Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Canada

Analysis of the database has already highlighted a set of key characteristics – slow reproductive rate being one – which predispose mammals to extinction.

"For example, the Seychelles flying fox isn't declining in abundance now because its habitat is intact," says Andy Purvis, a biodiversity researcher at Imperial College London, who helped produce the tools. "But our database suggests that its slow reproductive rate will predispose it to extinction if and when its habitat is disturbed."

Purvis also recommends that conservationists focus on protecting the tundras of Siberia and Canada, where mammals predisposed to extinction because of slow reproduction, are currently thriving in healthy habitat.

Until now, the database has been restricted to the team of biologists who developed it, but Kate Jones at the Zoological Society of London and colleagues have made it freely available to other researchers, hoping that they will contribute to the data.

Encyclopedia of Life, another collaborative database of species, launched two years ago, has already seen contributions from 2 million people from 200 countries. This week it reached its 150,000th entry.limate change will also impact our tundra, warned Saunders. A 5 to 6˚C rise in temperature will wipe out tundra in Rocky Mountain National Park altogether, he said, replacing it with bush and forest.

Mountain meadows, which depend on heavy snow fall and a short growing season to keep tree seedlings from surviving, will also dwindle as temperatures rise, said Saunders. "Scientists have already detected a loss of mountain meadows in Glacier, Olympic, Sequoia/Kings Canyon, and Yosemite national parks," he told the committee.

What's more, the wildflowers which normally carpet alpine meadows are also under threat: experimental warming has demonstrated that a 4˚C rise in temperature causes wildflowers to be replaced with sagebrush, said Saunders. thunderstorms just got easier. A new system for predicting where they will go next will soon be in use in Australia, after outperforming existing methods. It will help forecasters decide whether to give public warnings of impending storms.

The technique, called Thunderstorm Environment Strike Probability Algorithm (THESPA), produces "nowcasts" for up to 1 hour ahead. It was developed by a team led by Sandy Dance at the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research.

THESPA borrows an idea used to predict the movements of cyclones – much bigger weather systems that include hurricanes and typhoons. It assigns a strike probability – the chance that a particular location will be hit by a storm in a given period."Mandrills are powerful animals and have long canines, so any physical conflict risks death," says Setchell. "Fights are costly to everyone, but through this adaptation these males actually avoid fighting."

Other primates use more subtle variations in facial redness to signal dominance. Rhesus monkeys, for example, become redder in the face in the mating season.
That red flush

Barton believes that red is involved in human behaviour in a similar way. "Subtle variations in redness are conveying information about dominance, vigour and confidence. In an aggressive confrontation, confident individuals flush red with anger whereas frightened individuals go pale. There is evidence for the physiological underpinning of that, with shunting of oxygenated blood to the periphery." Barton points out this is different to blushing because there the redness tends to spread upwards from the neck and can be curiously patchy. He says the context of bl
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Low-lying reserves such as Ellis Island National Monument and Tortugas National Park, which sits less than 90cm above sea level in the Gulf of Mexico, "could be lost to rising seas," Saunders said.

Joshua Tree National Park could lose all its Joshua trees, he warned. The emblematic aspens of the West are already suffering: the area in Colorado affected by "aspen dieback" increased four-fold between 2006 and 2008.

Climate change is causing a "double whammy" of wildfires and pest outbreaks, said Herbert Frost, Associate Director for Natural Resource Stewardship and Science at the National Park Service. Wildfires now take over a month to die out, whereas they used to last no more than ten days, Frost told the committee.
Pest outbreak

Tree-killing pests are also thriving as the harsh winters which used to keep their numbers in check lose their edge: bark beetles have already decimated as much as 90 per cent of Colorado's lodgepole forests, Alice Madden, the Climate Change Coordinator at the Office of the Governor in Denver, Colorado, told the committee.What would happen to polar bears if people built towns in the deep Arctic? Or to tiger populations, if India's grasslands turned to desert?

