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An Atlas of Marine Species in the Antarctic’s Changing Climate

September 1, 2014 Tech Comments Off

Last week, a group of Antarctic researchers published an atlas of the waters around the worlds most southern continent—the most thorough audit of marine life in the Southern Ocean.

The Biogeographic Atlas of the Southern Ocean set out to collect a large amount of environmental data about the region, not just to create a census of the more than 9,000 species around right now, but to help predict how the changing environment (i.e. climate change) could affect the area in the future.

The book was published by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research and drew on contributions from a large group of global experts. On the atlas site, they write that some of the waters studied—to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula—are warming faster than any other place on Earth.

Adlie Penguin, Pygoscelis adeliae. Image: Alain De Broyer

While the atlas contains many photos of animals cute (penguins) and cool (squid), its 800 maps and diagrams are perhaps best at telling the story of todays marine Antarctic environment and where its headed in the future.

Huw Griffiths from the British Antarctic Survey, who edited the atlas, shared some of those maps with me and told me more about the project. He explained that, until now, the go-to Antarctic Map was a series published in 1969, and they felt it was time for an update. 

We knew that we knew more than was in the most-cited literature, basically, he said. Nevertheless, scientific knowledge of the Antarctic remains limited. To me the most interesting thing was finding out what we knew we didnt know about, he added. There are whole areas of the continent where very little data has been collected, such as the deep oceans or areas permanently covered in ice and therefore impossible to get to.

Maps in the atlas showing the sea ice at different times in the year give an idea of how even the basic shape of the continent changes with the seasons. The map below shows the amount of time the Southern Ocean is covered by sea ice—you can see how the mass can grow and shrink.

Image: Biogeographic Atlas of the Southern Ocean

While changing sea ice and melt levels are an obvious climate change worry around the world, they present specific environmental challenges closer to home. Griffiths said sea ice is not necessarily bad; some of the microscopic plant species like it, as they can cling to it and still get sunlight through the ice (as long as its not too thick). But if the ice doesnt melt enough, those plants wont fall to other organisms as food.

Sea ice and snow also makes a good habitat for emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri), but not king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus), which prefer rocky nesting grounds. If ice patterns change and bits of the Antarctic Peninsula for instance melt, you might find king penguins take over the habitats that were emperor penguin habitats, said Griffiths. You can see their current distribution below:

Image: Biogeographic Atlas of the Southern Ocean

Despite the million-plus records in the atlas, its clear that this latest study is also limited in its scope. In the map below, the red dots show discoveries made in the researchers immediate area of interest and the blue just outside.

Image: Biogeographic Atlas of the Southern Ocean

You can see that, around the pale blue area of sea ice, there are fewer records noted—thats not because there arent species there, but because gaps in our knowledge remain. The best studied areas are naturally those near research bases and shipping routes, given the difficulty and expense it takes to get to the region.

This next diagram shows the numbers of species found in each area around the Antarctic. Again, low numbers dont necessarily mean low populations of organisms. Theres nowhere in the world that would really have only 10 species known from there, so the chances are anything less than the hundreds, we really dont know very much about those areas, said Griffiths.

Image: Biogeographic Atlas of the Southern Ocean

Thats not to say the new atlas didnt make some new discoveries. For instance, the researchers found out that the rather terrifying-looking crustacean Glyptonotus antarcticus, thought to be one species, could actually be a group of 11 different species.

Griffiths said they plan to put each chapter of the atlas online in PDF form in the future, and are gifting copies to research institutes that work on the Antarctic. The ultimate plan is to keep building on the huge compendium of knowledge, but, for now, the atlas is a pretty thorough starting point to build on.

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Hackers Launch All-Out Assault on Norway’s Oil and Gas Industry

August 31, 2014 Tech Comments Off

In what’s being billed as the largest ever coordinated cyberattack in Norway, hackers have targeted some 300 different firms within the country’s oil and energy industries. The attacks were revealed last week by the Nasjonal Sikkerhetsmyndighet (National Security Authority Norway), which had been tipped off to the attacks by “international contacts.

