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Irish Research Council-funded Scholar sequences first ancient Irish human genomes

irc_logo_hi-resThe first genomes from ancient Irish humans has sequenced by a team of geneticists from Trinity College Dublin and archaeologists from Queen’s University Belfast. With the help of the information buried within already answering pivotal questions about the origins of Ireland’s people and their culture.

The team, including Irish Research Council-funded Scholar Lara Cassidy, sequenced the genome of an early farmer woman, who lived near Belfast some 5,200 years ago, and those of three men from a later period, around 4,000 years ago in the Bronze Age, after the introduction of metalworking. Their landmark results were published in the international journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Ireland has intriguing genetics. It lies at the edge of many European genetic gradients with world maxima for the variants that code for lactose tolerance, the western European Y chromosome type, and several important genetic diseases including one of excessive iron retention, called haemochromatosis. However, the origins of this heritage are unknown. The only way to discover our genetic past is to sequence genomes directly from ancient people, by embarking on a type of genetic time travel.


Trinity College is the sole constituent college of the University of Dublin, a research university in Ireland.

Queen’s University Belfast is a public research university in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The university was chartered in 1845, and opened in 1849 as “Queen’s College, Belfast”, but has roots going back to 1810 and the Royal Belfast Academical Institution.

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71pc of local Irish tech firms grew revenue last year

71pc of local Irish tech firms grew revenue last year

Almost three-quarters of local Irish technology companies grew their revenue last year, according to new research from Bank of Ireland and Trinity College Dublin.

The research project, led by Professor Brian Lucey at Trinity College, was conducted with 100 indigenous SME technology companies and was presented at Bank of Ireland’s Technology Sector Insights briefing last Friday. The objective of the research was to look at the revenue performance and funding choices of Irish technology companies.

More than half (54pc) of the companies said that they were profitable.

Exploring the most important area of their businesses for investment, 49pc said sales and marketing, 30pc said technical staff, and 22pc said that their main focus would be on research and development activities.

“There is significant momentum in revenue growth for this business cohort, with seven in 10 increasing revenue last year, up from six in 10 in similar research we conducted in conjunction with UCC in 2014”, said Mark Cunningham, director of Business Banking at Bank of Ireland.

Specifically, Cunningham pointed to financing made possible under the InnovFin agreement to encourage businesses to start investing in order to scale up.

The InnovFin agreement allows Bank of Ireland to provide finance to innovative companies in Ireland for a total of €100m over the next two years with the support of a guarantee provided by the European Investment Fund and backed under Horizon 2020, the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation.

Bank of Ireland has completed funding for a broad range of technology companies this year including Version 1, Phorest, S3Group, MicksGarage and Milner Browne.

The bank also recently launched a new incubator programme for tech start-ups in Galway – StartLab – designed to support the tech start-up community in Galway city and the surrounding region.

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19 fintech jobs in Belfast as Hanweck opens European HQ

19 fintech jobs in Belfast as Hanweck opens European HQ

US fintech firm Hanweck has chosen Belfast for its European headquarters, bringing 19 research, development and support jobs to the region.

The company is looking to hire technology and business analysts in Belfast, as it seeks growth in its European operations.

Hanweck delivers high-performance risk analytics services for the financial markets, with founder Jerry Hanweck citing the talented labour pool as one of the reasons it chose Northern Ireland as a hub.

“Belfast provides us with an excellent platform from which to service our customers and capitalise on the evolving market opportunities across Europe”, he said. He also added :

“Our new Belfast office will act as a research, development and support centre. It will augment our ‘follow the sun’ support model, and address the current and future demands of our growing set of customers around the globe. We chose Northern Ireland because of its skilled workforce, strong universities and research centres, high-tech infrastructure and competitive cost structure.”

Last week, hundreds of jobs were announced across different science operations in the Republic of Ireland, but Hanweck’s decision to choose Belfast adds to Northern Ireland’s growing fintech armoury.

