Showing posts with label World. Show all posts
Showing posts with label World. Show all posts

Herbal Viagra actually contains the real thing



































IF IT looks too good to be true, it probably is. Several "herbal remedies" for erectile dysfunction sold online actually contain the active ingredient from Viagra.












Michael Lamb at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania, and colleagues purchased 10 popular "natural" uplifting remedies on the internet and tested them for the presence of sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra. They found the compound, or a similar synthetic drug, in seven of the 10 products – cause for concern because it can be dangerous for people with some medical conditions.












Lamb's work was presented last week at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting in Washington DC.












This article appeared in print under the headline "Herbal Viagra gets a synthetic boost"


















































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'Good' and 'bad' skin bugs dictate who gets spots



































The secret to clear skin may lie in the cocktail of strains of a common bacterium that lives on your skin.











Propionibacterium acnes bacteria are abundant in the pores on everyone's face. They have been implicated as a cause of pimples, but why they aggravate spottiness in some people but not others has been a mystery.













The discovery that there are "good" and "bad" types of P. acnes offers a clue. It also opens up the possibility of developing treatments customised to the flora of an individual's skin.












The condition affects 85 per cent of teenagers and 11 per cent of adults, and as anyone with acne can testify, existing treatments such as antibiotics have limited effectiveness and can make skin dry out or cause redness and peeling.











Strains sequenced













A team led by Huiying Li of the University of California, Los Angeles, has analysed bacteria from the nose skin of 49 people with acne and 52 controls. "Not all P. acnes strains were created equal," says Li.











Of the thousands of P. acnes strains the researchers identified, the most common 66 were investigated in depth by completely sequencing their genomes. Of these, 63 strains were found in people with and without acne, but two appeared to be linked to acne, and one to healthy skin.













One of the "bad" strains was uniquely found on spotty skin; the other was also found in 16 per cent of samples from people without acne. The "good" strain was hardly found in people with acne but was present in a fifth of those with clear skin.











Rogue genes













Uniquely, the "bad" strains had extra groups of genes derived from viruses. These rogue genes can potentially aggravate acne and include one which binds the bugs unusually tightly to human cells. Because spots are caused by our immune system going into overdrive in response to the presence of P. acnes, resulting in inflammation, this "tightness" gene "means it can trigger a stronger immune response", says Li.












The "good" strain, meanwhile, lacked these genes. Instead, it had genetic components enabling it to recognise and destroy the rogue genes, which means it doesn't cause the skin to become inflamed and spots don't erupt.












Since not all the individuals with clear skin had the "good" strains and not all with acne had the "bad" ones, other factors – such as the tendency of the immune system to over-react or an individual's genetic make-up – might dictate whether good or bad strains grow on skin. In other words, the experiment does not demonstrate what came first – the bad strains of bacteria or the acne, a point raised by researchers not involved in the work.












"Whether the strains are cause or effect is not addressed by this study," says Martin Blaser of New York University. "Nevertheless, this is an important first step in understanding the role of P. acnes in disease."











Probiotics for acne













Li says further investigations are under way in the same people to find out how the balance of good, bad and neutral strains changes over time. She is hopeful that it might be possible to develop creams customised to each person's unique cocktail of skin bacteria to prevent or treat acne.












"Good strains might be used as probiotics to stop skin blemishes before they start, much like yogurt contains good strains of bacteria to fight off bad bugs in the gut," she says.












Another possibility might be drugs that kill only the bad strains. At present, acne is treated with antibiotics that kill all bacteria on the skin, including harmless ones that helpfully prevent nasty strains from taking hold. Exclusively killing the bad strains would be more beneficial, says Li.












Journal reference: Journal of Investigative Dermatology, doi.org/kng


















































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Space miners hope to build first off-Earth economy


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We need a piece of Mars to continue search for life


































THERE'S no need to cry over spilt chemicals. Thanks to an accident inside one of its instruments, NASA's Curiosity rover has detected the presence of a substance called perchlorate in Martian soil (see "Curiosity's spills add thrills to the Mars life hunt").












Not exactly earth-shattering, you might think. But it adds a new twist to the most controversial chapter in Martian history: did the Viking landers detect life?













This is a question that has divided the Viking missions' researchers for almost three decades. One group has resolutely stuck to its guns that the landers detected signs of life. Equally adamant is a second group who say they absolutely did not – a view that has always been the official version of events.












The unexpected discovery of perchlorate supplies a legitimate reason to reopen the debate. Perchlorate is an oxidising agent that destroys organic molecules. Its presence could finally explain the disputed results.












The episode highlights another important issue. Curiosity is a sophisticated machine, but there is only so much soil chemistry we can do from millions of kilometres away. A sample return mission must be a priority.












