Saturday, May 31, 2014

'Warming to boost severe UK floods'

Global warming will lead to a significant increase in extreme summer downpours according to a study from the Met Office and Newcastle University.

The researchers say there could be five times the number of 'extreme rainfall events' per hour, under extreme warming projections.

This would cause 'really severe' flash flooding in many parts of the UK, according to the scientists.

However, they caution that this result is based on only one computer model.

Flash flooding in Britain has had devastating impacts on communities in recent years.

'Start Quote

We are talking about thresholds of 30mm and above in an hour over quite a large area here, which would be associated with really severe flash flooding'

End Quote Dr Lizzie Kendon Met Office

In Boscastle, north Cornwall, around 200mm of rain fell in four hours in August 2004 causing a 3m wall of water to sweep through the village.

In the summer of 2012, in Newcastle, the equivalent of a month's rain fell in just two hours, causing widespread flooding in the city.

Super models

Researchers have struggled to work out how global warming might affect these types of events.

Until now, their climate models haven't been good enough to work out the effect on extreme hourly rainfall in the warmer months.

To improve the resolution of their model, researchers in this latest experiment used 1.5km grid spacings instead of the normal 12km.

To gain this extra clarity, the Met Office supercomputer was employed for nine months to run the simulations. Even then, they could only model the southern half of the UK.

'Most people would be familiar with this model,' Dr Lizzie Kendon, the report's lead author told BBC News.

'It is the same one that is used for the weather forecasts on the BBC, so it is incredibly realistic and it represents these very intense convective-type storms that haven't been captured before.'

The researchers used both the low resolution and the high resolution models to examine the climate patterns that have occurred in recent years and to look ahead to what might happen at the end of this century.

They assessed the period up to the year 2100 using the most high-end climate projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

When they looked at rainfall patterns for the winter months, they found that both the 12km and 1.5km grid models showed an increase in rainfall.

Both models found that summers in the future would be drier overall.

However, when it came to intense downpours, defined as more than 28mm per hour, the higher resolution model saw a significant increase.

It found that there could be up to five times the number of events per hour than we see currently.

'It is dry periods interspersed with these very intense downpours, and we are talking about thresholds of 30mm and above in an hour over quite a large area here, which would be associated with really severe flash flooding,' said Dr Kendon.

The researchers stress that this is the result of just one model run and it is not a definitive forecast.

Temperatures may not rise at the level used in the model.

The scientists however, believe that their work shows that global warming will make downpours a more frequent event in British summers.

'From this model experiment and consistent with our theoretical understanding, we have quite a bit of confidence in this result.'

Prof Hayley Fowler, from Newcastle University, who is involved in a project that brings together UK climate modellers, said the new study was an important step to understanding the flooding risks of the future.

She hopes that other research groups will try to replicate the study.

'The next steps are to see if these changes are consistent with observed trends in summer rainfall extremes and changes projected by climate models in other parts of the world,' she added.

The study has been published in the journal, Nature Climate Change.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

Friday, May 30, 2014

$15m computer shows quantum effects

Scientists says they have obtained the best evidence yet for an important quantum physics phenomenon inside a $15m computer built by a Canadian firm.

D-Wave claims it has built the first practical quantum computer, a type of machine that could solve complex problems faster than is possible today.

Scientists say they have shown that an effect called 'entanglement' is present in eight units of quantum information.

Entanglement is a key step towards building a practical platform.

The results have just been published in the peer-reviewed journal Physical Review X.

D-Wave, based in Burnaby, outside Vancouver, has courted controversy with its claim to have built a practical quantum computer, a feat that was thought to be decades away.

Quantum computing exploits the strange physics of quantum mechanics, which takes hold at tiny (atomic or sub-atomic) scales.

The basic units of information in classical computers are called 'bits' and are stored as a string of 1s and 0s, but their equivalents in a quantum system - qubits - can be both 1s and 0s at the same time.

What is quantum physics?

There are things we take for granted about the world around us. Let go of your smartphone and it will fall to the ground. Pull the handle on a drawer and it will open. These familiar rules can be described by the principles of classical mechanics.

But in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, scientists were beginning to realise that classical physics could not explain certain phenomena seen at very large and very small scales.

This spawned two revolutions: one was relativity and the other quantum mechanics. Early experiments suggested light was a wave, rather than a stream of particles. In quantum theory, light can be both a particle (the photon) and a wave.

One principle central to quantum mechanics is that a particle, such as an electron, can exist in all of its possible states simultaneously - known as superposition. Another important idea is that of entanglement, a phenomenon whereby objects become linked, even if they lie far apart.

But the qubits need to be synchronised using a quantum effect known as entanglement, which Albert Einstein dubbed 'spooky action at a distance'.

'This is the first peer-reviewed scientific paper that proves entanglement in D-Wave processors,' Dr Colin Williams, director of business development at D-Wave, told BBC News.

'What's even more remarkable is that this is the largest demonstration of entanglement in any quantum, superconducting computing scheme so far,' he said. 'It's a big achievement for the field.'

They also showed that the entanglement was stable, persisting throughout a critical operation of the processor.

The vast majority of academic research into this area of computing is based around the model of 'quantum gates'. These are the quantum equivalents of the logic gates that form the building blocks of circuits in classical computing.

But D-Wave has taken a different approach known as quantum annealing. On a particular type of mathematical challenge known as an optimisation problem, annealing can, in theory, short-cut classical computers to the best answer.

Working together

The authors of the latest study used one of the qubits as a 'probe' to provide information on the other qubits in D-Wave's processor. Using this information, they were able to calculate how much entanglement there was in the system.

Dr Federico Spedalieri of University of Southern California's Viterbi Information Sciences Institute and co-author of the paper, said: 'There's no way around it. Only quantum systems can be entangled. This test provides the experimental proof that we've been looking for.'

Prof Alan Woodward, from the University of Surrey, told BBC News: 'One of the three quantum effects that you need for it to be defined as a true quantum computer is entanglement.'

Calling the result 'a big deal', he added: 'It does appear to be conclusive that they have a large number of qubits entangled and they do see to be working together.'

Quantum computing: A brief timeline

  • 1981 - Richard Feynman of Caltech proposes a basic model for a quantum device

  • 1985 - David Deutsch of Oxford University describes the first 'Universal Quantum Computer'

  • 1994 - Peter Shor devises algorithm that could allow quantum devices to defeat cryptography

  • 1998 - First working two- and three-qubit quantum computers are demonstrated

  • 2006 - Scientists develop first working 12-qubit platform

  • 2009 - First universal programmable quantum computer unveiled

  • 2012 - D-Wave Systems reveals a 512-qubit adiabatic quantum machine

D-Wave's processor uses 512 qubits, but the technique in the latest study was able to characterise only eight qubits.

Sceptics about D-Wave computers such as Prof Scott Aaronson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) say the machines show 'pretty good' evidence for entanglement at a local level, but not necessarily on a large scale.

But in response, Dr Williams said there was reason to believe entanglement is pervasive across the processor.

'We could have chosen any part of the processor to do this experiment on,' he explains, adding: 'There's no reason to believe the entanglement is limited to just these eight qubits.

'We've done other experiments to determine entanglement in different unit cells and we see similar results.'

Prof Woodward commented: 'In quantum physics, one of the really difficult things is to witness something because as soon as you witness something, you interfere with it.

'By being a witness, you have to be careful you don't become part of what you're seeing. But the techniques they've used are generally accepted as showing what they are able to show: entanglement among a fairly large number of stable qubits.'

However, sceptics doubt that the machines are leveraging quantum physics for any performance boost relative to classical machines.

While entanglement is required to get quantum 'speed-up', they argue that it is perfectly possible to have entanglement without speed-up.

In one study released in 2013, Catherine McGeoch of Amherst College in Massachusetts, a consultant for D-Wave, found the machine was 3,600 times faster on some tests than a desktop computer.

But a study published earlier this earlier year by Matthias Troyer from ETH Zurich in Switzerland and colleagues pitted the D-Wave machine against a standard high-spec desktop computer.

On some tests chosen by the team, D-Wave's machine was found to offer no performance boost over the regular computer.

However, D-Wave maintains that the tests used by Prof Troyer's team were not ones where the company's computer offers any advantage. Indeed, Dr Williams even argues that the random challenges were too easy for the computer, which was designed to tackle a very difficult and specialised class of problems.

Dr Williams said the stability of entanglement revealed in the latest study further underlined that quantum annealing was more robust than the gate model of quantum computing.

Lab devices based on the gate model suffer from dropout, where the qubits lose their ambiguity and become straightforward 1s and 0s. This has in part ensured that quantum computers remain confined to the lab.