A new database that allows users to explore the factors that predispose different mammalian species to extinction – from human encroachment to slow reproductive rate – could be useful in planning conservation schemes, its developers say. Anyone can access the online system, YouTHERIA, which allows users to manipulate parameters including habitat ecology, litter size and diet, and test their own hypotheses.

It relies on a vast database of all known and recently extinct mammals, called PanTHERIA, which lists details of the species' ecology, behaviour, diet, geographical range and habitat, based on more than two decades of published research. The database also records the extent to which each of the 5000-odd species is being impacted by humans and habitat degradation.
Warning signs
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These views are in stark contrast to those of many of your peers in the robotics field.

Yes. Roboticist Hans Moravec says that computer processing speed will eventually overtake that of the human brain and make them our superiors. The inventor Ray Kurzweil says humans will merge with machines and live forever by 2045. To me these are just fairy tales. I don't see any sign of it happening. These ideas are based on the assumption that intelligence is computational. It might be, and equally it might not be. My work is on immediate problems in AI, and there is no evidence that machines will ever overtake us or gain sentience.

And you believe that there are dangers if we fool ourselves into believing the AI myth...

It is likely to accelerate our progress towards a dystopian world in which wars, policing and care of the vulnerable are carried out by technological artefacts that have no possibility of empathy, compassion or understanding.

How would you feel about a robot carer looking after you in old age?

Eldercare robotics is being developed quite rapidly in Japan. Robots could be greatly beneficial in keeping us out of care homes in our old age, performing many dull duties for us and aiding in tasks that failing memories make difficult. But it is a trade-off. My big concern is that once the robots have been tried and tested, it may be tempting to leave us entirely in their care. Like all humans, the elderly need love and human contact, and this often only comes from visiting carers. A robot companion would not fulfil that need for me.The technological nursery of the healthcare market could prevent so many ergonomic and design wrinkles making it to mass deployment in future.

Not only will the mainstream gadget industry have some tried-and-tested examples to draw on, but designs will have benefited from the safety and usability requirements demanded of medical devices by regulators like the US Food and Drug Administration.
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Udull

US national parks could be changed so significantly by global warming that they will be lost forever, senators were warned this week.

"If we continue adding heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere in the way we now are, we could, for the first time, lose entire national parks," Stephen Saunders, president of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, National Parks Subcommittee.

At a subcommittee hearing in Colorado on Monday chaired by John McCain (Rep) and Mark Udull (Dem), senators were presented with a picture of how state parks are likely to be influenced by climate change. Joshua trees, Mexican spotted owls, wildflowers, glaciers and aspen will suffer as snowfall declines and temperature, sea levels, wildfires and pest outbreaks rise, ecologists warned the committee.Haptics is another technology with consumer potential that's already being used in clinical contexts: for remote surgery and training, and for interpreting complex scan output.

And the computer interface technology that's likely to be the most significant of all can also be experienced properly only in a hospital so far. It's not hard to imagine who looks forward most eagerly to the latest developments in mind control of computers.

A handful of people already know what exerting such control can offer. Without lifting a finger they are able to send email, play video gamesMovie Camera, control wheelchairs or prosthetic arms, update Twitter and even have their thoughts read aloudMovie Camera.

Similarly, victims of accidents or injury provide the first hints of the kind of "upgrades" the otherwise healthy may in future choose to make to their bodies.
Seal of approval

Hospitals may not only be providing a preview of future interfaces, though – they may also be ensuring that they hit the big time with fewer design glitches.

Despite some conspicuous success in the smartphone arena, touch interface technology could still do with some improvementMovie Camera, and it's often less use than older but better-understood interfaces.So why are predictions about robots taking over the world so common?

There has always been fear of new technologies based upon people's difficulties in understanding rapid developments. I love science fiction and find it inspirational, but I treat it as fiction. Technological artefacts do not have a will or a desire, so why would they "want" to take over? Isaac Asimov said that when he started writing about robots, the idea that robots were going to take over the world was the only story in town. Nobody wants to hear otherwise. I used to find when newspaper reporters called me and I said I didn't believe AI or robots would take over the world, they would say thank you very much, hang up and never report my comments.

You describe AI as the science of illusion.