This article appeared in print under the headline "We need a piece of Mars"


















































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China takes steps to clean up 'cancer villages'









































The Chinese government has acknowledged the existence of "cancer villages": areas where rates of cancer are unusually high, probably because of industrial and agricultural contamination of drinking and irrigation water.












The reference to the cancer clusters was in China's first ever five-year plan for environmental management of chemicals, released on 20 February. The Chinese media, translating parts of the report, said it links water pollution to "serious cases of health and social problems like the emergence of cancer villages in individual regions".












The term has caught on over the past few years as the media in China and elsewhere reported on apparent cancer hotspots. It gained prominence in 2009 when a journalist plotted 40 of them on a Google Map. Some reports have suggested there might be more than 450 such clusters.












According to recent data, deaths from cancer in China increased by 80 per cent between 1970 and 2004. The disease now accounts for 25 per cent of deaths in cities and 21 per cent in rural areas. However, people in China have an 18.9 per cent risk of getting cancer before the age of 75, compared with 29.9 per cent for people in the US and 26.3 per cent in the UK.












One "typical cancer village", as it was called by researchers from Dezhou University in Shandong province who studied it in 2008, had between 80 and 100 deaths from cancer over five years in a population of only 1200.












But proving a link between pollution and cancer requires more detailed evidence, says Tim Driscoll, an epidemiologist at the University of Sydney and science adviser to Cancer Council Australia. However, Driscoll also says it doesn't really matter – if there is dangerous pollution anywhere, it should be cleaned up.












And that is the plan. China's Ministry for Environmental Protection has drawn up a list of 58 chemicals that will be tracked with a registry, including known and suspected carcinogens and endocrine disrupters. Before the end of the 2015, they will subdivide the list into chemicals to be eliminated and those to be reduced.











Big shift













Creating a plan to eliminate some chemicals is a big shift, says Yixiu Wu, a Greenpeace East Asia campaigner based in Beijing, who says even committing to controlling these chemicals would have been a step forward.












The ministry's acknowledgement of the problem is "really important and it is another reflection of the government's shift towards more transparency in pollution information," says Sabrina Orlins from the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a non-profit body in Beijing.












"Increased environmental information leads to increased public awareness where people can have the chance to exert pressure on big water polluters to adopt clean-up measures and be more accountable," she says.












That accountability is where the five-year plan is lacking, says Wu. "It is still a question whether the government is willing to release all the information about the factory locations and their environmental risk," she says. "It is very important for people who are living nearby."












Wu says the motivation to develop the plan comes from an increasing awareness of the human cost of pollution as well as the country signing up to several international conventions designed to curb pollution.


















































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Treat malware as biology to know it better



Hal Hodson, technology reporter


Classifying different kinds of malware is notoriously hard, but crucial if computer defences are to keep up with the ever-evolving ecosystem of malicious programs. Treating computer viruses as biological puzzle could help computer scientists get a better handle on the wide world of malware. 

Ajit Narayanan and Yi Chen at the Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand, converted the signatures of 120 worms and viruses into an amino acid representation. The signatures are more usually presented in hexadecimals - a base-16 numbering system which uses the digits 0 to 9 as well as the letters a to f - but the amino acid "alphabet" is better suited to machine-learning techniques that can analyse a piece of code to figure out whether it matches a known malware signature.






Generally, malware experts identify and calculate the signatures of new malware, but it can be hard for them keep up. While machine learning can help, it is limited because the hexadecimal signatures can be different lengths: Narayanan's team found that using machine learning to help classify the hexadecimal malware signatures resulted in accuracy no better than flipping a coin.


But some techniques used in bioinformatics for comparing amino acid sequences take differing lengths into account. After applying these to malware, Narayanan's average accuracy for classifying the signatures automatically using machine learning rose to 85 per cent.


Biology might help in other ways too. Narayanan notes that if further study shows malware evolution follows some of the same rules as amino acids and proteins, our knowledge of biological systems could be used to help fight it.


Journal reference: arXiv:1302.3668




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New blood test finds elusive fetal gene problem



































A NEW non-invasive blood test for pregnant women could make it easier to catch abnormalities before their child is born.












Human cells should have two copies of each chromosome but sometimes the division is uneven. Existing tests count the fragments of placental DNA in the mother's blood. If the fragments from one chromosome are unusually abundant, it might be because the fetus has an extra copy of that chromosome. But triploidy, where there are three copies of every chromosome, is missed, since the proportion of fragments from each chromosome is the same.












California-based company Natera uses an algorithm to calculate the most likely genotype for the fetus. To do this it looks at single letter variations called SNPs in the parents and compares this to a database of the most common SNPs patterns in the population. This genotype is then compared with placental DNA.












This approach can catch triploidy since the whole fetal genotype is the reference rather than a single chromosome. The method was presented last week at the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine in San Francisco.