Quantum annealing is not as susceptible to this dropout problem, but advocates of the gate model argue that D-Wave's approach can't provide the performance boost theoretically possible with gates.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Crickets muted by evolution, twice

To hide themselves from deadly flies, crickets on two Hawaiian islands have evolved an inability to sing.

Ten years ago, two years apart, males appeared on Kauai and Oahu with altered wings, which they would normally rub together to chirp and attract females.

New findings published in the journal Current Biology show that the wing changes are physically different and arose from separate mutations.

This makes the silent crickets a brand new example of 'convergent evolution'.

The killer flies have an unusual ability to pinpoint a cricket's location using sound.

After finding its victim - a male cricket, singing to attract a mate - a pregnant fly will spray baby maggots onto the cricket's back, which burrow in, feed, and emerge a week later leaving the husk of the hapless cricket behind.

The presence of these North American flies placed the crickets, themselves relatively recent arrivals from Australia, under pressure to adapt.

In less than 20 generations, a mutation that leaves males unable to sing spread to over 90% of the crickets on the island of Kauai.

'Start Quote

[It] appears to be the blink of an eye in evolutionary time'

End Quote Dr Nathan Bailey University of St Andrew's

Because they are mute, these 'flatwing' male crickets are hidden from the parasitoid flies and escape being eaten by maggots. That triumph comes at a cost, however, since finding a mate is tricky without a voice. The silent types loiter near the few males still singing away, and intercept females for themselves.

Two years after the Kauai discovery in 2003, flatwing crickets were also found over 100km away on Oahu.

Unusually rapid

Researchers first assumed that the silent crickets had simply travelled the distance - with some help.

'An egg laid by a female in some soil could hitch-hike on someone's boot,' said Dr Nathan Bailey, whose group at the University of St Andrews led the new study.

The idea that the trait had evolved twice, at almost the same time, seemed far-fetched. 'It still seems amazing to me,' Dr Bailey told BBC News.

The first clue was an observation that the mutant, silenced wings on the two islands had two different shapes.

Next, by doing crossing experiments with the mutant crickets, the researchers confirmed that both types of flatwing arose from a single gene on the X chromosome.

Finally, comparing a raft of other genetic markers between the two groups yielded convincing evidence that the two mutations had occurred independently.

'Up until my post-doc Sonia showed me the diagram of nearly non-overlapping genetic markers from each island... I was unconvinced either way about what we were dealing with,' Dr Bailey said.

When the same feature evolves separately in two genetically distinct populations, scientists describe the process as convergent evolution. Another example is the 'projectile tongue' of certain salamanders, which appears to have evolved independently on more than one occasion.

Dr Bailey said this is an unusual example, because it has happened 'in what appears to be the blink of an eye in evolutionary time' and researchers can now watch as the story unfolds further.

'This is an exciting opportunity to detect genomic evolution in real time in a wild system, which has usually been quite a challenge, owing to the long timescales over which evolution acts.'

Ocean waves influence sea ice extent

Large ocean waves can travel through sea ice for hundreds of km before their oscillations are finally dampened, scientists have shown.

The up and down motion can fracture the ice, potentially aiding its break-up and melting, the researchers told Nature magazine.

They say storm swells may have a much bigger influence on the extent of polar sea ice than previously recognised.

The New Zealand-led team ran its experiments off Antarctica.

They placed sensors at various distances from the edge of the pack ice, and then recorded what happened when bad weather whipped up the ocean surface.

For smaller waves, less than 3m in height, the bobbing induced in the floes quickly decayed. But for waves over 3m, the disturbance sent propagating through the pack ice was sustained for up to 350km.

'At the ice edge, it's quite noisy,' explained study lead author Alison Kohout, from New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in Christchurch.

'You have lots of waves coming from all directions with a full spectrum of frequencies. But as the waves move into the ice, this all gets cleaned up to produce one beautiful, smooth wave of constant frequency,' she told BBC News.

'The ice floes bend with the waves, and over time you can imagine that this creates fatigue and eventually the ice will fracture. Interestingly, the fractures tend to be perpendicular to the direction of the waves, and to be of even widths.'

Computer modellers have been trying to simulate the recent trends in polar sea ice - without a great deal of success.

They have failed to capture both the very rapid decline in summer ice cover in the Arctic and the small, but nonetheless significant, growth in winter ice in the Antarctic.

Dr Kohout and colleagues say their experiments offer some clues - certainly in the south.

When they compared observed Antarctic marine-ice edge positions from 1997 to 2009 with likely wave heights generated by the weather during that period, they found a strong link.

For example, where storminess was increased, in regions like the Amundsen-Bellingshausen Sea, ice extent was curtailed.

In contrast, where wave heights were smaller, such as in the Western Ross Sea, marine ice was seen to expand.

One very noticeable aspect of the recent growth in Antarctic winter sea ice has been its high regional variability.

The team says that if models take more account of wave heights then they may better capture some of this behaviour.

The group did try to look for a similar relationship in storminess and ice extent in the Arctic but found there to be insufficient data to draw any firm conclusions.

The geography at the poles is quite different. The Arctic is in large part an ocean enclosed by land, whereas the Antarctic is a land mass totally surrounded by ocean. Many of the ice behaviours and responses are different as a result.

'I think what's interesting for us in the Arctic is that the 'fetch' is increasing - the distance from the shores to the ice edge is increasing,' commented Prof Julienne Stroeve from University College London and the US National Snow and Ice Data Center.

'That would allow the wind to work more on the ocean to produce larger waves that can then propagate further into the ice pack.

'[Another recent paper has already suggested] that wave heights are going to change with increasing distance from the ice edge to the land, and that could have more of an impact on ice break-up.' and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Wasp uses zinc-tip drill to lay eggs

Footage captured by scientists has revealed the power of a parasitic wasp, which has evolved a zinc-tipped drill to bore into fruit.

The wasps penetrate the fruit in order to lay their eggs inside.

A team from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore found that wasps' fruit-drilling and egg-laying tool - which is thinner than a human hair - has teeth enriched with zinc.

The researchers' study is published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

The researchers think the fig wasp's egg-laying technique could inspire the design of new tools for microsurgical techniques.

Microscopic drill

The female parasitic fig wasp bores its way through a tough, unripe fig to find the larvae of other pollinating insects already developing inside. Its own offspring will then feed on these larvae as they develop within the safety of the fig.

Lead researcher Dr Namrata Gundiah said: 'She uses her ovipositor... pushing this needle inside [the fruit] at the location, where she has decided to lay her eggs.

'She has to test the chemical environment inside the fruit as she's doing this, and she wants to complete this process fast, because as you see in [our] video, there are predators nearby waiting for her.'

'Start Quote

It's the fun of seeing how nature works, rather than finding a utilitarian value for it'

End Quote Dr Namrata Gundiah Indian Institute of Science

To work out how the wasp managed the arduous task, the team captured images with an electron microscope of the insect's egg-laying appendage, or ovipositor, revealing that its end resembled a drill bit, complete with sharp-edged tooth structures that enabled it to bore through the unripe fruit.

Taking measurements from this tiny drill bit, Dr Gundiah said, revealed the presence of zinc, and that it 'was only at these teeth-like structures.

'So we think the zinc is there to harden the tips.'

Metallic creatures

  • Scientists first discovered zinc and manganese in the ovipositors and mandibles (jaws) of hymenopterous insects - the order that includes wasps, bees and ants - back in 1998

  • In 2002, researchers in the US found that zinc helped harden the jaws of a group of marine worms known collectively as Nereis

Dr Namrata said that the technique could be applied to cut through rock and other hard materials.

'In inhospitable places, this could [provide] a clever way to get samples back for us,' she told BBC News.

'In the end though, it's the fun of seeing how nature works, rather than finding a utilitarian value for it.

'I'm sure if we look at it long enough, there will be lots of applications that will emerge just knowing how things work in nature.'

Cane toad relative hits Madagascar

A relative of the cane toad, which has devastated wildlife in Australia, has invaded Madagascar, scientists report.

The Asian common toad was first seen on the island in March, and there have been several sightings since.

In a letter to the journal Nature, researchers warn that the arrival of the amphibian could cause 'an ecological disaster' and wreak havoc on the country's unique fauna.

They say that urgent action is needed to remove the toads before they spread.

The fear is that the venomous amphibians could poison local wildlife and carry diseases, such as the deadly chytrid fungus that has killed amphibians around the world.