Earlier this month, London-based Clarus Financial Technology announced a similar number of jobs in Belfast with the opening of a new research and development centre.

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UCD professor’s paper makes the10 most cited papers of all time

UCD professor’s paper makes the10 most cited papers of all time

Irish professor Des Higgins and his work on bioinformatics has placed him in the journal Nature’s top 10 most cited research papers of all time, making him the only Irish person in the ranking.

The University College Dublin (UCD) professor first broke the 100,000 citations mark last year with his paper entitled Improving the sensitivity of progressive multiple sequence alignment through sequence weighting, position-specific gap penalties and weight matrix choice.

By doing so, he has joined an elite list of academics who have led the way in their particular fields and, in Higgins’ case, the world of bioinformatics, which is fast becoming one of the most exciting fields in science. Nuritas founder and CSO Nora Khaldi, for instance, recently highlighted the field at Silicon Republic’s Innovation Ireland Forum in Dublin.

Working in this area of science since 1985, Higgins developed the original Clustal programme for aligning protein sequences in 1988, which has now become the most cited work in bioinformatics among academics working within this realm of science.

One of the innovations of the Clustal programme is the algorithm designed to work on personal computers, which greatly increased its use among scientists and has meant it could be used in laboratories everywhere, quickly becoming the industry standard.

Another paper by Higgins also made it into the top 30, in 28th place, The CLUSTAL_X windows interface: flexible strategies for multiple sequence alignment aided by quality analysis tools.

Speaking of Higgins’ achievement, Prof Orla Feely, vice-president of Research, Innovation and Impact at UCD said, “Des has delivered profound impact, not only academically, but also in new technology and product development. His success across the fields of biology and computer science is testament to the true interdisciplinary nature of his research.”


Click image to see full-size image of top 100 infographic by Kyle Bean with design by Wesley Fernandes/Nature



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MIT report warns Mars One hopefuls that death would come quickly

MIT report warns Mars One hopefuls that death would come quickly

For the 1,058 remaining Mars hopefuls, worrying news came for their chances of short-term survival after MIT published a detailed scientific report showing how they’ll likely die within two months.

Published online under the title, An Independent Assessment of the Technical Feasibility of the Mars One Mission Plan, the research looked at all aspects needed for the four initial astronauts who will be based as part of the Dutch non-profit mission.

Expected to land on Mars’ surface in 2024, the team are aware that this will be a one-way trip, but if MIT’s research is correct, the lack of native resources to aide in the survival of the astronauts could see the first astronaut fatality occur by day 68 of their trip.

This they attribute to “suffocation from too low an oxygen partial pressure within the environment”, while there would also be an added danger that the molar fraction of the oxygen within their sealed environments would most likely exceed 30pc making it a fire hazard.

A breakdown of the amount of mass that would be needed to travel on each Mars One mission as estimated by the MIT researchers. Image: MIT

In the crews’ attempts to grow their own crops within the same environment they lived in, the temperature would get rather balmy to say the last with a predicted humility level of approximately 100pc.

In their final conclusions of their deep research into the possibility of a successful Mars One mission, the researchers said that “technology development will have to focus on improving the reliability of ECLS systems, the TRL of ISRU systems, and either the capability of Mars in-situ manufacturing and/or the cost of launch. Improving these factors will help to dramatically reduce the mass and cost of Mars settlement architectures.”

Meanwhile, CEO of Mars One, Bas Lansdorp, has spoken out about the new report criticising the researchers’ findings claiming that their “lack of time for support from us combined with their limited experience results in incorrect conclusions.”

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AAA study shows in-car hands free systems often more distracting

AAA study shows in-car hands free systems often more distracting

Two new AAA (American Automobile Association)-University of Utah studies show that despite public belief to the contrary, hands-free, voice-controlled automobile infotainment systems can distract drivers, although it is possible to design them to be safer.