This article appeared in print under the headline "No hiding place for fetal gene errors"


















































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Amazon to open market in second-hand MP3s and e-books






















A new market for second-hand digital downloads could let us hold virtual yard sales of our ever-growing piles of intangible possessions






















WHY buy second-hand? For physical goods, the appeal is in the price – you don't mind the creases in a book or rust spots on a car if it's a bargain. Although digital objects never lose their good-as-new lustre, their very nature means there is still uncertainty about whether we actually own them in the first place, making it tricky to set up a second-hand market. Now an Amazon patent for a system to support reselling digital purchases could change that.












Amazon's move comes after last year's European Union ruling that software vendors cannot stop customers from reselling their products. But without technical support, the ruling has had no impact. In Amazon's system, customers will keep their digital purchases – such as e-books or music – in a personal data store in the cloud that only they can access, allowing them to stream or download the content.












This part is like any cloud-based digital locker except that the customer can resell previous purchases by passing the access rights to another person. Once the transaction is complete, the seller will lose access to the content. Any system for reselling an e-book, for example, would have to ensure that it is not duplicated in the transaction. That means deleting any copies the seller may have lying around on hard drives, e-book readers, and other cloud services, since that would violate copyright.












Amazon may be the biggest company to consider a second-hand market, but it is not the first. ReDigi, based in Boston, has been running a resale market for digital goods since 2011. After downloading an app, users can buy a song on ReDigi for as little as 49 cents that would costs 99 cents new on iTunes.












When users want to sell an item, they upload it to ReDigi's servers via a mechanism that ensures no copy is made during the transfer. Software checks that the seller does not retain a copy. Once transferred, the item can be bought and downloaded by another customer. ReDigi is set to launch in Europe in a few months.












Digital items on ReDigi are cheaper because they are one-offs. If your hard drive crashes and you lose your iTunes collection you can download it again. But you can only download an item from ReDigi once – there is no other copy. That is the trade-off that makes a second-hand digital market work: the risk justifies the price. The idea has ruffled a few feathers – last year EMI sued ReDigi for infringement of copyright. A judge denied the claim, but the case continues.


















Used digital goods can also come with added charm. ReDigi tracks the history of the items traded so when you buy something, you can see who has owned it and when. ReDigi's second-hand marketplace has grown into a social network. According to ReDigi founder John Ossenmacher, customers like seeing who has previously listened to a song. "It's got soul like an old guitar," he says. "We've introduced this whole feeling of connectedness."












It could be good for business too if the original vendors, such as iTunes, were to support resale and take a cut of the resell price. Nevertheless, Amazon's move bucks the industry trend. Microsoft's new Xbox, for example, is expected not to work with second-hand games.












But the market could change rapidly now that Amazon's weight is behind this, says Ossenmacher. "The industry is waking up."












This article appeared in print under the headline "Old MP3, one careful owner"




















































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Curiosity offers up first scoop of buried Martian dust



Jacob Aron, reporter


PIA16729.jpg

(Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)


Fresh powdered Mars, anyone? The upturned palm of NASA's Curiosity rover almost seems to be offering its first sample of Mars's insides to any passing geologists, but unfortunately they are all back on Earth. Drilled out of the Martian rock a couple of weeks ago, NASA scientists are now waiting for the rover to chow down on the sample, analyse it using an onboard chemistry lab and beam back the results.


The sample should give researchers a glimpse into Mars's past, as the newly exposed rock won't have undergone the same chemical weathering as the surface. It's already apparent that the grey powder in Curiosity's scoop is strikingly different from the rust-coloured soil we associate with the Red Planet. Ultimately the rover is looking for signs that Mars has ever been capable of supporting life.





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Sharing and streaming at heart of new PlayStation 4



Douglas Heaven, reporter


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Sony's Andrew House introduces the PlayStation 4 at a news conference yesterday (Image: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)


It's typically only spoilt children and brilliant eccentrics that get away with not turning up to their own party. Sony's long-awaited announcement last night of the PlayStation 4 games console - its successor to the seven-year-old and 70-million-selling PS3 - put an end to speculation, but was most notable for the no-show of the console itself. Was this meant to prolong the hype until the "Holiday 2013" launch, as Sony claims, or because the company hasn't yet solved cooling problems, as cynics have suggested?





What we do have is an official spec sheet which reads more like one for a supercharged PC. The PS4 specs certainly carry enough punch to support spectacular graphics by today's standards, and a large part of last night's show was devoted to showing this off. But will it still feel fresh in seven years when PC architecture has moved on?


The key new technology in this console generation is likely to be the live streaming of games. After acquiring Gakai - one of the pioneers of game-streaming technology - Sony is leading the way and making live streaming a big part of the player experience.


This has let Sony build game spectating into the hardware: the console will continuously encode a video stream of your game footage while you play. A "share" button on the new controller will then let you immediately start streaming video of your in-game play to friends.