One of the authors, Jonathan Kolby, of James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, said: 'It's worrying because Madagascar has amazing endemic biodiversity - plants, animals and amphibians that are found nowhere else.

'And this one species has the propensity to damage that.'

The amphibians were first seen in Toamasina, the main port of Madagascar. It is thought that they arrived in shipping containers from their native home in South East Asia.

'They are a very hardy and adaptable species,' said Mr Kolby.

'They can handle a long ride on the ocean in a container, and then hop out wherever they end end up. And this is most likely how they got there.'

The fear is that the warty brown creatures could repeat the damage that their relative, the cane toad ( Rhinella marina), caused in Australia.

'Start Quote

These animals have never been exposed to Asian toad toxins before'

End Quote Jonathan Kolby James Cook University

Cane toads, native to Central and South America, were introduced to Australia in the 1930s, initially to control pests, but they are now widespread and number in their millions.

They produce toxins that are deadly to the local birds, mammals and reptiles that prey on them and they have had a dramatic impact on the country's wildlife.

Asian common toads ( Duttaphrynus melanostictus) are smaller than cane toads, but they are also venomous - and researchers think Madagascar's animals could be especially vulnerable.

'These animals have never been exposed to Asian toad toxins before and will likely not have an evolutionary defence against them,' said Mr Kolby.

The 11 co-signatories of the letter add that the toads could outcompete other species and potentially spread the deadly chytrid fungus.

The researchers, from Australia, the US and Madagascar, say that conservationists and Madagascan government need to act quickly to eradicate the toads.

Mr Kolby said: 'The question is, can we still eradicate them? Have we caught it soon enough that eradication could be a feasible option? Obviously we all hope the answer is yes.'

Teams build human protein catalogue

The first two attempts at a database of every single human protein - the 'proteome' - have been made public.

This builds on our knowledge of the genome by showing which genes actually produce proteins in which tissues.

One team in Germany and one spanning the US and India have published their proteome maps in the journal Nature, and on searchable, public websites.

Some of the 17-to-18,000 reported proteins arise from stretches of DNA previously thought to be 'non-coding'.

Along the vast length of DNA packed inside each of our cells, our genes are the sections which contain the instructions, or code, for making proteins.

'While we have a good idea of what the genome looks like, we didn't know how many of those potentially 20,000 protein-coding genes would actually make protein,' said Prof Bernhard Kuester, who led the German team at the University of Technology, Munich.

Unexpected results

To find out, the researchers extracted all of the protein from many different samples of human tissues, as well as a number of cell lines. The proteins in that purified mixture were then chopped into small pieces and a technique called mass spectrometry revealed the sequence of amino acids forming each of those pieces.

With a lot of computing power and patience, these batches of protein fragments can be compared with the human genome to make a map, showing which genes in which tissues are 'expressed' and producing protein.

'This is the first inventory, if you like,' Prof Kuester told BBC news, 'like a dozen years ago with the first draft of the human genome.'

And just like the results of the Human Genome Project, these data contain some surprises.

'Start Quote

We are definitely going to benefit from putting the two data sets together'

End Quote Prof Akhilesh Pandey Johns Hopkins University

Both groups found hundreds of unexpected proteins, produced by fragments of ancient genes (called 'pseudogenes') or by lengths of DNA that were not thought to be genes at all.

As well as the newcomers, there were notable absences. 'We have good reason to believe that there are hundreds of known, annotated genes that perhaps are redundant,' said Prof Kuester.

The team based in the US and India, led by Prof Akhilesh Pandey of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, found evidence for only 84% of the proteins that might be predicted from looking at the genome.

Beyond genetics

Prof Pandey told the BBC it was important to study the proteins themselves, as well as the genes that encode them.

He offered an example of how a researcher, investigating a particular gene, might use one of the new databases: 'They can look at the expression and get clues about what it could be doing. For example if a protein is expressed in the foetal gut and not the adult gut, then they might think of some sort of developmental process.'

The tissue-by-tissue breakdown could also help scientists trying to figure out the actions and side effects of drugs. By comparing the proteome of various cancer cell lines, Prof Kuester and his team have already identified certain clusters of proteins that could increase or decrease sensitivity to cancer drugs.

Dr Kevin Mills, who uses proteomics to study rare diseases at the UCL Institute of Child Health, agrees that it is crucial to look 'beyond genomics' at protein levels and how they vary.

'Genetics can't tell us everything,' said Dr Mills, who was not involved in either study. 'This is really important. We're not static - we're fluid and dynamic and our proteome changes continually.'

Although they had seen each other's work at conferences, both Prof Pandey and Prof Kuester told BBC News they had 'no idea' they were headed towards publishing simultaneously. They spoke on the phone last week after discovering that both of their studies would grace the cover of Nature.

'We never saw this as a race to be first,' said Prof Kuester. 'My interpretation is that when the time is right, somebody's going to just do it. And perhaps two people are going to do it!'

Prof Pandey compared today's joint publication to the first draft of the human genome, which was announced by two different teams in February 2001.

'Although both groups came up with similar numbers of genes, the actual list was different,' he said. 'We are likely to have less of that confusion, but we are definitely going to benefit from putting the two data sets together.'

In the meantime, both sets of results are freely available online: the work of Prof Kuester's team is at and Prof Pandey's team at

Gene test for heart risk rolled out

A test for a preventable form of heart disease is being rolled out in the UK.

The DNA blood test aims to spot the one in 500 people in the UK who have familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH), an inherited condition that greatly increases a person's heart attack risk.

Left undiagnosed, up to half of people with FH will develop heart disease before they are 60.

Early treatment can bring risk down to a normal level.

People with FH inherit a gene that causes high levels of 'bad' cholesterol (LDL) in the blood.

This can lead to hardening of the arteries and an increased risk of heart disease if left untreated.

A DNA test can check for the presence of the faulty gene.

When people are diagnosed, their family should also be offered testing.

If one person is found with FH, on average half their brothers and sisters and half their children will also have the faulty gene and be at high risk of early heart disease.

'Huge opportunity'

The British Heart Foundation is funding £1m to pay for nurses so that testing can be extended to eight NHS trusts across England and Scotland, after a successful pilot scheme in Wales.

They are:

  • Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Trust

  • Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust

  • South Yorkshire Cardiothoracic Centre

  • Greater Manchester and Cheshire Cardiac and Stroke Network

  • University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust

  • City Hospitals Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust

  • NHS Grampian/North of Scotland Cardiac Network

  • University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust

Some parts of the UK, such as the East of England, will not have access to nearby testing services, however.

Prof Steve Humphries, of the British Heart Foundaton, said: 'With an estimated one in 200 families carrying an FH-causing faulty gene in the UK, the introduction of cascade testing represents a huge opportunity to identify and treat people before they suffer from potentially life-threatening heart problems.'

Heart UK, The Cholesterol Charity, urged NHS England to launch a national FH testing service.

Google to build self-driving cars

Google is to start building its own self-driving cars, rather than modifying vehicles built by other manufacturers.

The car will have a stop-go button but no controls, steering wheel or pedals.

Pictures of the Google vehicle show it looks like a city car with a 'friendly' face, designed to make it seem non-threatening and help people accept self-driving technology.

Co-founder Sergey Brin revealed the plans at a conference in California.

'We're really excited about this vehicle - it's something that will allow us to really push the capabilities of self driving technology, and understand the limitations,' said Chris Urmson, director of the company's self-driving project.

He added that the cars had the ability to 'improve people's lives by transforming mobility'.

But some researchers working in this field are investigating potential downsides to driverless car technology.

They believe they could make traffic and urban sprawl worse, as people accept longer commutes as they do not have to drive themselves.

Flexible windscreen

The BBC was given access to the Google team to talk about the secret project, and see early renderings of the car.

It looks almost cartoon-like, it has no traditional bonnet at the front, and the wheels are pushed to the corners.

It will seat two people, propulsion will be electric, and at the start it will be limited to 25mph (40km/h) to help ensure safety.

The most significant thing about the design is that it does not have any controls, apart from a stop/go button.

For early testing, extra controls will be fitted so one of Google's test drivers can take over if there is a problem.

The controls will simply plug in, and Mr Urmson believes that over time, as confidence in the technology grows, they will be removed entirely.

The front end of the vehicle is designed to be safer for pedestrians, with a soft foam-like material where a traditional bumper would be, and a more flexible windscreen, which may help reduce injuries.

The vehicle will use a combination of laser and radar sensors along with camera data to drive autonomously.

It will depend on Google's road maps, built specifically for the programme, and tested on the company's current fleet of vehicles.