“Even though your car may be configured to support social media, texting and phone calls, it doesn’t mean it is safe to do so,” says University of Utah psychology professor and study leader David Strayer. “The primary task should be driving. Things that take your attention away make you a poor driver and make the roads less safe.”

The studies were sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, an arm of the nonprofit AAA, formerly known as the American Automobile Association.

— One new study found that using your voice to make phone calls and tune the radio with Chevrolet’s MyLink system distracted drivers the most. Mercedes’ COMMAND system, MyFord Touch and Chrysler’s UConnect were better, but all diverted attention more than a cell phone conversation. The least distracting system was Toyota’s Entune, which took as much attention as listening to a book on tape, followed by Hyundai’s Blue Link, which was a bit more distracting, but less than talking with a passenger.

— In the other new study, using Apple iPhone’s Siri to send and receive texts, post to Facebook and Twitter and use a calendar was more distracting than any other voice-activated technology — even when it was modified for use as a hands-free, eyes-free device so drivers kept their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

AAA and Strayer urge drivers to minimize use of distracting in-vehicle technology. The new studies provide recommendations to automakers to help make future voice-controlled systems so they are “simpler and more accurate” in responding to voice commands, and thus less distracting, Strayer says.

“We are concerned we may be making distraction problems worse by going to voice-activated technology, especially if it’s not easy to use,” Strayer says. “But the reality is these systems are here to stay. Given that, let’s make the technology as safe as possible with the goal of making it no more distracting than listening to the radio.”

How the New Studies Were Performed

The studies involved 162 University of Utah students and other volunteers who performed a series of tasks (such as calling, texting, tuning the radio) using various voice-based, interactive technologies while they looked at a computer screen, operated a driving simulator and drove real cars on a loop through Salt Lake City’s Avenues district.

In the real cars, drivers were accompanied by at least one researcher responsible for data collection and for safety spotting to prevent them from mishaps such as running stop signs. Video cameras recorded their actions and the road ahead.

The findings follow a 2013 AAA-University of Utah study that showed using hands-free devices to talk, text or send e-mail is distracting and risky for motorists.

The 2013 study established a five-point scale for measuring driver distractions: 1 represents the mental workload of driving without distraction, while 5 represents severe distraction caused when drivers performed a complex math-and-memorization test.

The 2013 study gave distraction ratings (from least to most distracting) of 1.21 for listening to the radio, 1.75 for listening to a book on tape, 2.27 for using a hands-free cell phone, 2.33 for talking with a passenger, 2.45 for using a hand-held cell phone and 3.06 for using a speech-to-text system that recognized commands perfectly to play and compose emails and texts.

Rating Road Distractions

Both of the new studies used the same scale. One new study scored common voice interactions with specific infotainment systems in some of the most common auto brands on U.S. roads. From least distracting to most distracting:

— 1.7 for Toyota’s Entune.

— 2.2 for Hyundai’s Blue Link Telematics System.

— 2.7 for Chrysler’s UConnect System.

— 3.0 for the Ford SYNC with MyFord Touch system.

— 3.1 for Mercedes’ COMMAND system.

— 3.7 for Chevrolet’s MyLink.

The Toyota and Hyundai systems show “these systems can be designed so they aren’t very distracting to drivers,” Strayer says.

The other new study rated distractions from eight different ways of interacting with a car by voice command. The ratings, from least to most distracting, were:

— 1.88 to issue simple voice commands, like turn on heat or tune the radio.

— 2.04 to ask a natural, recorded voice to play emails and texts.

— 2.31 to ask a computerized voice to play emails and texts.

— 2.83 to use an error-free, voice menu system to navigate to destinations.

— 3.06 to ask a computerized voice to play and compose emails and texts.

— 3.09 to ask a natural, recorded voice to play and compose emails and texts.

— 3.67 to use an error-prone voice-based menu system to navigate to destinations.