Friends may even be able to jump in remotely and lend a hand if you get stuck, either by taking temporary control for that infuriating boss fight or by acting as a game director who drops helpful items into your game.

Streaming tech will also let you jump in and play demos of games in the online PlayStation Store, something that's only possible now by waiting out a lengthy download. Personalisation is also getting a big push: The PlayStation Store will learn what type of games you like, and possibly even take the liberty of pre-empting a purchase by downloading games it thinks you might want to buy to your console's hard disc.

Backwards compatibility with PS3 games isn't clear. Older games - including titles from the original PlayStation and PS2 - will be available via streaming, but Sony hasn't yet said whether this will require repurchasing an entire games collection. However, physical copies of second-hand games may well be supported, according to Eurogamer, which apparently puts Sony at odds with Microsoft.

Finally, Sony says it wants all PS4 games to be playable on mobile devices - the PlayStation Vita and possibly certain phones and tablets - again by streaming directly from the PS4 via Wi-Fi. This could be handy if you want to play while someone else hogs the widescreen TV.

The take-home message is that Sony's new console wants to be the centre of a new kind of gaming experience - one that's more social, more flexible, more mobile. Pity it's still stage-shy.




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Today on New Scientist: 19 February 2013







Doctors would tax sugary drinks to combat obesity

Hiking the price of fizzy drinks would cut consumption and so help fight obesity, urges the British Academy of Medical Royal Colleges



Space station's dark matter hunter coy about findings

Researchers on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which sits above the International Space Station, have collected their first results - but won't reveal them for two weeks



Huge telescopes could spy alien oxygen

Hunting for oxygen in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets is a tough job, but a new wave of giant telescopes should be up to the task



Evolution's detectives: Closing in on missing links

Technology is taking the guesswork out of finding evolution's turning points, from the first fish with legs to our own recent forebears, says Jeff Hecht



Moody Mercury shows its hidden colours

False-colour pictures let us see the chemical and physical landscape of the normally beige planet closest to the sun



LHC shuts down to prepare for peak energy in 2015

Over the next two years, engineers will be giving the Large Hadron Collider the makeover it needs to reach its maximum design energy



Insert real news events into your mobile game

From meteor airbursts to footballing fracas, mobile games could soon be brimming with news events that lend them more currency



3D-printing pen turns doodles into sculptures

The 3Doodle, which launched on Kickstarter today, lets users draw 3D structures in the air which solidify almost instantly



We need to rethink how we name exoplanets

Fed up with dull names for exoplanets, Alan Stern and his company Uwingu have asked the public for help. Will it be so long 2M 0746+20b, hello Obama?



A shocking cure: Plug in for the ultimate recharge

An electrical cure for ageing attracted the ire of the medical establishment. But could the jazz-age inventor have stumbled upon a genuine therapy?



Biofuel rush is wiping out unique American grasslands

Planting more crops to meet the biofuel demand is destroying grasslands and pastures in the central US, threatening wildlife




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Insert real news events into your mobile game



Paul Marks, chief technology correspondent


2.jpg

(Image: MultiPlay.io)


Seen it in the news? Now play it: a mobile-game programming system allows 3D depictions of news events to be introduced into the action. It's been developed by MultiPlay.io, a British start-up that says the technology could make gameplay more current and provide new ways for designers and coders to make cash - perhaps selling "news injection" rights to news agencies, TV stations or newspapers.






The firm's HTML5 games creator, also called MultiPlay.io, lets users import 3D animations during gameplay, allowing, for instance, last week's meteor explosion over Russia to be pasted in above the game action, says one of the company's founders, Ashraf Samy Hegab. Similarly, he says, if a millionaire footballer hits the news in, say, a fight with a nightclub bouncer, lookalike avatars could engage in just such a fracas as you motor by in a driving game.

The system creates games for Apple iOS, Google Android and Windows Phone devices. Changes to games need to be made in a browser on a PC or Mac, but can be made in real time without you having to download an app update.


"We're using a clever way of splitting the game logic that lets you change the game on the fly, as easy as a drag-and-drop task in a browser," says Hegab. "You don't need to know anything about servers or 3D programming using our engine." The idea also lets you extend the game's virtual playing area by expanding the game map, or add 3D vehicles you've designed yourself, such as glitzy spacecraft or cars. You could even add a model of yourself.


But news injection is MultiPlay.io's main aim - and its founders are hoping to interest news agencies when Mobile World Congress kicks off in Barcelona, Spain, later this month. They are not alone: adding news to make games more relevant is becoming popular, with some websites beginning to offer games with news-related activities built in, such as the fascinating Game The News, which "creates its own twists on news events in a playable form".




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Nuclear waste: too hot to handle?






