The NSM cited 50 companies that were known to have been attacked and another 250 that may have been targets and who received warning letters from the agency, according to the Local, an English-language Norwegian news source. The extent of the hacking remains unknown, though Statoil, the nation’s largest oil and gas firm and one of Europe’s biggest energy suppliers, was among the targets.

NSM operations director Hans Christian Pretorius relayed more details to the Norwegian newspaper Dagens Naeringsliv (via Naked Security):

They (the hackers) have done research beforehand and gone after key functions and key personnel in the various companies. Emails that appear to be legitimate are sent to persons in important roles at the companies with attachments. If the targeted employees open the attachments, a destructive program will be unleashed that checks the target’s system for various holes in its security system. If a hole is found, the program will open a communications channel with the hackers and then the “really serious attack programs” can infect the targeted companys computer system.

The goal is to plant a Trojan or a virus on the machine. The first program just sets up contact. Then the attacker can sit outside and download damaging code.

It would seem this is an advanced version of a pretty typical method of a trojan horse attack. Once a keylogger is in place, hackers can record a user’s every move, including what passwords they enter. The next step is to extract a password and soon enough the targeted firm has a big gaping information hole. Pretorius suggested the hackers may have been after intellectual property, and probably so.

It shouldn’t be all that surprising: IP theft is big business, after all. Globally, the direct impacts of IP theft have been estimated at over $ 350 billion in losses annually. This beats out the entirety of the global drug market ($ 320 billion, according to a popular UN report).

Norway’s been here before. A 2011 malware attack against the country’s energy firms netted user names, passwords, industrial drawings, and contracts. The social engineering-based hacking methods then were much the same, likewise involving individually-crafted email bait, a method known as spearphishing.

Things in 2014 are a bit different, however. Over the past couple of years Statoil has been pursuing a partnership with the Russian state oil company Rosneft. Just last week, Statoil officials announced that the Norwegian firm will stand by this arrangement, which includes a joint exploration mission in Norway’s Barents Sea, even as tensions between Russia and the West continue to escalate. Increased sanctions will likely slow some of the joint venture’s upcoming projects, but perhaps it’s also worth considering how some might interpret a deal between Statoil and a nation doubling down on its anti-Europe pose.

Statoil has plenty of other enemies, of course, including the usual anti-oil/anti-gas blocs but also indigenous and environmental groups who have deep stakes in blocking the energy firm’s myriad drilling operations and-or potential operations. All that said, money persists over politics, and Occam’s razor will lead us back where we started: regular old stealing for profit.

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How the Ebola Virus Jams Immune System Signals and Kills

August 31, 2014 Tech Comments Off

The largest Ebola outbreak in history has been making headlines for months. Health officials and government leaders from West Africa and well beyond have been left perpetually scrambling to get ahead of a disease still boasting a mortality rate near 50 percent. The current confirmed death toll: 1,552.

Researchers based at Washington University School of Medicine, however, have figured out how Ebola manages to be so uniquely deadly in humans, by mapping out in detail how one Ebola virus protein interacts with a protein integral to human immune systems. This is good news because deep knowledge of the ins and outs and intricacies of Ebola makes finding a cure and vaccine for the virus all that much easier.

Scientists have known for a while that this one particular Ebola protein was messing with our human one, but were unsure of these exact specifics, published this month in the open-access journal Cell Host & Microbe.

The Ebola virus protein in question is called VP24. When Ebola enters an organism, VP24 binds to a protein in the human host known as the KPNA5. The KPNA5s job is one of communication between cells, which it does by taking signals into and out of a cell nucleus, like a messenger or bus. Proteins like KPNA5 carry all sorts of signals, or messages, to and from the nucleus to other parts of the cell. These messages regulate various functions in an organism, including its immune response.

It’s like the VP24 is taking STAT1′s seat on the bus to the nucleus.

When the Ebola protein VP24 latches onto its messenger protein target, that messenger protein becomes unable to carry an important immune signaling protein called STAT1. The VP24 binds itself to the same place the human STAT1 protein would, so its like the VP24 is taking STAT1s seat on the bus to the nucleus. 