Ready in a year

Google recently announced that its self driving cars had covered 700,000 miles of public roads in autonomous mode, and that they were now tackling the tricky problem of busy city streets.

The company plans to build a fleet of around 200 of the cars in Detroit, with the hope of using them as an autonomous technology test bed.

'We'll see these vehicles on the road within the year,' says Mr Urmson.

Advocates claim that autonomous cars have the potential to revolutionise transport, by making roads safer, eliminating crashes, and decreasing congestion and pollution. In the first six months of 2013 more than 23,500 people were killed or seriously injured in road traffic accidents in the UK, according to government figures.

Ron Medford, previously the deputy director of the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and now the safety director for the self-driving car team at Google, believes that number could be drastically reduced by removing the chance of driver error.

'I think it has the potential to be the most important safety technology that the auto industry has ever seen,' he said.

But Sven Beiler, executive director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford cautions that driverless cars may still require human input in extreme circumstances and that people may forget how to operate their vehicles if they do not do it regularly.

This could be particularly dangerous in an emergency situation where the computer does not know how to react, and asks for input from a human who may not have been paying attention, he warned.

'You will not be able to fiddle around looking for the instruction manual in the glove box that you've never looked at before,' he said.

He equates it to people who drive automatics forgetting how to easily drive a car with a manual gearbox.

Listeners in the UK can hear more on the potential of driverless cars on Frontiers on BBC Radio 4 on Weds 4th June.

Farm drugs being used like 'sweets'

The widespread use of antibiotics on farms without medical supervision has been condemned at a meeting of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

There are particular concerns about the US where authorities say it contributes significantly to resistance.

There are also worries that a new US-EU trade deal will see a watering down of tougher European laws on their use.

The OIE says it has tried to broker a compromise between the two regions.

But so far this has been unsuccessful.

It's estimated that 80% of the antibiotics purchased in the US are used on farm animals.

The drugs are given as prophylactics to livestock to help them avoid illnesses that are transmitted easily between beasts confined in large-scale feed lots.

The drugs are also used to boost the animal's weight.

'Start Quote

If they are circulating like... food or sweets, it can be an at-risk practice'

But the large-scale use has prompted concerns that microbes will develop resistance.

These toughened bugs are a threat to humans as well as animals.

Recent reports suggest a strong link between the overuse of antibiotics in animals and infections in humans.

Earlier this year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said this abuse of the drugs led to 23,000 deaths from infections resistant to treatment.

Part of the problem in the US is that often the antibiotics are administered by producers or farmers, without medical supervision.

A survey by the Department of Agriculture found that less than half of dairy farmers followed a vet's recommendations on using antibiotics.

Speaking at its annual congress in Paris, the head of the OIE condemned these practices.

'Antibiotics must be used by people with appropriate training on the risk,' Dr Bernard Vallat told BBC News.

'If they are circulating like... food or sweets, it can be an at-risk practice.'

In Europe, the drugs on farms are more tightly controlled and their use as a growth aid is banned.

Concerns have also been raised about the current negotiations between the US and EU over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

The aim of these talks is to reduce or remove trade barriers to boost economic activity between the EU and US.

While the EU says that its consumer, health and environmental protection regulations are 'not negotiable', trade campaigners are worried that a deal will see compromises - especially in the area of animal medicine.

'It is very clear in terms of industry interests on both sides of the Atlantic, that they are interested in removing barriers to trade and antibiotics are one of those key areas,' said Shefali Sharma from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

'They are going to agree to a framework where industry is at the table and the framework is going to be what is least restrictive on trade.'

'That is what is really problematic about having food safety standards being part of that equation.'

The OIE said it has already attempted to build a consensus on this issue - so far without success.

'The risk analysis about the use of antibiotics is different between the EU and North America,' said Dr Vallat.

'OIE tried to propose a compromise on the prudent use of the drugs in animals but those compromises must be democratically adopted by our members.'

Concern over the direction of these trade talks is higher on mainland Europe, especially Germany, according to Shefali Sharma.

'This is a big issue, every day you are seeing new constituencies waking up and saying we don't like the fact that there are a whole range of standards being discussed behind closed doors that implicate every public concern that we might think about,' she said.

The scale of the threat from both human and animal was underlined at this meeting by the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Margaret Chan, who warned that the world was headed to a 'post-biotic' era.

'If you need a hip replacement, if you need a stent in your heart vessels, no surgeon will operate on you. No one will provide treatment to cancer patients without coverage of antibiotics,' she said.

'I am not saying human health is more important than animal health, my message is that we are very closely linked in this entire ecosystem.'

In the UK, concerns have been raised that government funding cutbacks are hampering attempts to detect antibiotic resistance on farms.

Last week a group of leading researchers, writing in the journal Nature, called for the establishment of an independent global body to deal with the problem.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Grave find may be early false tooth

Archaeologists have identified what could be remains of the earliest false tooth found in Western Europe.

The dental implant comes from the richly-furnished timber burial chamber of an Iron Age woman that was excavated in Le Chene, northern France.

The woman, who was between 20 and 30 years old when she died, had an iron pin in place of an upper incisor tooth.

It is possible the pin once held a false tooth made from either wood or bone, which could have rotted away.

'Start Quote

The best hypothesis is that it was a dental prosthesis - or at least, an attempt at one'

End Quote Guillaume Seguin Archeosphere

The findings have been published in the scholarly journal Antiquity.

The grave was one of four adult female burials in an enclosure dating to the third century BC that were discovered during the construction of a housing development in the Champagne-Ardenne region.

The burials, which contained a rich array of grave goods, show all the hallmarks of the Celtic La Tene culture, which flourished across Central and Western Europe at the time.

'The skeleton was very badly preserved,' Guillaume Seguin, who excavated the young woman's skeleton in 2009, told BBC News.

'But the teeth were in an anatomical position, with the molars, pre-molars, canines and incisors. Then there was this piece of metal. My first reaction was: what is this?'

The teeth were bagged and taken away for analysis. Mr Seguin later realised that the woman had 31 rather than 32 teeth, and photos taken at the excavation site show the iron pin in the place where the missing tooth would have been.

'The fact that it has the same dimensions and shape as the teeth means that the best hypothesis is that it was a dental prosthesis - or at least, an attempt at one,' said Mr Seguin, from the Bordeaux-based archaeology firm Archeosphere.

There are reasons to doubt whether it was successful, says Mr Seguin. Firstly, the propensity for iron to corrode inside the body makes it unsuitable for use as a dental implant; titanium is the material of choice today for modern versions.

Secondly, the absence of sterile conditions during this period mean the pin could have caused an abscess, followed by an infection that could potentially have ended the individual's life.

However, the poor preservation of the remains means it is impossible to say whether the implant played any role in the woman's death.

While the find may be the earliest dental implant known from Western Europe, prosthetic teeth dating back 5,500 years have been found in Egypt and the Near East.

However, most are believed to have been inserted after death to restore the appearance of the deceased.

The researchers cannot completely rule out a post-mortem insertion of the pin in this case either. But they argue that several converging lines of evidence point to its use during life as an implant.

But it remains impossible to say for certain whether the pin once held a replacement tooth made of bone or wood, both of which could have perished in the acidic soil.

In Antiquity, Mr Seguin, along with co-authors from the University of Bordeaux, wrote that the burials 'convey the image of a social elite concerned about their appearance'.

They also note that the date of the burials coincides with a period when the Celtic Gauls were in contact with the Etruscan civilisation of northern Italy.

The Etruscans were known for their relative mastery of dentistry, although the partial dentures inserted into gold bands and fitted onto existing teeth represent a different approach to dental restoration than that seen in third century Gaul.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Colossal peat bog discovered in Congo

A vast peatland has been discovered in a remote part of Congo-Brazzaville.

The bog covers an area the size of England and is thought to contain billions of tonnes of peat.

Scientists say investigating the carbon-rich material could shed light on 10,000 years of environmental change in this little-studied region.

Dr Simon Lewis, from the University of Leeds, said: 'It's remarkable that there are parts of the planet that are still uncharted territory.'

He added: 'Few people venture into these swamps as they are quite difficult places to move around in and work in.'

Satellite images initially hinted at the presence of the enormous tropical peatland, but an expedition, starting from Itanga village in April, confirmed it was there.

The discovery team, from the University of Leeds, the Wildlife Conservation Society-Congo and Congo-Brazzaville's Marien Ngouabi University, had to contend with dwarf crocodiles, gorillas and elephants as they explored the area. But they said the biggest challenge was soggy feet.

Dr Lewis, who was working with PhD student Greta Dargie, added: 'You can only walk on these areas for a couple of months a year, right at the end of the dry season, so you have to time it right. Even then it is still wet every day.