Cumbria's decision to veto an underground repository for the UK shows how hard it is to find a long-term solution






















THERE are 437 nuclear power reactors in 31 countries around the world. The number of repositories for high-level radioactive waste? Zero. The typical lifespan of a nuclear power plant is 60 years. The waste from nuclear power is dangerous for up to one million years. Clearly, the waste problem is not going to go away any time soon.












In fact, it is going to get a lot worse. The World Nuclear Association says that 45 countries without nuclear power are giving it serious consideration. Several others, including China, South Korea and India, are planning to massively expand their existing programmes. Meanwhile, dealing with the waste from nuclear energy can be put off for another day, decade or century.












It's not that we haven't tried. By the 1970s, countries that produced nuclear power were promising that repositories would be built hundreds of metres underground to permanently isolate the waste. Small groups of technical experts and government officials laboured behind closed doors to identify potential sites. The results - produced with almost no public consultation - were disastrous.












In 1976, West German politicians unilaterally selected a site near the village of Gorleben on the East German border for a repository, fuelling a boisterous anti-nuclear movement that seems to have no end in sight.












In the UK, the practice of choosing candidate sites with little public input was lampooned as "decide, announce, defend". In the US, backroom political manoeuvring led to the 1987 selection of Yucca Mountain in Nevada, at the time an under-populated gambling Mecca with no political muscle. Nevadans have been fighting what they call the "Screw Nevada Bill" ever since. The Obama administration pulled funding from Yucca Mountain to appease Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who is from Nevada, but the decision is still being battled in the courts and Congress, and the site is not completely off the table.












It took a while, but governments began to catch on that the top-down approach wasn't working. Time for a new strategy: look for a community willing to host a repository, using lots of touchy-feely language such as consent-based, transparent, adaptive, phased and terminable. On paper, it is win-win. Sweden and Finland, those paragons of Nordic cooperation and efficiency, are now in the home stretch for opening the world's first nuclear waste repositories, and are held up as proof-positive that the new policy can work.












Yet finding a volunteer community is the relatively easy part, because nuclear waste repositories bring jobs and money. But this doesn't mean their neighbours, or the regional powers that be, are going to go along with it.












This unfortunate aspect of policymaking became readily apparent in the UK last month. Everything seemed a sure shot for taking the next exploratory steps toward a nuclear waste repository in west Cumbria. Located next door to Sellafield, the granddaddy of the UK's nuclear facilities, two local communities comfortable with nuclear matters were in favour. The bugles and bunting were practically being unfurled when Cumbria County Council, concerned about tourism in the Lake District and possible future leaks, vetoed the plan. No other volunteers are in line as a backup.












The US recently announced its own volunteer-based policy, including promises to have an interim storage site up and running within eight years and a repository by 2048. It should know better. Is it forgetting its own track record, even with interim storage facilities?












In the 1980s, the community of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, agreed to host an interim facility. Statewide opposition shut it down. In the 1990s, the Skull Valley Band Of The Goshute Nation, a recognised Native American sovereign nation, volunteered to host an interim facility on its reservation in Utah. Last December, after more than 15 years of legal sparring with the state, the utilities working with the Goshute finally gave up.












The most recent volunteer community to be snubbed is Nye County, where Yucca Mountain is situated. After a commission chartered by the Obama administration recommended a new "consent-based" approach to break the deadlock over the site, Nye County officials wrote to US energy secretary Steven Chu giving their consent to host the repository at Yucca Mountain. Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval subsequently informed Chu that the state of Nevada will never consent to a repository.












It's now over half a century since the dawn of nuclear energy and dangerous and long-lived waste continues to pile up all over the globe. Something needs to be done. Although touted as the solution, finding a consenting community is merely the first step. The harder part is getting everyone else to sign on.


















And then comes the real challenge - to determine if the ground beneath a volunteer community is geologically suitable for a repository. This daunting endeavour requires a decades-long process that is both politically sensitive and technically complex. Inevitably, surprises occur as studies go underground. Here, the public needs an independent, technically savvy group whom they trust to address their concerns and interpret the scientific results.












The difficulties of finding a happily-ever-after triad of volunteer community, consenting neighbours and geologically suitable site cannot be lightly dismissed. Replacing a top-down approach with a consent-based one is a step in the right direction, but it doesn't fundamentally solve the problem.












This article appeared in print under the headline "Down in the dumps"




















William M. Alley oversaw the US Geological Survey's Yucca Mountain project from 2002 to 2010





Rosemarie Alley and William M. Alley are authors of Too Hot To Touch: The problem of high-level nuclear waste (Cambridge University Press)



































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False memories prime immune system for future attacks









































IN A police line-up, a falsely remembered face is a big problem. But for the body's police force – the immune system – false memories could be a crucial weapon.












When a new bacterium or virus invades the body, the immune system mounts an attack by sending in white blood cells called T-cells that are tailored to the molecular structure of that invader. Defeating the infection can take several weeks. However, once victorious, some T-cells stick around, turning into memory cells that remember the invader, reducing the time taken to kill it the next time it turns up.