“Normally STAT1 is transported into the nucleus and activates the genes for hundreds of proteins involved in antiviral responses,” said co-author Daisy Leung, an assistant professor of pathology and immunology at WU, in a press release. “But when VP24 is attached to some of these transporters, STAT1 can’t get into the nucleus.”

Or, as the paper describes it: “inhibition of PY-STAT1 nuclear localization by eVP24 is due to direct competition by eVP24 for NPI-1 subfamily KPNA binding.”

Graphical abstract from the paper

Image: graphic from paper/Cell 

Normally, when a nucleus receives the STAT1 protein, it sounds the cellular alarm and releases interferons (think “interfere”) which then fight the virus, bacteria, or whatever other pathogen is attacking the cells. However, since Ebola has prevented the cell’s call-to-arms for interferons from even happening, the immune system is delayed and when it finally arrives, it’s already overwhelmed. The immune system is forced to behave in a weird way because it can’t communication properly with the cells it is fighting to protect, due to VP24 is still sitting in STAT1′s seat.

“Interferon is critical to our ability to defend ourselves against viruses,” said co-author Christopher Basler, a professor of microbiology at Mount Sinai Hospital, in the WU release. “It makes a variety of responses to viral infection possible, including the self-destruction of infected cells and the blockage of supplies necessary for viral reproduction.”

Ebola loves not having to deal with the fully functional immune system, because now it can replicate and wreak havoc without interference. This suppression of the innate antiviral immune system (read: interferons) then facilitates a cytokine storm, the paper explains. A cytokine storm is basically too many cytokines (a class which interferons belong to), the result of which is a rapid and potentially deadly immune over-response.

The production of cytokines is a normal response when the immune system encounters an ordinary invader, and their role is to tell your immune cells to go to some location and do their respective immune cell jobs, and also to produce more cytokines. A healthy or at least in-balance body regulates how many cytokines the immune cells create, so theyre kept in check. And keeping cytokines in check means keeping the bodys immune responses in check.

In a cytokine storm, however, the body never gets the message to stop making cytokines. This results in a positive feedback loop in which the body is telling itself to make more and more cytokines without anything ever telling them to stop. The bodys inflammatory immune responses go into hyperdrive, with the results including a skyrocketing fever (potentially deadly in itself) and the rapid build-up of fluids and dead immune cells (pus). Take the shedding of this fluid coupled with a catastrophic decline in the bodys blood clotting ability and the result is Ebolas infamous blood spewing from orifices, which, in fairness, is really more of an oozing if it occurs at all.

With these two protein interactions fully described, the task becomes figuring out how to protect the cellular messenger KPNA5s ability to signal and, thus, initiate a normal, controlled immune response. With that response in place, its possible to imagine Ebola as merely a gnarly but generally survivable viral infection, like a common flu.

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Socially-assistive robots help kids with autism learn by providing personalized prompts

August 31, 2014 Robots Comments Off

This week, a team of researchers from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering will share results from a pilot study on the effects of using humanoid robots to help children with autism practice imitation behavior in order to encourage their autonomy. Findings from the study, entitled “Graded Cueing Feedback in Robot-Mediated Imitation Practice for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” will be presented at the 23rd IEEE International Symposium on Robot and Human Interactive Communication (RO-MAN) conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Aug. 27.

The pilot study was led by Maja Matarić, USC Viterbi Vice Dean for Research and the Chan Soon-Shiong Chair in Computer Science, Neuroscience and Pediatrics, whose research focuses on how robotics can help those with various special needs, including Alzheimer’s patients and children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Her research team included doctoral student Jillian Greczek, postdoctoral researcher Amin Atrash, and undergraduate computer science student Edward Kaszubski.

“There is a vast health care need that can be aided by intelligent machines capable of helping people of all ages to be less lonely, to do rehabilitative exercises, and to learn social behaviors,” said Matarić. “There’s so much that can be done that can complement human care as well as other emerging technologies.”