'We were inside the swamp for three weeks, and the only time we had dry feet was when we were asleep in our tents. To place the tent, you have to build a platform because the ground is permanently water-logged.'

The team estimates that the bog covers between 100,000 and 200,000 square kilometres (40,000 to 80,000 sq miles), with the peat-layer reaching up to 7m (23) beneath the ground.

The researchers believe it holds billions of tonnes of partially decayed vegetation.

'Peatlands are formed because the plant matter going into the soil is not fully decomposed,' Dr Lewis explained.

'It requires slow conditions for the decomposition, so you naturally find most peatlands are in the cold zones. It's rare to find them in the wet and warm tropics, so that makes this an unusual discovery.'

Because the area holds so much organic matter it means a large amount of carbon is locked into the ground.

The scientists say analysing this material, which is thousands of years old, will help them to learn more about the Congo Basin's role in the world's past and present climate.

Dr Lewis said: 'Peatlands, generally, have been a big carbon sink over the past 10,000 years. They have been taking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it as peat for the long term.

'And what we've found in central Africa is another one of those areas, so it adds a little piece to that jigsaw puzzle of where all the carbon goes in the atmosphere, where the sources are and where the sinks are, particularly in the pre-industrial era.

'So we can reduce our uncertainty around the global carbon cycle before humans started changing it.'

The scientists have taken samples of the peat back to the UK to confirm its age and analyse the vegetation that it holds.

While some peat bogs around the world are under threat, particularly from drainage to make way for agriculture, the team thinks the Congo peatland is safe for now.

Dr Lewis said: 'It's remoteness naturally provides protection. And much of the area in the Republic of Congo is already a community reserve: it is managed by the Wildlife Conservation Society, the government and the local people. They have a management plan to manage the area and also increase their livelihoods and incomes.'

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Anger over 'invisible' rabies toll

A shortage of funds for vaccinating dogs is costing the lives of tens of thousands of children every year.

The head of the world animal health organisation (OIE) told BBC News that the invisible killer could be eliminated for one tenth of the cost of treating patients.

The most recent figures suggest around 55,000 people die every year from rabies.

Around 40% of those who are bitten are under 15 years of age.

One of the world's oldest diseases, rabies is the distressing result of exposure to a virus usually transmitted through the saliva of an infected dog or bat.

The virus affects the central nervous system and causes the brain to swell. If it is not treated before it reaches the nerves, it is incurable.

Rabies facts

  • Rabies occurs in more than 150 countries and territories.

  • 40% of those bitten are children aged under 15

  • Dogs are the source of 99% of human rabies deaths.

  • Wound cleaning and immunisation within a few hours after contact with a suspect rabid animal can prevent the onset of rabies and death.

  • Each year, more than 15m people worldwide are treated after exposure - this is estimated to prevent 327,000 rabies deaths annually

In 1885, Louis Pasteur and Emile Roux famously developed a vaccine which has saved millions of people from the dreaded illness.

This vaccine has been used to help eliminate the disease in many parts of the world, removing it from dogs and other species that can transmit the infection, including foxes.

But the costs of preventing it remain relatively high and this means that in poor parts of Asia, the disease persists.

The victims are often children, who perhaps approach infected dogs without fear or awareness.

As very young victims often aren't able to tell their parents what happened to them, health agencies fear that the actual total of those who die from the disease is much higher than the official figures.

Speaking at the annual congress of the OIE in Paris, Dr Vallat lamented the fact that international investment in eliminating the disease in dogs wasn't forthcoming.

'Even when we demonstrate that the cost of vaccinating dogs is 10% of the cost of treating people bitten by dogs in the world, we are not able to convince all donors of that message,' he told BBC News.

He contrasted the lack of investment in tackling rabies with the headlines that have greeted the recent discovery of Mers, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.

'Rabies is mainly in a small number of countries, it is not visible. We have up to 70,000 children dying every year in terrible pain, and the media don't take that, they take Mers with 200 very old people dying,' he said.

Another cause for concern is that some of the vaccines being used to prevent rabies in dogs and other animals are substandard and can actually make the situation worse.

'You can have very cheap vaccines for rabies, these are live vaccines, if these are not controlled you can infect the animals with the virus,' said Dr Vallat.

'Our standard is to use inactive vaccine, the animal makes antibodies on the basis of a non-living virus.'

In many parts of the world, including Eastern Europe, the authorities respond to outbreaks of rabies by culling dogs in an area.

Animal welfare campaigners point to examples such as Romania, where the authorities have carried out large scale culls, funded by the EU.

They are concerned that this practice is counter-productive.

'The reaction in Romania when clusters of cases occur is to go out and cull dogs in a kind of knee-jerk way,' said Dr Mark Jones from Humane Society International.

'The problem with that is that they are usually carried out in a very inhumane way and you are also disturbing the dog population leading to more interaction between dogs and that can result in you having a higher proportion of animals with rabies within an area than you did before.'

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New view of cellular 'skeleton'

Scientists have developed new tools for looking at structural proteins in action inside our cells.

The two fluorescent markers will 'switch on' when they bind to actin or tubulin, the building blocks of the cellular 'skeleton'.

Because they are safe and stable, the new markers can be added directly to cells in culture.

This makes for brilliant, live pictures of the architecture of living cells, reported in the journal Nature Methods.

A large team led by researchers from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) built on a previous discovery of a fluorescent molecule that only emits light when attached to the charged surface of a protein.

They coupled this marker to two different compounds, which specifically stick to the two most important structural proteins in nearly all cells.

The new tools emit light at far-red wavelengths, which is easily separated from background light and allows very detailed photographs to be taken using a microscopic technique called 'super-resolution' imaging.

Importantly, they easily pass into live cells and can be used at very low concentrations that are not toxic.

'You just add them directly into your cell culture, and they are taken up by the cells,' said Prof Kai Johnsson, one of the study's authors.

Pets to be tested for deadly Mers

Scientists are soon to test cats, dogs and even rats as they seek to understand the mysterious Mers infection.

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome was first discovered in 2012 and has so far, killed around 200 people globally.

While the virus that causes it has been found widely in camels, researchers say it could be lurking in other species.

One expert told BBC News that the hunt is likely to soon extend to animals that have close contact with people.

Mers was originally found in a patient from Bishah in Saudi Arabia but since then almost 600 cases of the infection have been discovered around the world, with around 30% of those who get sick dying from the illness.

Researchers believe the coronavirus that causes the infection crossed over from animals.

What is Mers?

  • It's a type of coronavirus

  • These cause respiratory infections in humans and animals

  • Symptoms include fever, cough and breathing difficulties

  • It can cause pneumonia and sometimes kidney failure

  • Experts believe the virus is not very contagious

  • They are unclear on the best treatment but advise good hand hygiene to prevent transmission

As the numbers of people infected by the virus rose, scientists sought to test common animals in the Middle East for exposure.

Using blood samples from camels in the Canary islands, Dutch researchers found the first antibodies to the disease. They liken these antibodies to footprints, indicating that the virus had once passed through the animal.

A recent study showed conclusively that the version of the virus circulating in humans is indistinguishable from the one that's been found in camels.

However the lead author of that report, Dr Thomas Briese from Columbia University, believes that there are many unanswered questions about the disease.

He points to the fact that if camels were the sole route of infection, then the illness should be more prevalent among those who work with or are in close contact with the animals.

And there have also been rare cases of people dying from Mers who have no known relationship with camels.

'We do have these sporadic cases where there is no known exposure to known cases and we question where do they catch the virus,' he told BBC News.

'In some cases there was animal contact or camel contact but in others not, so there is no clear definitive picture yet.'

Dr Briese says that other species, including goats and sheep, have been tested but haven't shown antibodies indicating exposure.

Another report showed that the geographic distribution of the disease in camels is far more widespread than previously thought, with significant reservoirs in Nigeria, Ethiopia and Tunisia.

Adding to the Mers mystery, there have been no reports of people dying from the respiratory infection in these areas.

These unknowns, says Dr Briese, are pushing researchers to extend the search for the Mers coronavirus to domestic animals.

'The others that we are looking into or are trying to look into are cats, dogs where there is more intimate contact, and any other wild species we can get serum from that we are not currently getting.'

The issue of how to tackle Mers will be on the agenda here in Paris, at the congress of the world organisation for animal health (OIE).

Addressing this meeting of veterinarians and ministers, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Margaret Chan also struck a note of caution on the role of camels in the spread of the disease.

