SciTech Briefs

Europeans seek further proof for Martian life

The European Space Agency, in conjunction with Russian space agency Roscosmos, plans to launch a mission to Mars within the next decade. The ExoMars rover is planned to land on the surface in 2018 with the primary objective of detecting the presence of biological life that exists currently or may have in the past. The main tool being used is a model bacteria created to predict what microbial life could survive under the conditions of extreme radiation on Mars.

Evidence from previous rovers shows the presence of argon isotopes, a prevalent element in Earth’s atmosphere, in the atmosphere of Mars. This indicates that radiation once had much less of an effect on Mars. This atmosphere, however, is likely to have been ejected by the heavy solar wind which existed billions of years ago.


Researchers figure out how to implant memories in mice

Scientists at the University of California, Irvine’s neurological department believe they have found a method to create memories within the brains of mice. Norman Weinberger and his team played a specific tone while stimulating the release of a main neurotransmitter involved in memory formation. This increased the number of brain cells which responded to the tone. The next day, many sounds were played to the test mice, including the tone from the day before. When this tone played, the scientists noted an increase in the rate of breathing of the mice, suggesting that a memory had been created by direct manipulation of the brain.

“Disorders of learning and memory are a major issue facing many people ... our hope is that our research will pave the way to prevent or resolve this global issue,” Weinberger said

Source: Science Daily

Gold may provide a new way to garner solar energy

Research at the University of Pennsylvania has led to a more efficient solar energy collector, using a cost effective form of gold. Dawn Bonnell, vice provost of research, leads the project that uses a layer of gold nanoparticles — along with a light sensitive molecule called porphyrin — to create plasmonic nanostructures. These plasmons absorb radiation and release a current of electrons through the gold particles, which enhances the scattering of light.

The technology is based on the structure and spacing of the nanoparticles of gold. These can determine the appropriate wavelengths with which the plasmons react. “You could imagine having a paint on your laptop that acted like a solar cell to power it using only sunlight,” Bonnell said. This process is three to 10 times more effective than normal photoelectric methods

Source: Science Daily

Geneticists look for genes that impact handedness

Researchers have learned more information about the genes of hand preference. William Brandler and colleagues at the University of Oxford examined 3,300 test subjects, to determine the strength of their right or left handedness. Among these subjects, there was one gene out of 100,000 which they had in common, called PCSK6. Brandler says “When we looked up what the gene actually does, it was a real eureka moment.”

The PCSK6 gene is related to the asymmetrical development of an organism. When this gene was altered in mice, their organs were flipped across their body, leaving their hearts on the right side. Although this gene plays a clear role in handedness, it is also known that environment is a factor in human development.

Source: New Scientist

Testing determines dinosaur DNA too old to sequence

In the ’90s, studies suggested that insects frozen in fossils contained their ancient DNA, similar to the scientific premise for director Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Jurassic Park. However, studies at the University of Manchester conclude that this is not the case. Using a technique which should prevent any contaminant DNA from entering the test material, organisms found in amber were tested for the presence of DNA. The test organisms showed no potential for DNA to reside within the amber.

The technique used in previous experiments was unreliable for testing such ancient DNA. “Undamaged DNA molecules that contaminate an extract of partially degraded ancient ones give false positive results that might be mistaken for genuine ancient DNA,” Terry Brown of the University of Manchester said.

Source: Science Daily

Voyager spacecraft may have finally left solar system

Data from probes on the Voyager 1 spacecraft potentially shows proof that the spacecraft has left the solar system. The data from Aug. 25, 2012 show that the density of particles has increased from 0.002 to 0.1 cubic centimeters, indicating that it is now in interstellar space. The spacecraft has traveled at about 60,000 kilometers per hour since 1977, and is now 18.2 billion kilometers from the Sun.

Some, however, believe that this change in density is not yet enough proof, since the Voyager 1 lacks a functional plasma detecting instrument. George Gloeckler from University of Michigan believes we should wait another two or three years for Voyager 2 to reach this distance. “Voyager 2 will experimentally answer this question. Why rush to conclusions now?” Gloeckler said.

Source: Science News