Conventional thinking has it that memory cells for a particular microbe only form in response to an infection. "The dogma is that you need to be exposed," says Mark Davis of Stanford University in California, but now he and his colleagues have shown that this is not always the case.












The team took 26 samples from the Stanford Blood Center. All 26 people had been screened for diseases and had never been infected with HIV, herpes simplex virus or cytomegalovirus. Despite this, Davis's team found that all the samples contained T-cells tailored to these viruses, and an average of 50 per cent of these cells were memory cells.












The idea that T-cells don't need to be exposed to the pathogen "is paradigm shifting," says Philip Ashton-Rickardt of Imperial College London, who was not involved in the study. "Not only do they have capacity to remember, they seem to have seen a virus when they haven't."












So how are these false memories created? To a T-cell, each virus is "just a collection of peptides", says Davis. And so different microbes could have structures that are similar enough to confuse the T-cells.












To test this idea, the researchers vaccinated two people with an H1N1 strain of influenza and found that this also stimulated the T-cells to react to two bacteria with a similar peptide structure. Exposing the samples from the blood bank to peptide sequences from certain gut and soil bacteria and a species of ocean algae resulted in an immune response to HIV (Immunology, doi.org/kgg).












The finding could explain why vaccinating children against measles seems to improve mortality rates from other diseases. It also raises the possibility of creating a database of cross-reactive microbes to find new vaccination strategies. "We need to start exploring case by case," says Davis.












"You could find innocuous pathogens that are good at vaccinating against nasty ones," says Ashton-Rickardt. The idea of cross-reactivity is as old as immunology, he says. But he is excited about the potential for finding unexpected correlations. "Who could have predicted that HIV was related to an ocean algae?" he says. "No one's going to make that up!"












This article appeared in print under the headline "False memories prime our defences"




















































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False memories prime immune system for future attacks









































IN A police line-up, a falsely remembered face is a big problem. But for the body's police force – the immune system – false memories could be a crucial weapon.












When a new bacterium or virus invades the body, the immune system mounts an attack by sending in white blood cells called T-cells that are tailored to the molecular structure of that invader. Defeating the infection can take several weeks. However, once victorious, some T-cells stick around, turning into memory cells that remember the invader, reducing the time taken to kill it the next time it turns up.












Conventional thinking has it that memory cells for a particular microbe only form in response to an infection. "The dogma is that you need to be exposed," says Mark Davis of Stanford University in California, but now he and his colleagues have shown that this is not always the case.












The team took 26 samples from the Stanford Blood Center. All 26 people had been screened for diseases and had never been infected with HIV, herpes simplex virus or cytomegalovirus. Despite this, Davis's team found that all the samples contained T-cells tailored to these viruses, and an average of 50 per cent of these cells were memory cells.












The idea that T-cells don't need to be exposed to the pathogen "is paradigm shifting," says Philip Ashton-Rickardt of Imperial College London, who was not involved in the study. "Not only do they have capacity to remember, they seem to have seen a virus when they haven't."












So how are these false memories created? To a T-cell, each virus is "just a collection of peptides", says Davis. And so different microbes could have structures that are similar enough to confuse the T-cells.












To test this idea, the researchers vaccinated two people with an H1N1 strain of influenza and found that this also stimulated the T-cells to react to two bacteria with a similar peptide structure. Exposing the samples from the blood bank to peptide sequences from certain gut and soil bacteria and a species of ocean algae resulted in an immune response to HIV (Immunology, doi.org/kgg).












The finding could explain why vaccinating children against measles seems to improve mortality rates from other diseases. It also raises the possibility of creating a database of cross-reactive microbes to find new vaccination strategies. "We need to start exploring case by case," says Davis.












"You could find innocuous pathogens that are good at vaccinating against nasty ones," says Ashton-Rickardt. The idea of cross-reactivity is as old as immunology, he says. But he is excited about the potential for finding unexpected correlations. "Who could have predicted that HIV was related to an ocean algae?" he says. "No one's going to make that up!"












This article appeared in print under the headline "False memories prime our defences"




















































If you would like to reuse any content from New Scientist, either in print or online, please contact the syndication department first for permission. New Scientist does not own rights to photos, but there are a variety of licensing options available for use of articles and graphics we own the copyright to.




































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Fake pointers on your screen foil 'shoulder surfers'









































EVER suspected somebody is stealing a glance at your screen as you log in to secure services like online banking in a public place? A blizzard of fake mouse pointers could foil such "shoulder surfers".












Many online banking websites ask you to log in using your mouse and an on-screen keyboard, as these fool most keylogger viruses. The trouble is that a snooper can see exactly what buttons you press to enter your password. Alexander de Luca and colleagues at the University of Munich, Germany, decided to find a way to throw an attacker off the scent.