'Our current concern of course is about the human cases of Mers, I thank OIE for a very balanced scientific assessment on the possible role of camels in the transmission cycle.

'The evidence however is by no means conclusive and we need to know this as we issue advise to the public.'

One of their biggest worries about Mers is that the virus will mutate and become more easily spread among humans. So far there is no evidence that has happened.

'It can happen at any time, mutations occur randomly,' said Dr Briese.

'The larger the numbers the higher the probability, that's the point of trying to stem these human infections.'

Work on the development of a vaccine has shown some progress although it is still highly experimental. Scientists say that if one is developed it will most likely be used on animals like camels and not on humans.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Study offers snapshot of rare parrot

UK researchers that headed to South America to learn more about one of the world's rarest parrots have returned with 'more questions than answers'.

A team from Chester Zoo spent three weeks studying Ecuador Amazon parrots.

The parrot was only reclassified as a species in its own right in December, before which it was deemed to be a subspecies of a common group of birds.

Only 600 individuals are estimated to remain in the wild, prompting the new species to be listed as Endangered.

'The truth is that we came back with far more questions than answers,' explained expedition leader Mark Pilgrim, director general of Chester Zoo.

'Suddenly, there are a whole number of things that we didn't expect and we now have questions about.'

One example was how the birds chose their roosting sites amid the mangroves of Cerro Blanco, located along the coast of western Ecuador.

'We knew from literature from our previous visit that the parrots roosted in the mangroves and flew to the dry forests to feed,' Dr Pilgrim told BBC News.

'The assumption was that they did that to protect themselves from predators that were not found on the mangrove islands, but they fly very far out into the mangroves.

'Shrimp farms use bird scaring devices, which are designed to frighten the herons and shore birds and stop them eating the farms' stock.

'So is this affecting [the parrots'] behaviour? We don't know.'

Lovesick parrots?

The study also raised questions about the birds' breeding behaviour.

Based on data from earlier surveys and literature, the researchers assumed that they would be monitoring the parrots during the breeding season.

'However, we did not find any proof that they were breeding at that time,' explained Dr Pilgrim.

The team monitored the daily flights made by the parrots from the mangroves to the dry forests, and the return journey at the end of each day.

'One of the methods used to assess how many of the birds are breeding was to count how many single birds were making the flight.

Although the birds fly in large groups, Dr Pilgrim said it was relatively easy to spot pairs within the group. During the breeding season, it had been assumed that females did not leave their nests in the dry forests because they were incubating eggs or feeding chicks.

'So during the breeding season, you get a higher proportion of single birds travelling back to the mangroves than you do during the non-breeding season,' he suggested.

However, the team only recorded 11% of the birds in flight as 'singles'.

'That could suggest that as few as 11% of the population were reproducing, which seems very low,' he observed.

However, Dr Pilgrim said that there was not 100% certainty that when the female is on the eggs in nests within the forest that the male still travels back to the mangroves.

'Maybe not all of them do travel back; maybe some of them stay in the forests in close proximity or share the nest with the female,' he said.

'So while there is some concern, there is still a lot to do before we can make clear and bold statements about what is happening there.'

Double-edged sword

But he added that there were some clearly positive aspects, as far as the remaining habitat was concerned.

'The dry forest area of Cerro Blanco appears to be extremely well protected; there is certainly a lot of ranger activity,' he said.

'All the time we were in the forest, we did not come across a lot of people who could be potentially poaching or tree felling.

'In that sense, it is very reassuring that the area appears to be well protected.'

Although a vast majority of the nation's mangrove habitat was destroyed in the past to clear the way for shrimp farms, Dr Pilgrim said that the remaining sites were very well protected.

However, he added: 'The estimated total population for this species is about 600. But the sub-populations are less than 250 birds. So, based on our findings, the IUCN is now classifying the birds as an endangered species.'

He acknowledged that the classification could be considered as a double-edged sword.

Although its continuing existence on the planet was uncertain, it did mean the species would be considered as a conservation priority, attracting resources.

Before the Ecuador Amazon parrot ( Amazona lilacina) was recognised as an individual species, it was considered to be a subspecies of the four-strong Amazona autumnalis group that had a combined population of about five million, meaning it was not deemed to be a conservation priority.

Dr Pilgrim said that plans were in place to repeat the Cerro Blanco survey every third year in order to build up a long-term dataset that would allow researchers to monitor the parrots' population dynamics.

He observed: 'The forest is protected, the mangrove is protected, there does not appear to be a huge amount of nest predation from people, so - in that sense - there is nothing drastic going on that is threatening them right now.'

UK report reveals large oil deposits

A government report into how much oil is in shale rocks in the Weald region of southern England will be published on Friday, the BBC understands.

The official report, undertaken by the British Geological Survey (BGS), covers an area that includes parts of Sussex, Hampshire and Kent.

The study will say that there are many billions barrels of oil in place.

But getting it out of the ground will involve the controversial process known as fracking.

Last year, a BGS study of the North of England suggested there could be as much as 1,300 trillion cubic feet of gas contained in shale rocks.

The BBC's John Moylan said that although there is vast quantities of shale oil and gas in the UK, only a fraction of it may be ultimately recoverable.

By way of comparison, around 45 billion barrels of oil equivalent has been extracted from the North Sea over the past 40 years.

The fracking process involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into rock at high pressure, a method protesters argue is environmentally damaging.

In the US, fracking has created an energy boom and led to speculation that the country could overtake Saudi Arabia as the world's biggest oil producer by 2020 or even sooner.

Critics argue that the fracking process damages water supplies and can cause earthquakes.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Nature inspires flying robot design

Nature is inspiring the design of the next generation of drones, or flying robots, that could eventually be used for everything from military surveillance to search and rescue.

In the journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, 14 research teams reveal their latest experimental drones.

They include a robot with bird-like grasping appendages, and some that form a robo-swarm or flock.

The developments are inspired by birds, bats, insects and even flying snakes.

Aerial robotics expert Prof David Lentink, from Stanford University in California, says that this sort of bio-inspiration is pushing drone technology forward, because evolution has solved challenges that drone engineers are just beginning to address.

'There is no drone that can avoid a wind turbine,' he told BBC News. 'And it is very difficult for drones to fly in urban environments,' where there are vast numbers of obstacles to navigate, and turbulent airflow to cope with.

Even the humble pigeon, Prof Lentink said, 'flies where drones still can't'.

Ready to fly

Some advances published in the journal directly demonstrate how these challenges can be overcome.

Others simply show, in very fine detail, exactly how flying animals achieve what they do. And such insights - for example, looking at how tiny insects stabilise themselves in turbulent air - will help inform future drone design.

To mimic what Prof Lentink described as insects' 'amazing capability of flight in clutter ', one team of researchers, from the University of Maryland, engineered sensors for their experimental drone based on insects' eyes.

These 'eyes' are actually miniature cameras connected to an on-board computer that is programmed to steer the drone away from surrounding objects.

Another team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania has engineered a raptor-like appendage for a drone, enabling it to grasp objects at high speeds by swooping in like a bird of prey.

Among the work focusing on unravelling the mysteries of insect, bird and bat flight, was an experiment by researchers at the University of North Carolina - tethering a moth inside a lab-based tornado chamber.

Footage of the flying insect revealed how it twisted its wings to compensate for the unstable, swirling air.

Another team led by Prof Kenny Breuer at Brown University built an eerily accurate robotic copy of a bat wing, demonstrating the wing's remarkable range of movement and flexibility. This is largely thanks to the thin wing membrane that is unique to bats.

Membrane-based bat wings are of particular interest to drone engineers, because they are so tolerant of impact.

'They deform instead of breaking,' explained Prof Lentink. 'They are also adapting better to the airflow because they're so flexible.'

'Benefiting humanity'

Dr Mirko Kovac is director of the aerial robotics laboratory at Imperial College, London. His team is currently working on robots that can 'perch' on trees and other objects, enabling drones to become 'mobile networks of sensors'.

'I'm very excited about the future of this field,' he told the BBC.

'There are a lot of tasks that we can do with flying robots, such as sensing pollution, observing and protecting wildlife, or we could use them for search and rescue operations after tsunamis.'

While there are already many drones in commercial use - in the UK, for example - the regulator - Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) - has issued around 50 permissions, essentially drone-operating licences, in just the last year to commercial operators. This allows them to fly their drones in UK airspace.

The vast majority of these are for aerial photography, and current regulations state that drone operators must have visual contact with their vehicle.

A CAA spokesperson told BBC News that, at the moment, 'drones could not be allowed to go off and fly out of the operator's sight'.