It is my contention that AI, and particularly robotics, exploits natural human zoomorphism. We want robots to appear like humans or animals, and this is assisted by cultural myths about AI and a willing suspension of disbelief. The old automata makers, going back as far as Hero of Alexandria, who made the first programmable robot in AD 60, saw their work as part of natural magic - the use of trick and illusion to make us believe their machines were alive. Modern robotics preserves this tradition with machines that can recognise emotion and manipulate silicone faces to show empathy. There are AI language programs that search databases to find conversationally appropriate sentences. If AI workers would accept the trickster role and be honest about it, we might progress a lot quicker.
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Without

Today's true power users of voice recognition are people who are physically unable to use keyboard or mouse. For them, it is as much a medical device as an office aide. They have not only supported public and private research over the years, but also provided a market for the technology when it was far from perfect.
Guided by eyes

Eye tracking, climbing the hype peak as you read this, is also an everyday reality for many people for whom conventional interfaces are difficult.

Without that spur to innovation it is unlikely that more mainstream uses for eye tracking, from making computer games spring baddies when you least expect it to having billboards track passers by, would be so advanced.

Slumped at the bottom of the trough of disillusionment, virtual reality seems too familiar an idea to be labelled "emerging". But it, too, is relatively well established in the clinic, where the high installation costs can be justified.

Psychologists have long used it to recreate scary scenarios while treating phobias. More recently it has shown promise for phantom limb pain and schizophrenia diagnosisMovie Camera. Many US soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are being treated using virtual experiences.

Gartner forecasts 10 more years before virtual reality reaches the mainstream – a prediction some readers may remember from the 1980s – but it is likely to become mainstream for psychology much earlier than that.Extra heat

Then the researchers bombarded the setup with X-rays for up to three days, representing the radiation that Titan would get from the sun over a period of about 7 million years. Afterwards, the still-frozen surface contained some organic compounds, but nothing that could be called the building blocks of life.

But when they heated the samples to room temperature, adenine appeared.

That means Titan's saucepan of proto-life would need a source of extra heat to activate. If there was a warm period in Titan's history, perhaps prompted by volcanic activity or meteoroid impacts, "a primitive life could have had a chance to flourish there", the researchers write.

And Titan is due to be heated up in the next few billion years, when the sun bloats into a red giant star, expanding to the present orbit of Earth, they say.Chris McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA, says the work is interesting, but adds that it may be difficult for life to get started on the moon's surface most of the time. "Adenine synthesis is important, but because Titan lacks water and essentially lacks any molecule that includes oxygen, prebiotic synthesis cannot get very far," he told New Scientist.
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In the 50 years since, dozens of teams have expanded on Stanley Miller and Harold Urey's original setup, using a wide variety of energy sources and ga

In the 50 years since, dozens of teams have expanded on Stanley Miller and Harold Urey's original setup, using a wide variety of energy sources and gases that modelled conditions not only on Earth, but on interstellar dust grains and on Titan.

In 1984, a team that included Carl Sagan created adenine, one of five base components of DNA and RNA, in Titan-like conditions, using a spark of electricity meant to simulate lightning.

But so far no evidence of lightning has been found on Titan. And until now studies hitting Titan-like atmospheres with photons, like those it receives from the sun, have produced only organic compounds like benzene – and none of the components of DNA.

Now, researchers led by Sergio Pilling of the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil have produced the base adenine using photons for the first time.
Ancient impacts

Instead of using ultraviolet (UV) radiation as in previous studies, however, they used low-energy, or "soft", X-rays. "Soft X-rays can penetrate deeper in Titan's atmosphere and reach denser regions [than UV]," Pilling told New Scientist, adding that X-rays set off different chemical reactions in Titan's atmosphere.If you want to know how people will interact with machines in the future, head for a hospital.

That's the impression I got from a new report about the future of human-computer interaction from IT analysts Gartner, based in Stamford, Connecticut.

