiple years' worth of beer with them, so clearly they will have to brew it themselves. But what about the hops, you say? Don't worry, those were launched into space in August. Super Space Beer!

Indeed, according to Sapporo, the space-barley research was done for "the purpose of achieving self-sufficiency in food in the space environment." Because how self-sufficient could one really be without beer?

Images: 1) NASA. 2) Sapporo.

Story via On Orbit

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Hungry Amoebas Spawn Biggest Viruses Ever

Posted: 08 Dec 2009 12:09 PM PST


Made from a hodgepodge of genetic bits and pieces, the newly discovered Marseillevirus is the world's largest virus.

But fame is fleeting: It's almost sure to be supplanted by another, even bigger virus. What's really special about Marseillevirus is where it comes from. Like other giant viruses, it was found inside amoebas — lowly, single-celled organisms who devour anything they can absorb. Their voracious appetites make them incubators of genetic remixing among their prey, and may hint at processes that spawned complex life.

"What we find is that inside the amoeba, a virus can meet bacteria, archaea and prokaryotes. A whole new repertoire of an organism can be composed," said Didier Raoult, a microbiologist at the University of the Mediterranean in Marseille, France.

Six years ago, Raoult and his colleagues described the mimivirus, a virus so big they originally thought it was a microbe. Then they found the mamavirus, which was even bigger — so big that it could be infected by other viruses, which wasn't even known to be possible. The Marseillevirus, described Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is even bigger.

This string of discoveries — and there are many more that the researchers have yet to describe in formal literature — shows that giant viruses are not an oddity, but a domain of the organismal kingdom that scientists are just starting to explore. And all the giant viruses have been found inside amoebas, a group of single-celled animals so common that it's easy to overlook its uniqueness.

The largest genome in the world, for example, belongs to an amoeba. "It's 200 times bigger than the human genome," said Raoult.

Such enormity comes from their eating habits. Amoebas absorb just about anything they can, from viruses to bacteria to other simple single-celled animals, called prokaryotes. Sometimes their food survives inside them. Through the free-for-all mixing process known as horizontal gene transfer, amoebas and their residents swap genes, giving rise to massive amoeba genes and giant viruses and mutant bacteria.

"It's a whole world in there," said Raoult.

According to Raoult, the amoeba melting pots likely had analogues billions of years ago, when eukaryotes — complex cells, with a nucleus and other sophisticated machinery — had yet to evolve. How they evolved is a scientific mystery, but Raoult thinks that prokaryotic forerunners of modern amoebas may have provided the necessary incubators for eukaryotic evolution.

Whether this actually happened may never be known, but Raoult added that it's definitely continuing today. "We have this idea that everything is derived from something with very old roots. But there is still creativity going on, creating new origins," he said.

Image: An amoeba containing Marseillevirus in (a) and (b); in (c) and (d) a Marseillevirus replicates itself; (e), (f) and (g) are reconstructions of electron micrographs of Marseillevirus/PNAS.

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Citation: "Giant Marseillevirus highlights the role of amoebae as a melting pot in emergence of chimeric microorganisms." By Mickael Boyer, Natalya Yutin, Isabelle Pagnier, Lina Barrassi, Ghislain Fournousa Leon Espinosa, Catherine Robert, Saïd Azza, Siyang Sun, Michael G. Rossmann, Marie Suzan-Monti, Bernard La Scola, Eugene V. Koonin, and Didier Raoult. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 106 No. 48, December 7, 2009.

Brandon Keim's Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on a book about ecosystem and planetary tipping points.

Should Earth Scientists Take a “Hippocratic Oath”?

Posted: 08 Dec 2009 11:31 AM PST


A pair of researchers thinks it's about time their discipline made a public commitment not to harm the patient they study: Earth.

Like the Hippocratic oath doctors swear, the "Oath for Earth Scientists" would provide a set of agreed-upon ethical norms for geoscientists at a time when they are increasingly being called upon to pass judgment on massive human alterations to the Earth's carbon, nitrogen, and water systems.

"Grand proposals for ocean fertilization, orbiting mirrors, genetically engineering biofuels, painting rooftops white, cloud-generating ships and the like all point toward the future of Earth science as an applied discipline with the human future in the balance," wrote Erle Ellis and Peter Haff, earth scientists at the University of Maryland, Baltimore and Duke University, respectively, in Eos, the member newspaper of the American Geophysical Union.

Ellis and Haff take their cue from Sir Joseph Roblat, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who argued "the time has come to formulate guidelines for the ethical conduct of scientists." Their call to action is particularly timely with the Copenhagen climate negotiations focusing attention yet again on the difficulties of climate change and politically dealing with climate change. Hacked emails from a British research center have also brought increased scrutiny of the world of climate science in the past few weeks.

"By formally recognizing our responsibilities as earth and environmental scientists in the Anthropocene, we hope to serve as better guides toward more successful stewardship of our planet," Ellis wrote on his blog.

So, if you're a doctoral candidate studying something formerly obscure and dull-sounding like the stable oxygen and deuterium isotopes of lakes and rivers, you might soon be reciting something like this when you receive your degree:

I vow to always:
* Advise against any intervention into the functioning of earth systems that I believe might harm humanity, the biosphere, atmosphere or other earth systems upon which our well being depends.
* Make clear to the public that scientific understanding of earth systems is limited and that this makes all alterations of earth systems inherently risky.
* Describe, to the best of my knowledge and that of my discipline, the specific risks incurred by any intentional alteration of an earth system, including the risks to humans, other organisms, and the systems that support life on Earth.
* Ensure that whatever advice I give, I give for the benefit of humanity, remaining free of intentional distortion or personal bias.

Image: The Hippocratic Earth/NIH.

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WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Google Reader feed, and green tech history research site; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.