'There isn't the technology in place to allow them to avoid airborne obstacles,' the CAA continued, adding that the authority was watching drone development closely in order to 'develop regulation in tandem with technology'.

And, as these demonstrations highlight, bio-inspired technology is beginning to allow flying robots to do far more than capture footage or pictures from the air.

Dr Kovac commented: 'It's important that the applications benefit humanity.

'We must take the responsibility to built robots that are beneficial to society and used in an ethical and positive way.'

Immune children aid malaria fight

A group of children in Tanzania who are naturally immune to malaria are helping scientists to develop a new vaccine.

US researchers have found that they produce an antibody that attacks the malaria-causing parasite.

Injecting a form of this antibody into mice protected the animals from the disease.

The team, who published their results in the journal Science, said trials in primates and humans were now needed to fully assess the vaccine's promise.

Prof Jake Kurtis, director of the Center for International Health Research at Rhode Island Hospital, Brown University School of Medicine, said: 'I think there's fairly compelling evidence that this is a bona fide vaccine candidate.

'However it's an incredibly difficult parasite to attack. It's had millions of years of evolution to co-opt and adapt to our immune responses - it really is a formidable enemy.'

Trapped inside

The study began with a group of 1,000 children in Tanzania, who had regular blood samples taken in the first years of their lives.

A small number of these children - 6% - developed a naturally acquired immunity to malaria, despite living in an area where the disease was rife.

'Start Quote

The survival rate was over two-fold longer if the mice were vaccinated compared to unvaccinated'

End Quote Prof Jake Kurtis Center for International Health Research

'There are some individuals who become resistant and there some individuals who do not become resistant,' explained Prof Kurtis.

'We asked what were the specific antibodies expressed by resistant children that were not expressed by susceptible children.'

The team found that an antibody produced by the immune children hits the malaria parasite at a key stage in its life-cycle.

It traps the tiny organism in red blood cells, preventing it from bursting out and spreading throughout the body.

Tests, carried out in small groups of mice, suggest this antibody could act as a potential vaccine.

Prof Kurtis said: 'The survival rate was over two-fold longer if the mice were vaccinated compared to unvaccinated - and the parasitemia (the number of parasites in the blood) were up to four-fold lower in the vaccinated mice.'

The team said they were encouraged by the results, but stressed more research was required.

Prof Kurtis said: 'I am cautious. I've seen nothing so far in our data that would cause us to lose enthusiasm. However it still needs to get through a monkey study and the next phase of human trials.'

This latest study is one of many avenues being explored in the race to find a malaria vaccine.

The most advanced is the RTS,S vaccine, developed by GlaxoSmithKline. The drug company is seeking regulatory approval after Phase III clinical trials showed that the drug almost halved the number of malaria cases in young children and reduced by about 25% the number of malaria cases in infants.

The most recent figures from the World Health Organization suggest the disease killed more than 600,000 people in 2012, with 90% of these deaths occurring in sub-Saharan Africa.

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Flies take time over tough decisions

Just like us, fruit flies dwell on difficult decisions, according to a study published in the journal Science.

They spend more time choosing between a strong and a weak smell if the difference is small.

The research links this deliberation to a particular gene, FoxP, and the activity of fewer than 200 neurons.

Mutations in FoxP, also associated with cognition and language in humans, made flies' decisions even slower without affecting which choice they made.

Gathering information before committing to a decision is a hallmark of intelligence. If the information is unclear, the choice is trickier and the decision takes more time.

We do it, other primates do it, even rats and mice do it - but now it seems that flies do too.

Confident choices

'This is the clearest evidence yet of a cognitive process running in a very simple brain,' said Prof Gero Miesenböck, whose team did the work at the University of Oxford's Centre for Circuits and Behaviour.

'People tended to think of insects as tiny robots that just respond reflexively to signals from the environment. Now we know that's not true.'

'Start Quote

Brain circuits collect information like a bucket collects water'

End Quote Dr Shamik DasGupta University of Oxford

After training fruit flies to avoid a new smell at a specific intensity, the researchers offered them a choice between that dangerous odour level and a weaker one. The flies did well when the safe option was four or five times weaker, but chose randomly if the difference was only 10%.

Crucially, as the differences became smaller and trickier to distinguish, the flies took more and more time to make a decision, waiting much longer in an intermediate zone between the two odour levels.

This is a pattern that psychologists have studied for many decades. 'The same mathematical models that describe human decision-making also capture the flies' behaviour perfectly,' Prof Miesenböck told BBC News. 'That's remarkable.'

It suggests that the fly's brain is gradually accumulating evidence until it has enough to make a choice with confidence.

Next, the researchers looked for mutant strains of fruit fly that showed differences in this decision-making pattern. A mutation in the gene FoxP fit the bill perfectly: these flies were even slower to make up their minds, but they continued to make just as many correct choices.

Leaking information

The team traced the effect of FoxP to about 200 neurons, 0.1% of the fly's total brain-cell count, and all within the 'mushroom bodies' - a pair of brain compartments already known to be important for learning. Making other disruptive changes to these same 200 neurons produced a similar effect.

'Start Quote

This gene has been around for a really long time in evolutionary history, doing interesting things in the brain'

End Quote Prof Simon Fisher Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

It all points to a circuit of brain cells that support decision-making by amassing relevant information. The genetic changes might effect the accumulation or the storage of that information.

'Before a decision is made, brain circuits collect information like a bucket collects water,' said Dr Shamik DasGupta, the study's lead author. 'Once the amount of accumulated information has risen to a certain level, the decision is triggered. When FoxP is defective, either the flow of information into the bucket is reduced to a trickle, or the bucket has sprung a leak.'

Professor Matthew Cobb from the University of Manchester, who was not involved with the study, says the experiments are impressive and is not surprised they took the Oxford team five years. 'The data are incredibly solid,' he told the BBC.

Humans have four different genes that are related to FoxP and one of them in particular, FOXP2, has previously been linked with language and cognitive development.

One of the scientists who discovered FOXP2 was Professor Simon Fisher, now working in the Netherlands at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. He told BBC News the latest findings are exciting and contribute to a 'fascinating picture' of the gene and its history.

Prof Fisher explained that work like this in other species suggests the role of FOXP2 in humans is 'built on ancient functions', relating to the wiring of neural circuits and how they change as we learn.

'It turns out that this is a gene that has been around for a really long time in evolutionary history, doing interesting things in the brain,' he said.

Chelsea flower show goes digital

It's not what you might expect from a flower show: strobe lighting, a gentle mist falling from above, and pretend fertilizer seeping from hidden vents.

But the RHS Chelsea Flower Show is going digital. The 'Butterfly Effect' experience is the first exhibit to win a medal that doesn't include any plants.

It's not about smelling the blooms or admiring the planting. Visitors stand in a room with a wrap-around screen and surround-sound and watch an immersive 3D film.

It includes a cityscape seen from the point of view of a butterfly and a microscopic view of one of the insects' eyes.

The exhibit is part of a larger environmental education initiative called Our Planet.

The organisation creates 'bio-educational' visitor centres around the world. The aim is to highlight threatened species and the destruction of fragile ecosystems.

In the permanent exhibition in St Lucia in the Caribbean, visitors experience floods and tsunamis. In London, the focus is on butterflies and the crucial role they play as pollinators.

'People tend to be turned off by environmental issues,' says Sarah Rosenthal-Almirall, who founded One Planet. 'We wanted to make it seem like climate change is happening to them. It's doing a bit of the trick of the brain, essentially.'

The award of a silver medal is breaking new ground at the show. 'We understand that there was a big debate on whether to give us the medal,' says Sarah. 'We thought we might be impossible to judge.'

'We have wind, rain, strobe and even smell machines,' says Carl Miller, creative director of the Colour Project, who produced the installation. Ultra-high-definition video technology is used alongside detailed animation. He is 'proud' to have got the accolade.

Dr Alistair Griffiths is the RHS director of science and, he emphasises, a passionate gardener.

'The solutions to horticulture will not just be plant breeding but also technology. To engage a wider audience, we need this to help engage people.

'Gardens cover 4% of the UK land surface area. If we don't look after pollinators then some of the things we take for granted will go. If this helps people to connect pollinators and plants, then it's a good thing.'

The digital plans are even bigger for next year.

The exhibit is set to move from a corner of the Great Pavilion - to go outside to one of the prime show positions.

The display design resembles the geodesic domes of the Eden Project in Cornwall. Seven 'pearls' will be erected, ranging in size from six to 14m in diameter. It will cost in the region of £1.2m.

You will be able to go inside and jump about on an interactive tile grid to learn about biomimicry, and touch screens to test out the effect of climate change on your tulips and hostas.