— 4.14 to use Apple’s Siri (version iOS 7) to navigate, send and receiving texts, make Facebook and Twitter posts and use the calendar without handling or looking at the phone itself.

Strayer’s tests of Siri allowed drivers — wearing lapel microphones — to interact with Siri as a researcher in the back seat actually manipulated the phone. “We wanted to focus on mental distraction or workload” so there was no additional distraction from looking at or handling an iPhone, Strayer says. He adds that Apple officials told him Siri learns and gets more accurate over time.

“Some of the most advanced technology, such as Siri, can lead to high levels of distraction when you’re trying to drive,” Strayer adds. “When these systems become more complex, like sending text messages or posting to Facebook, it pushes the workloads to pretty high levels and may be dangerous while driving.”

The research revealed that the more distracting voice-based systems were that way because they were too complex, mentally demanding, difficult to use and often inaccurate at recognizing voice commands.

“It was to the point where drivers [in the experiments] were cursing the systems out, especially the ones that were difficult and wouldn’t do what they want,” Strayer says. “If you want to buy one of these cars, make sure you can actually use the voice-based technology before you leave the lot. Some of these systems are very difficult to use.”

He adds: “We need to be smart about how we use this technology. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean we should use it. In some situations, it can be sufficiently distracting that it can impair road safety.”

Strayer conducted the studies with these University of Utah psychologists: Research assistant professor Joel Cooper, Ph.D. students Jonna Turrill and James Coleman, and research assistants Emily Ortiz and Hailey Ingebretsen.

Imperfect Hands-Free Systems Causing Potentially-Unsafe Driver Distractions;AAA Urges Manufacturers to Focus on Accuracy and Usability to Reduce Cognitive Distraction

With three out of four drivers believing that hands-free technology is safe to use, Americans may be surprised to learn that these popular new vehicle features may actually increase mental distraction, according to new research by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. This research can serve as guidance to manufacturers who increasingly market hands-free systems as safety features. The good news for consumers is that it is possible to design hands-free technologies that are less cognitively distracting, according to the research.

The results, which build on the first phase of the Foundation’s research conducted last year, suggest that developers can improve the safety of their products by making them less complicated, more accurate and generally easier to use — a point AAA hopes to use in working with manufacturers to make hands-free technologies as safe as possible for consumers. While manufacturers continue their efforts to develop and refine systems that reduce distractions, AAA encourages drivers to minimize cognitive distraction by limiting the use of most voice-based technologies.

“We already know that drivers can miss stop signs, pedestrians and other cars while using voice technologies because their minds are not fully focused on the road ahead,” said Bob Darbelnet, chief executive officer of AAA. “We now understand that current shortcomings in these products, intended as safety features, may unintentionally cause greater levels of cognitive distraction.”

Using instrumented test vehicles, heart-rate monitors and other equipment designed to measure reaction times, Dr. David Strayer and researchers from the University of Utah evaluated and ranked common voice-activated interactions based on the level of cognitive distraction generated. The team used a five-category rating system, which they created in 2013, similar to that used for hurricanes. The results show:

— The accuracy of voice recognition software significantly influences the rate of distraction. Systems with low accuracy and reliability generated a high level (category 3) of distraction.

— Composing text messages and emails using in-vehicle technologies (category 3) was more distracting than using these systems to listen to messages (category 2).

— The quality of the systems’ voice had no impact on distraction levels

— listening to a natural or synthetic voice both rated as a category 2 level of distraction.

The study also separately assessed Apple’s Siri (version iOS 7) using insight obtained from Apple about Siri’s functionality at the time the research was conducted. Researchers used the same metrics to measure a broader range of tasks including using social media, sending texts and updating calendars. The research uncovered that hands- and eyes-free use of Apple’s Siri generated a relatively high category 4 level of mental distraction.