Gartner's now-classic chart, shown right, shows the rollercoaster of expectations ridden by new technologies: rocketing from obscurity to a peak of overblown hype, then falling into a "trough of disillusionment" before finally becoming mainstream as a tech's true worth is found.
Enlightened climb

Speech recognition, currently climbing the slope of enlightenment towards the plateau of productivity, is a good example of how healthcare helps new technology.

Some homeworkers are now hooked, and the technology is appearing in cellphones and voicemail systems. But its maturity owes as much to the rehabilitation industry as the software industry.X-RAYS and CT scans expose a minority of Americans to radiation levels comparable to working in a nuclear power plant. Are such scans worth it?

Reza Fazel of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and colleagues looked at health insurance records for over 650,000 people who had at least one imaging procedure in a three-year period. Most received low doses of radiation, but around 2 per cent got doses equal to or above the suggested yearly exposure for someone working in a nuclear power plant (The New England Journal of Medicine, vol 361, p 849). Fazel says further studies are needed to work out if such medical scans benefit or damage health overall.
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It's Not All In Your Head: Descending Neural Mechanisms Of Placebo-induced Pain Control

ScienceDaily (Aug. 29, 2009) — A new study reveals that when it comes to pain control, the "placebo effect" involves evolutionarily old pain control pathways in the human brainstem, the part of the brain that is continuous with the spinal cord. The research, published by Cell Press in the August 27th issue of the journal Neuron, provides fascinating mechanistic insight into how and why simply expecting that a treatment will reduce pain can act as an effective analgesic.
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Placebo analgesia refers to an individual's relief from pain following administration of a chemically inert substance and is thought to be due to a person's belief that a potent pain medication was administered. Endogenous opioids, which are naturally produced by the brain in small amounts and play a key role in the relief of pain and anxiety, have been implicated in placebo analgesia. Brain imaging studies have shown that placebo analgesia stimulates release of endogenous opioids from higher brain regions associated with pain modulation and is associated with a decrease in signals from pain-sensitive areas.

"It has been hypothesized that placebo analgesia also recruits the opioidergic descending pain control system, which inhibits pain processing in the spinal cord and, therefore, subsequently reduces pain-related responses in the brain, leading to a decreased pain experience," explains lead study author Falk Eippert from the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany. However, thus far this has not been demonstrated experimentally.

Eippert and colleagues employed sophisticated brain imaging techniques to examine both higher cortical and lower brainstem responses in two groups of subjects: one receiving a drug called naloxone, which blocks opioid signaling, and one group with a natural opioid state. Expectations of pain relief were induced in both groups using an established placebo analgesia paradigm.

The researchers found that naloxone reduced behavioral placebo effects as well as placebo-induced decreases in pain-related brain responses. Most importantly, they also observed that, under placebo, cortical areas interacted with brainstem structures implicated in pain control and that these interactions were dependent on endogenous opioids and were related to the strength of experienced placebo effects.

"Taken together, our findings show that opioid signaling in pain-modulating areas and the projections to downstream effectors of the descending pain control system are crucially important for placebo analgesia," concludes Eippert. "It will be interesting to see whether opioid-dependent activation of the descending pain control system is a common feature of different forms of pain modulation, such as hypnosis and attentional distraction, which share some common neuroanatomical features."

The researchers include Falk Eippert, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Hamburg, Germany; Ulrike Bingel, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Hamburg, Germany; Eszter D. Schoell, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Hamburg, Germany; Juliana Yacubian, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Hamburg, Germany; Regine Klinger, University of Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany; Jurgen Lorenz, Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, Hamburg, Germany; and Christian Buchel, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Hamburg, Germany.
Adapted from materials provided by Cell Press, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.
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Cell Press (2009, August 29). It's Not All In Your Head: Descending Neural Mechanisms Of Placebo-induced Pain Control. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 30, 2009, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2009/08/090826152548.htm
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New Target For Treating Breast Cancer Metastasis

ScienceDaily (Aug. 29, 2009) — Dr. Amanda Harvey and colleagues at Brunel University have demonstrated that the protein Brk plays a role in breast cancer progression and dissemination. Their report can be found in the September 2009 issue of the American Journal of Pathology.
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Reference

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Breast cancer metastasis causes nearly 90% of the lethality among breast cancer patients. Non-metastatic breast cancer cells rely on interactions with other cells and the extracellular matrix to survive. Metastatic breast cancer cells must survive in the absence of these interactions.