For the study, the researchers examined how children with ASD react to humanoid robots that provide graded cueing, an occupational therapy technique that shapes behavior by providing increasingly specific cues, or prompts, to help a person learn new or lost skills. Matarić and her team divided a group of 12 high-functioning children with ASD into two groups, one experimental and one control. Each child then played an imitation game (“copycat”) with a Nao robot that asked the child to imitate 25 different arm poses.

“In this study we used graded cueing to develop the social skill of imitation through the copycat game,” said Jillian Greczek, who oversaw the study. “Our hope is that learning such skills could be generalized. So, if a child with autism is at recess with friends, and some kids are playing Red Light/Green Light, the child might look at the game and say, ‘Oh, I see how to play, and I can play with them too.”‘

When a child in either group imitated the pose correctly, the robot flashed its eyes green, nodded, or said “Good job!” When a child in the control group failed to imitate the pose correctly, the robot simply repeated the command without variation. However, for the experimental group participants, the Nao robot offered varied prompting when a child did not copy the pose accurately, at first providing only verbal cues and then following up with more detailed instructions and demonstrations of the pose.

The study showed that children who received the varied prompting (graded cueing feedback) until the correct action was achieved, showed improved or maintained performance, while children who did not receive graded cueing regressed or stayed the same. These results suggest that varied feedback was more effective and less frustrating to the study participants than merely receiving the same prompt repeatedly when they did not imitate the pose correctly. Furthermore it demonstrates that a socially assistive robot can be effective at providing such feedback.

Although this study did not exercise the graded cueing model to its fullest, the preliminary results show promise for the use of this technique to improve user autonomy through robot-mediated intervention. Matarić hopes that, within a decade, children with ASD might have their own personal robots to assist them with therapy, help prompt them through daily tasks, coach them through interactions with others, and encourage them to play with peers.

“The idea is to eventually give every child a personalized robot dedicated to providing motivation and praise and nudges toward more integration,” Matarić said.

This pilot study is part of ongoing work in socially assistive robotics under Matarić at The Interaction Lab, part of the USC Center for Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RASC), the USC Robotics Labs, and the USC Viterbi Computer Science Department. Research at The Interaction Lab focuses on the development of adaptive and personalized socially assistive robots that can help people with special needs to incorporate new healthy and therapeutic behaviors into their everyday lives.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Southern California. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Robotics Research News — ScienceDaily

Factor in naked mole rat’s cells enhances protein integrity

August 31, 2014 Singularity Comments Off

Scientists at the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies, part of the School of Medicine at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, have found another secret of longevity in the tissues of the longest-lived rodent, the naked mole rat.

They reported that a factor in the cells of naked mole rats protects and alters the activity of the proteasome, a garbage disposer for damaged and obsolete proteins.

The factor also protects proteasome function in human, mouse and yeast cells when challenged with various proteasome poisons, studies showed. These proteasomes usually rapidly stop functioning, leading to the accumulation of damaged proteins that further impair cell function, contributing to the vicious cycle that leads to cell death.

“I think this factor is part of an overall process or mechanism by which naked mole rats maintain their protein quality,” study first author Karl Rodriguez, Ph.D., said.

Generally, as an organism ages, not only are there more damaged proteins in need of disposal, but the proteasome itself becomes damaged and less efficient in clearing out the damaged proteins.

As a result, protein quality declines and this contributes to the functional declines seen during aging. Enhancement of protein quality, meanwhile, leads to longer life in yeast, worms, fruit flies and naked mole rats, Dr. Rodriguez said.

Dr. Rodriguez, a San Antonio native who completed both his master’s and doctoral degrees at the Health Science Center, is a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Rochelle Buffenstein, Ph.D., professor of physiology at the Barshop Institute. For this study, the Buffenstein lab also collaborated with Pawel Osmulski, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular medicine; Susan Weintraub, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry; and Maria Gaczynska, Ph.D., associate professor of molecular medicine.

Naked mole rats, which burrow through underground tunnels in their native East Africa, are nearly hairless rodents. They live as long as 32 years. Naked mole rats maintain cancer-free good health and reproductive potential well into their third decade of life.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Latest Science News — ScienceDaily



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