Their answer is to allow a user to call up an array of 16 different mouse pointers when the on-screen keyboard is active. Only one pointer is the one that you are actually controlling; the others appear to press keys at random to distract the snooper, says team member Emanuel von Zezschwitz.












In tests with 39 volunteers, they found a shoulder surfer was able to steal a password 90 per cent of the time without the fake pointers turned on. But when they used them, attackers succeeded only 5 per cent of the time with 16 fake pointers and 35 per cent with eight pointers. The work will be presented at a conference on computer interaction in Paris in April.












This article appeared in print under the headline "Fake pointers on your screen foil 'shoulder surfers'"




















































If you would like to reuse any content from New Scientist, either in print or online, please contact the syndication department first for permission. New Scientist does not own rights to photos, but there are a variety of licensing options available for use of articles and graphics we own the copyright to.




































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Mosh pit physics could aid disaster planning

















































Metalheads in mosh pits act like atoms in a gas. That's the conclusion of the first study of the collective motion of people at a rock concert.












The finding could add to the realism of computer-generated crowd scenes in films and games.; More importantly, it could help architects design buildings that ease the flow of chaotic crowds in an emergency.












Research into how humans behave in crowds had mostly been limited to fairly organised situations, like pedestrians forming lanes when walking on the street. But when Jesse Silverberg, a graduate student at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, took his girlfriend to her first heavy metal concert a few years ago, he witnessed a different and surprising form of crowd behaviour.












"I didn't want to put her in harm's way, so we stood off to the side," he says. "I'm usually in the mosh pit, but for the first time I was off to the side and watching. I was amazed at what I saw."












Metal fans' favoured dance style is called moshing and mostly involves bodies slamming into each other. Silverberg wondered if the mathematical laws that describe group behaviour in flocks of birds or schools of fish could apply to moshers as well.











Like a random gas













Together with another grad student and two physics professors at Cornell, he pulled videos of mosh pits off YouTube and used software developed for analysing particles in a fluid to track the moshers' motions. They found that the dancers' speeds had the same statistical distribution as the speeds of particles in a gas. Such particles move around freely, interacting only when they bounce off one another.












"This presented a bit of a mystery," Silverberg says. What makes a crowd of people with independent decision-making powers behave like a random gas?












To investigate, the team simulated a mosh pit with a few basic rules: the virtual moshers bounce off each other when they collide (instead of sticking or sliding through each other); they can move independently; and they can flock, or follow each other, to varying degrees. Finally, the team added a certain amount of statistical noise to the simulated moshers' movements – "to mimic the effects of the inebriants that the participants typically use", says co-author Matthew Bierbaum.












They found that by tweaking their model parameters – decreasing noise or increasing the tendency to flock, for instance – they could make the pit shift between the random-gas-like moshing and a circular vortex called a circle pit, which is exactly what they saw in the YouTube videos of real mosh pits. Their simulation is available online.












"These are collective behaviours that you wouldn't have predicted based on the previous literature on collective motion in humans," Silverberg says. "That work was geared at pedestrians, but what we're seeing is fundamentally different."












"The fact that human beings are very complex creatures, and yet we can develop a lifeless computer simulation that mimics their behaviour, really tells us that we're understanding something new about the behaviour of crowds that we didn't understand before," says co-author James Sethna.











Lane formation













The team also found a third mosh-pit mode that they hadn't seen on YouTube, which they call lane formation. "If you increase the flocking or decrease the density of the simulated moshers, the active participants can break down the circle and just stream through the crowd," Bierbaum says. "I'd be excited to see this, but it would have to be at a very large venue, so that the ends didn't collide with each other to form a circle pit."











Although the project was mostly for fun, the researchers think it could have real-world implications for crowd animators and architects.













"When you have earthquakes or buildings on fire, people tend to panic when they escape. We don't have a good way of experimentally seeing what's going on," Silverberg says. "By going to these heavy-metal concerts, we're able to ethically and safely observe how humans behave in these unusual excited states."












"That's how we justify it after the fact, by talking about safety," Sethna adds.












The correlation between moshers and random gases "seems very fitting to me", says Jon Freund, drummer in Ithaca-based metal band Thirteen South. "It's kind of the same thing – a pure expression of energy that's just random."












But he says knowing the physics behind it won't change how he moshes – mostly because these days he stays out of the pit. "I'm a hide-on-the-stage-and-play-my-drums mosher," he admits. "I don't want to get hit in the head."












Silverberg notes that the study's main limitation was the quality of the data. "YouTube videos are typically shaky and taken from a poor viewing angle," he says. What's more, staff at venues "tend to baulk when you walk in with a camera". He hopes to convince at least one venue to let him film with a camera suspended over the crowd. "There really is so much to do and so much we don't know yet. It's really just beginning."