Harvey et al hypothesized that Brk, a tyrosine kinase expressed predominantly in breast tumors compared with normal breast tissue, plays a role in breast cancer progression by promoting anchorage independence. Indeed, high-grade tumors from human breast cancer patients expressed elevated levels of Brk when compared with lower grade tumors. Inhibiting Brk expression resulted in cell death in the absence of cell-cell and cell-matrix interactions, and tumor cells with increased levels of Brk expression survived without these interactions. These data therefore support a role for Brk in breast cancer progression and dissemination.

Dr. Harvey and colleagues suggest "that Brk plays a role in protecting breast cancer cells from detachment-induced cell death. Therefore, Brk expression in carcinomas may confer a survival advantage on metastasizing tumor cells. … [Future studies will examine] whether this function is manifest in other Brk-positive tumor cells from tissues other than the breast, such as the colon and prostate."

Journal reference:

1. Harvey AJ, Pennington CJ, Porter S, Burmi RS, Edwards DR, Court W, Eccles SA, Crompton MR. Brk protects breast cancer cells from autophagic cell death induced by loss of anchorage. American Journal of Pathology, 2009, 175: 1226-1234

Adapted from materials provided by American Journal of Pathology, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.
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Seeing The Tree From The Forest: Predicting The Future Of Plant Communities

ScienceDaily (Aug. 29, 2009) — The ability to envisage the future may be closer than you would think. A recent paper by Sean Hammond and Karl Niklas in the August 2009 issue of the American Journal of Botany presents an algorithm that may be used to predict the future dynamics of plant communities, an increasingly interesting area of study as significant environmental changes, such as global climate change and invasive species, are affecting current plant communities.
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Similar ecological factors, such as nutrient availability and habitat stability, play a role in the growth and development of both an individual plant and a community of plants, like a forest; however, the length of time that these factors effect change differs between individual plants that may live for decades and plant communities that may exist for thousands of years. A goal of plant ecology has been to find ways to predict plant behavior in communities based on observed properties of a few representative members.

Hammond and Niklas have developed an algorithm—spatially explicit, reiterative algorithm, or SERA—that explores whether changes occurring in plant communities, such as self-thinning and the competitive displacement of one species by another, can be attributed to the characteristics of the individual plants that comprise the community.

"Our model predicts how a plant population or community will behave when plant-plant interactions are predicated exclusively on the constraints imposed by a few physical principles and by competition for physical space and light," stated Dr. Niklas.

Recent empirical studies have shown that a variety of plant communities in different environments exhibit some of the same size-dependent and age-dependent trends. One example is the relationship between the mass of tree canopies and the diameter of the tree trunks. In the simulations of plant growth within a community performed by SERA, various trends emerged as a result of competition for light and space among the individual plants, and these trends are in agreement with the trends found empirically in plant populations.

Other results of SERA simulations were also found to be in agreement with empirical data. Although a few million years late, SERA predicted that angiosperms would outcompete gymnosperms as the dominant land plants, and it was able to accurately predict the age at which a variety of plant species would reach reproductive maturity.

"Remarkably, our model predicts the behavior of real plant populations, and thus suggests to us that many 'complex' ecological interactions emerge as a result of a few very 'simple' processes," commented Dr. Niklas. SERA may be very useful in predicting changes in community development and composition as environmental and climatic variability increases.