To put all of this year’s findings in context, last year’s research revealed that listening to the radio rated as a category 1 distraction; talking on a hand-held or hands-free cell phone resulted in a category 2 distraction; and using an error-free speech-to-text system to listen to and compose emails or texts was a category 3 distraction.

“Technologies used in the car that rely on voice communications may have unintended consequences that adversely affect road safety,” said Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “The level of distraction and the impact on safety can vary tremendously based on the task or the system the driver is using.”

To assess “real-world” impact, Dr. Joel Cooper with Precision Driving Research evaluated the two most common voice-based interactions in which drivers engage — changing radio stations and voice dialing — with the actual voice-activated systems found in six different automakers’ vehicles. On the five point scale, Toyota’s Entune® system garnered the lowest cognitive distraction ranking (at 1.7), which is similar to listening to an audio book. In comparison, the Chevrolet MyLink® resulted in a high level of cognitive distraction (rating of 3.7). Other systems tested included the Hyundai Blue Link (rating 2.2), the Chrysler Uconnect™ (rating 2.7), Ford SYNC with MyFord Touch® (rating 3.0) and the Mercedes COMAND® (rating 3.1).

“It is clear that not all voice systems are created equal, and today’s imperfect systems can lead to driver distraction,” continued Darbelnet. “AAA is confident that it will be possible to make safer systems in the future.”

This phase of the research highlights the variability in demands across all the systems tested. AAA is calling for developers to address key contributing factors to mental distraction including complexity, accuracy and time on task with the goal of making systems that are no more demanding than listening to the radio or an audiobook. AAA also plans to use the findings to continue a dialogue with policy makers, safety advocates and manufacturers.

To view the full report, “Measuring Cognitive Distraction in the Vehicle II: Assessing In-Vehicle Voice-based Interactive Technologies,” and other materials on distracted driving, visit This study builds upon groundbreaking research conducted last year, which found that drivers can be dangerously distracted even if their eyes are on the road and their hands are on the wheel. AAA promoted the study in the release: Think You Know All About Distracted Driving? Think Again, Says AAA.

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A great day for Irish science as schoolboy comes second in European contest

A great day for Irish science as schoolboy comes second in European contest

The 2014 winner of the BT Young Scientist competition Paul Clarke from Dublin has come second place in Mathematics at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists in Warsaw today.

The news comes just hours after the previous years’ BT Young Scientist & Technology compettion’s winners Ciara Judge, Emer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow from Kinsale Community School were last night named the overall winners of the Grand Prize as well as the 15-16 Age category at the Google Science Fair.

Representing Ireland (North and South) Paul beat off intense competition from students throughout Europe, ranging in ages from 14-21 to win the award worth €5,000. Paul also won the CERN prize of a week’s visit to the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland.

Paul Clarke from St Pauls College, Raheny won the 2014 BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition with his project entitled, ‘Contributions to cyclic graph theory.’ Paul’s project investigated and provided sufficient and necessary conditions for unsolved problems in the contemporary field of cyclic graph theory.

“It is a true testament to the standard of entries and entrants to the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition that two winning projects have now received international acclaim in their respective fields,” observed BT Ireland chief executive Colm O’Neill.

“These awards raise Ireland’s profile internationally, demonstrating our continued commitment to the critical subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths. I would encourage any student considering this year’s exhibition to submit their one-page entry before October 1st.

“Paul, Emer, Ciara & Sophie have done us all proud and we offer them our heartfelt congratulations.”

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Scientists producing hydrogen energy from water at 30x faster rate

Scientists producing hydrogen energy from water at 30x faster rate

Scientists from the University of Glasgow have claimed to have cracked the process of creating hydrogen fuel from water 30 times faster and is fast, cheap and clean.

The ability to be able to produce hydrogen fuel on a mass-scale that would be both economically feasible and energy efficient would be one of the major breakthroughs of the modern era, according to phys.organd published in the scientific journal, Science.