Journal reference: arxiv.org/abs/1302.1886


















































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US should vaccinate poultry to stop killer salmonella









































It is a case of putting the bottom line before our health. This year, a million Americans will succumb to salmonella poisoning. Several hundred will die. Yet in Europe, a cheap vaccine for chickens has slashed the number of cases. Vaccination in Iowa shows US lives can be saved too – but US rules give meat producers no incentive to use a vaccine that doesn't boost their profits.












Salmonella causes more deaths than any other food-borne germ and is the second-most common cause of food-borne illness in the US, according to a new report published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. Poultry, meat and eggs are the biggest source, causing a third of all cases.












But this can be prevented. After a scandal over infected eggs in the UK in the late 1980s, farmers boosted hygiene standards and killed infected flocks. Human cases stayed high until 1998 when British supermarkets started buying eggs only from vaccinated hens, says Sarah O'Brien of the University of Liverpool, UK. Human cases then plummeted with a forty-fold drop between 1993 and 2010.











In the US, a massive recall of eggs due to salmonella in 2010 similarly led to tighter hygiene rules for chicken farms. But the US Food and Drug Administration declared there was "insufficient data on efficacy" to make vaccination compulsory, despite evidence in Europe to the contrary.













Nonetheless, as monitoring programmes have revealed just how widespread the infection is, about a third of US egg producers have started to vaccinate their chickens. That and better hygiene has reduced the number of infected hen houses fivefold in Iowa, the biggest US egg producer, in the past two years, says Darrell Trampel of Iowa State University.












Meat producers have resisted, however, even though there is salmonella on 13 per cent of chicken breasts sold in US supermarkets, says Lance Price of George Washington University in Washington DC. The farmers vaccinate for several poultry diseases, but since salmonella doesn't hurt the birds or affect their growth, says Price – and human illness is not a cost the farmers have to bear – there is no motivation to prevent its spread.












Journal reference: Emerging Infectious Disease, doi.org/kgx


















































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Robotic tormenter depresses lab rats



Hal Hodson, technology reporter


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(Image: Chris Nash/iamchrisphotography/Getty)



Lab rats have a new companion, but it's not friendly. Researchers at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan, have developed a robotic rat called WR-3 whose job is to induce stress and depression in lab animals, creating models of psychological conditions on which new drugs can be tested.





Animal are used throughout medicine as models to test treatments for human conditions, including mental disorders like depression. Rats and mice get their sense of smell severed to induce something like depression, or are forced to swim for long periods, for instance. Other methods rely on genetic modification and environmental stress, but none is entirely satisfactory in recreating a human-like version of depression for treatment. Hiroyuki Ishii and his team aim to do better with WR-3.

WR-3_Size.jpg


(Image: Takanishi Lab/Waseda University) 

The researchers tested WR-3's ability to depress two groups of 12 rats, measured by the somewhat crude assumption that a depressed rat moves around less. Rats in group A were constantly harassed by their robot counterpart, while the other rats were attacked intermittently and automatically by WR-3, whenever they moved. Ishii's team found that the deepest depression was triggered by intermittent attacks on a mature rat that had been constantly harassed in its youth.


The team say they plan to test their new model of depression against more conventional systems, like forced swimming.


The robot has been developed just as new research by Junhee Seok of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and colleagues shows that the use of mouse models for human conditions has led researchers trying to find treatments for sepsis, burns and trauma astray at a cost of billions of tax dollars.



Journal reference: Advanced Robotics, DOI: 10.1080/01691864.2013.752319




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Snow falling on red squirrels in Scotland



Rowan Hooper, news editor



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(Image: Peter Cairns/2020VISION/NaturePL)



IN A fight between Beatrix Potter's Squirrel Nutkin and Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse, who would win? Or to put it another way, how long would it take a dynamic, can-do, environment-damaging American rodent (the grey squirrel) to displace an over-specialised, anachronistic rodent from old Europe (the red squirrel)?





The answer is about a century. The grey squirrel was introduced into the UK in 1876 and has comprehensively outcompeted the native reds for food and habitat ever since. From a nationwide population of several million a century ago, reds now only survive in Scotland (about 120,000 of them) and a few protected areas in England. Oh, and the grey's competitive edge is enhanced by a biological weapon, the squirrel pox virus. Greys are immune to the virus but - surprise surprise - it is lethal to the poor old reds.



Projects are under way to restore and reconnect the now patchy pine forests that the red squirrel needs to survive, but they need more support. This photo is one of hundreds taken as part of 2020Vision, a nature photography project that is aiming to do just that by highlighting the state of the ecosystems we share with wildlife.



"On this particular day, snow started falling heavily. I used a fairly slow shutter speed to blur the falling snowflakes," says Peter Cairns, who took this shot in a forest near his home in northern Scotland. "Photographing squirrels is like a drug."



This article appeared in print under the headline "Snow falling on squirrels"





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