Journal reference:

1. Hammond, Sean T., Niklas, Karl J. Emergent properties of plants competing in silico for space and light: Seeing the tree from the forest. American Journal of Botany, 2009; 96 (8): 1430 DOI: 10.3732/ajb.0900063

Adapted from materials provided by American Journal of Botany, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.
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Numerous complex mathematical theories have been proposed to explain why annual growth rates of plants scale as the 3/4 power of total body mass, why total leaf mass per plant scales as the square of trunk diameter, and why a host of other widely reported ecological phenomena occur. In the August issue of the American Journal of Botany, Hammond and Niklas unveil a new computer model, called SERA (for spatially explicit reiterative algorithm), which accurately predicts these and many other scaling relationships as plants are forced to conform mathematically to a few very simple physical principles while they compete for light and space. In each SERA simulation, tree canopies are depicted as thinshelled hemispheres and trunks are modeled as simple, untapered cylinders that increase in girth as simulated plants age. A hypothetical landscape is randomly seeded with a specified number of propagules and monitored during every growing season to assess biomass- and age-dependent allometric relationships. A graphic module allows a population or community to be observed at any stage in its growth as old plants die and new ones propagate. In this image, the observer is standing at ground level and looking up into a forest composed of a single species mathematically modeled to mimic the allometry of a population of Abies alba. (Credit: Sean T. Hammond)
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Obesity Is A Poor Gauge For Detecting High Cholesterol Levels In Children

ScienceDaily (Aug. 29, 2009) — With the epidemic of childhood obesity in the United States, there is concern that overweight and obese children need to be screened for chronic medical conditions, including high cholesterol levels.
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* Diet and Weight Loss
* Obesity
* Children's Health
* Heart Disease
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* High density lipoprotein
* Low density lipoprotein
* Saturated fat
* Bran

However, body fat is not an effective indicator of high cholesterol in children, according to new University of Michigan research.

Those are the findings of a U-M study led by U-M pediatricians Joyce Lee, M.D., MPH, and Matthew Davis, M.D., MAPP, which will appear in the August 3 edition of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

"We found, actually, that using body mass index to find kids with high cholesterol does not work well. There were many overweight and obese kids who had normal cholesterol, and there were a fair number of healthy-weight kids who had high cholesterol," says Lee, a member of the Child Health Evaluation and Research (CHEAR) Unit in the U-M Division of General Pediatrics, and assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Communicable Diseases at the U-M Medical School.

The study was conducted after the American Academy of Pediatrics revised its cholesterol screening guidelines in July 2008, advocating a cholesterol check for kids who have increased risk of heart disease. For the most part, that means all children who are overweight or obese, which is about 30% of kids in the U.S.

"Our results indicate that the AAP guidelines for cholesterol screening in kids may need to be revised," says Lee. "Otherwise, we may be missing high cholesterol in some kids and unnecessarily testing others."

The authors performed the study with national data from thousands of children to see whether 'body mass index' (BMI), a measure of body fat based on height and weight, can be used as a reliable way to find kids with high cholesterol levels. They looked at the relationship between BMI and two different cholesterol measures, including total cholesterol and low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, i.e. "bad" cholesterol.

For this study, children were classified as overweight if their BMI was between the 85th and 95th percentiles, and defined as obese if their BMI was greater than the 95th percentile for weight based on age and height. Children had abnormal levels if they had a total cholesterol greater than 200 mg/dl or LDL cholesterol level of greater than 130 mg/dl.

This study found that screening all overweight or obese children would identify approximately 50% of children with abnormal cholesterol levels but would also lead to unnecessary testing for up to 30% of children.

Other studies have looked at additional screening strategies for abnormal cholesterol in children on the basis of having a family history of early heart disease or high cholesterol. But as Lee notes, "A positive family history also performs poorly for identifying children with high cholesterol levels. Therefore, it may be more efficient for the AAP to recommend a public health campaign to reduce cholesterol among all children, rather than screening high-risk groups."

In addition to Lee and Davis, co-authors include Achamyeleh Gebremariam, MS, from the University of Michigan, and colleagues from the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, including Paula Card-Higginson, BA, ELS, Jennifer L. Shaw, DrPH, MPH, MAP, and Joseph W. Thompson, MD, MPH.

This work was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Dr. Lee was also supported by NIDDK K08DK082386 and the Clinical Sciences Scholars Program at the University of Michigan.
Adapted from materials provided by University of Michigan Health System.
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University of Michigan Health System (2009, August 29). Obesity Is A Poor Gauge For Detecting High Cholesterol Levels In Children. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 30, 2009, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2009/08/090803172946.htm
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