As the process of producing hydrogen energy is created by separating hydrogen in water through electrolysis, its use an energy source would be enormously beneficial given that it would emit no harmful emissions whatsoever.

While the process of creating hydrogen energy, the main issue with it being available on a larger scale has been its reliance on using fossil fuels to power the electrolysis which is counter-intuitive.

Now the Scottish team claim that their new liquid storage solution will be able to produce large quantities of clean energy at lower energy input provided by other renewable energies.

Explaining the process, Professor Lee Cronin said: “The process uses a liquid that allows the hydrogen to be locked up in a liquid-based inorganic fuel.

“By using a liquid sponge known as a redox mediator that can soak up electrons and acid we’ve been able to create a system where hydrogen can be produced in a separate chamber without any additional energy input after the electrolysis of water takes place.”

Prof Cronin furthermore says that as 95pc of the world’s hydrogen is produced by fossil fuels, mostly used in food production, the potential for the redox mediator, as a reliable hydrogen production from renewable sources is enormous.

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Mystery solved: ‘Sailing stones’ of Death Valley seen in action for the first time

Mystery solved: ‘Sailing stones’ of Death Valley seen in action for the first time

Racetrack Playa is home to an enduring Death Valley mystery. Littered across the surface of this dry lake, also called a “playa,” are hundreds of rocks — some weighing as much as 320 kilograms (700 pounds) — that seem to have been dragged across the ground, leaving synchronized trails that can stretch for hundreds of meters.

What powerful force could be moving them? Researchers have investigated this question since the 1940s, but no one has seen the process in action — until now.

In a paper published in the journal PLOS ONE on Aug. 27, a team led by Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, paleobiologist Richard Norris reports on first-hand observations of the phenomenon.

Because the stones can sit for a decade or more without moving, the researchers did not originally expect to see motion in person. Instead, they decided to monitor the rocks remotely by installing a high-resolution weather station capable of measuring gusts to one-second intervals and fitting 15 rocks with custom-built, motion-activated GPS units. (The National Park Service would not let them use native rocks, so they brought in similar rocks from an outside source.) The experiment was set up in winter 2011 with permission of the Park Service. Then — in what Ralph Lorenz of the Applied Physics Laboratory at the Johns Hopkins University, one of the paper’s authors, suspected would be “the most boring experiment ever” — they waited for something to happen.

But in December 2013, Norris and co-author and cousin Jim Norris arrived in Death Valley to discover that the playa was covered with a pond of water seven centimeters (three inches) deep. Shortly after, the rocks began moving.

“Science sometimes has an element of luck,” Richard Norris said. “We expected to wait five or ten years without anything moving, but only two years into the project, we just happened to be there at the right time to see it happen in person.”

Their observations show that moving the rocks requires a rare combination of events. First, the playa fills with water, which must be deep enough to form floating ice during cold winter nights but shallow enough to expose the rocks. As nighttime temperatures plummet, the pond freezes to form thin sheets of “windowpane” ice, which must be thin enough to move freely but thick enough to maintain strength. On sunny days, the ice begins to melt and break up into large floating panels, which light winds drive across the playa, pushing rocks in front of them and leaving trails in the soft mud below the surface.

“On Dec. 21, 2013, ice breakup happened just around noon, with popping and cracking sounds coming from all over the frozen pond surface,” said Richard Norris. “I said to Jim, ‘This is it!'”

These observations upended previous theories that had proposed hurricane-force winds, dust devils, slick algal films, or thick sheets of ice as likely contributors to rock motion. Instead, rocks moved under light winds of about 3-5 meters per second (10 miles per hour) and were driven by ice less than 3-5 millimeters (0.25 inches) thick, a measure too thin to grip large rocks and lift them off the playa, which several papers had proposed as a mechanism to reduce friction. Further, the rocks moved only a few inches per second (2-6 meters per minute), a speed that is almost imperceptible at a distance and without stationary reference points.

“It’s possible that tourists have actually seen this happening without realizing it,” said Jim Norris of the engineering firm Interwoof in Santa Barbara. “It is really tough to gauge that a rock is in motion if all the rocks around it are also moving.”

Individual rocks remained in motion for anywhere from a few seconds to 16 minutes. In one event, the researchers observed rocks three football fields apart began moving simultaneously and traveled over 60 meters (200 feet) before stopping. Rocks often moved multiple times before reaching their final resting place. The researchers also observed rock-less trails formed by grounding ice panels — features that the Park Service had previously suspected were the result of tourists stealing rocks.

“The last suspected movement was in 2006, and so rocks may move only about one millionth of the time,” said Lorenz. “There is also evidence that the frequency of rock movement, which seems to require cold nights to form ice, may have declined since the 1970s due to climate change.”

Richard and Jim Norris, and co-author Jib Ray of Interwoof started studying the Racetrack’s moving rocks to solve the “public mystery” and set up the “Slithering Stones Research Initiative” to engage a wide circle of friends in the effort. They needed the help of volunteers who repeatedly visited the remote dry lake, quarried the rocks that were fitted with GPS, and maintained custom-made instruments. Lorenz and Brian Jackson of the Department of Physics at Boise State University started working on the phenomenon for their own reasons: They wanted to study dust devils and other desert weather features that might have analogs to processes happening on other planets.

“What is striking about prior research on the Racetrack is that almost everybody was doing the work not to gain fame or fortune, but because it is such a neat problem,” said Jim Norris.

So is the mystery of the sliding rocks finally solved?

“We documented five movement events in the two and a half months the pond existed and some involved hundreds of rocks,” says Richard Norris, “So we have seen that even in Death Valley, famous for its heat, floating ice is a powerful force in rock motion. But we have not seen the really big boys move out there….Does that work the same way?”

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Fever’s origin discovered by researchers

Fever’s origin discovered by researchers

Fever is a response to inflammation, and is triggered by an onset of the signaling substance prostaglandin. Researchers at Linköping University in Sweden can now see precisely where these substances are produced — a discovery that paves the way for smarter drugs.

When you take an aspirin, all production of prostaglandins in the body is suppressed. All symptoms of inflammation are eased simultaneously, including fever, pain and loss of appetite. But it might not always be desirable to get rid of all symptoms — there is a reason why they appear.

“Perhaps you want to inhibit loss of appetite but retain fever. In the case of serious infections, fever can be a good thing,” says David Engblom, senior lecturer in neurobiology at Linköping University.

Eleven years ago he had his first breakthrough as a researcher when he uncovered the mechanism behind the formation of prostaglandin E2 during fever. These signaling molecules cannot pass the blood-brain barrier, the purpose of which is to protect the brain from hazardous substances. Engblom showed that instead, they could be synthesised from two enzymes in the blood vessels on the inside of the brain, before moving to the hypothalamus, where the body’s thermostat is located.

Previous work from the research team described a very simple mechanism, but there was not yet proof that it was important in real life. The study to be published in TheJournal of Neuroscience with David Engblom and his doctoral student Daniel Wilhelms as lead authors is based on tests with mice that lack the enzymes COX-2 and mPGES-1 in the brain’s blood vessels. When they were infected with bacterial toxins the fever did not appear, while other signs of inflammation were not affected.

“This shows that those prostaglandins which cause fever are formed in the blood-brain barrier — nowhere else. Now it will be interesting to investigate the other inflammation symptoms. Knowledge of this type can be useful when developing drugs that ease certain symptoms, but not all of them,” explains David Engblom.

For many years there has been debate as to where the fever signaling originates. Three alternative ideas have been proposed. Firstly, that it comes from prostaglandins circulating in the blood, secondly that it comes from immune cells in the brain, and thirdly Engblom’s theory, which stresses the importance of the brain’s blood vessels. The third proposal can now be considered confirmed.

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