There will also be a game where you can design and nurture your own garden, and a 4D cinema complete with a holographic avatar examining how some ecosystems around the world are collapsing.

But for Chelsea-goers, isn't the arrival of such technology like a weed popping up in a sacred garden?

Donna, from New York, enjoyed the experience: 'It was good, but sad. Britain is much more on top of all things environmental compared with the US, so it doesn't surprise me that this is here.'

Russ, a regular attendee, says: 'It's really important. The scientific stuff about mobile phones is amazing. You can see this on a TV but it doesn't go in.'

However, Joan and a companion, who have travelled to the show from Dublin don't intend to spend time in the exhibit, saying: 'We've come a long way; we're here for the flowers!'

Follow @BBCMarshall

Comet-chaser completes 'big burn'

European comet-chaser Rosetta has taken a big step towards making its historic rendezvous with a 4km-wide ball of ice and rock in early August.

Controllers confirm the spacecraft conducted a major orbit manoeuvre on Wednesday without incident.

The near-eight-hour thruster burn was designed to slow the satellite's speed relative to Comet 67P-CG.

More adjustments are required, but the operation was a significant event in ensuring Rosetta meets its target.

The pair are roughly 500 million km from Earth and separated by about a million km, and closing.

Wednesday's big burn was intended to take out a big chunk (almost 300m/s) of the velocity Rosetta had (755m/s) with respect to 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Engineers at the European Space Agency's 'mission control' in Darmstadt, Germany, will have to examine in detail the telemetry it received from the satellite but confirmed on Thursday morning that the manoeuvre was 'completed nominally'.

Paolo Ferri, who heads up the operations at the Darmstadt centre, described Rosetta as having 'very stable performance'. 'Team very happy,' reported the centre's Twitter feed.

Comet 67P/C-G is travelling around the Sun on a big loop that takes it out beyond the orbit of Jupiter and then back in to just inside the orbit of Mars.

Rosetta is attempting to target its rendezvous at the start of the inward curve, before our star can warm the 4km-wide body and trigger large jets of gas and dust from its surface.

The mission goal is to orbit the comet, starting on 6 August, and then follow the body in its orbit.

In November, an attempt will be made to put a small lander, called Philae, on 67P's surface.

If all goes well, the mission should return some remarkable insights on the behaviour and chemical make-up of its icy quarry. and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Forest carbon loss 'underestimated'

The amount of carbon lost from tropical forests is being significantly underestimated, a new study reports.

Experts say that in addition to loss of trees, the degradation of trees by selective logging and fires causes large amounts of 'hidden' emissions.

The slow moving process has remained almost invisible to satellite observations.

The study team say that 40% of carbon emissions from deforestation in the Amazon is due to degradation.

The research is due to be published in the journal Global Change Biology.

'Start Quote

Chunks of the forest are affected but when you look from the satellite image you still see trees'

End Quote Dr Erika Berenguer University of Lancaster

The rapid removal of trees in the Amazon rainforest has been a significant source of global carbon emissions for many decades.

It is said to account for around 12% of human induced greenhouse gases, roughly the equivalent of both agriculture and transport.

Grounded assessment

But the estimates of these losses have relied mainly on satellite observations to count the missing trees.

Scientists have long been aware that the human impact on the rainforest is a slow process and that carbon is being lost even though the satellites show the tree cover is still intact.

Deciphering degradation

The researchers compared four different types of forest to accurately assess the scale of emissions. They looked at undisturbed sites, selectively logged sites, forests that had been logged and burned and sites that had once been turned into pasture and were now returning to forest.

'With the loss of the big trees from selective logging and fire, you see them being substituted by loads and loads of small diameter trees and lianas - that make a highly dense understory,' said Dr Berenguer.

This new study attempts to overcome these limitations by using on-the-ground assessments. Over 70,000 trees were measured and over 5,000 soil samples were taken in an effort to get an accurate picture of the impact of degradation.

'It's been completely overlooked,' said lead author Dr Erika Berenguer from Lancaster University.

'When we talk about deforestation, we completely remove the forest and all that carbon is lost.'

'When you talk about degradation it is more cryptic. Chunks of the forest are affected but when you look from the satellite image you still see trees, you just don't know the condition, and that is why it is overlooked.'

Degradation is slow moving and the researchers acknowledge it is hard to measure. They believe that this is one of the reasons that it has been underestimated.

Another factor is that in Brazil much of the degraded forest is in private hands, meaning that researchers have to work with a large numbers of landowners to assess the losses.

The team believe their study is the most accurate picture yet of the scale of emissions from this source. They believe that in 2010 this amounted to 54 billion tonnes, around 40% of the carbon loss from deforestation in the Amazon.

'It is mainly fires that escape from burning pasture, selective logging and edge effects,' said Dr Berenguer.

'These edge effects happen when you fragment a forest, when it is close to a pasture, that border is subject to higher temperatures, higher winds and the forest starts dying out from the edge toward the core.'

The scientists believe that degradation is having an impact on global emissions of carbon as forests in Indonesia and Africa are all subject to similar processes. Existing efforts to tackle the problem they say, are simply not effective.

'The take-home message from this report for me is the need for better management of tropical lands, with strict controls on selective logging to avoid unnecessary damage to the forest,' said Dr Simon Lewis, a forest scientist at University College London, who wasn't involved with the study.

REDD not dead

Reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation plus pro-forest activities (REDD+) has been a key part of global climate negotiations for over a decade.

Delegates have been trying to find a way to pay countries to reduce emissions from forests but the process has struggled to find robust methods for verifying the actions taken to curb deforestation.

Last November in Warsaw, negotiators agreed a significant step forward that many observers believe will be key to preserving forest carbon.

'This needs to be joined together with fire management, to avoid fires getting near tropical forests.'

Monitoring for degradation has been attempted in Brazil in the past but was discontinued after a number of years. The researchers believe that it is crucial not only to increase the accuracy of carbon counts but to ensure that future attempts to limit activities that encourage degradation are enforced.

But Dr Berenguer believes that researchers and consumers have a role to play as well.

'I would like to see the scientific community paying more attention to it, it is difficult work but we can't overlook it anymore.

'I would urge the general public to pay attention to their shopping, they can lead to these high levels of emissions by buying uncertified timber.'

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X-rays shine light on mystery 'bird'

Is it a bird? Is it a dinosaur? Or something in between?

The feathered limbs of Archaeopteryx have fascinated palaeontologists ever since Charles Darwin's day.

Only 12 of these curious creatures have ever been found.

Now these precious fossils are going under the glare of a giant X-ray machine - to find out what lies buried beneath the surface.

Using a new 'camera obscura' technique - inspired by Leonardo da Vinci - scientists have captured some of the clearest ever images of Archaeopteryx.

For the first time, they can see the complete skeleton in 3D. Not just the surface outlines, but all the hidden bones and feathers too.

They hope to discover how 'the first true birds' evolved from feathered dinosaurs and took flight.

And what's more, to answer a riddle that has puzzled palaeontologists for 150 years. Could Archaeopteryx fly, or not?

The new tests are taking place at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, at the foot of the French Alps.

In the past, large fossil slabs were too bulky to be scanned in a synchrotron light source - a type of particle accelerator which generates high-energy X-rays.

But now scientists here are experimenting with a clever new trick, inspired by a very ancient and simple idea - the pinhole camera.

The basic concept has been around since at least 400 BC. But it was Leonardo da Vinci who made the first detailed drawings of a camera obscura in his 1485 sketchbook, Codex Atlanticus.

Light entering through a tiny hole is magnified and projected onto a screen wall.

Leonardo's camera allowed artists inside a tent to accurately trace and paint panoramic landscapes.

In a synchrotron, the pinhole system allows large fossils - too bulky to be rotated and scanned via conventional techniques (such as tomography) - to be captured in full by an extremely narrow X-ray beam.

'It's a beam that's only the thickness of a human hair. But extremely powerful. If you stood in front of it you would be killed,' says Dr Paul Tafforeau, a palaeontologist at ESRF.

'As the beam goes through the sample you have diffusion of the X-rays and this diffusion pattern can be detected via the camera obscura - a very small hole in a piece of lead. Afterwards, you can reconstruct the images in 3D.'

If their pinhole trick works as well on all dinosaur fossils as initial tests on Archaeopteryx suggest, it could open up new avenues in fossil research. The world's biggest, most famous dinosaur skeletons could be seen in a whole new light.

And so to demonstrate their proof of principle, the ESRF team began by summoning a very famous specimen.

Archaeopteryx caused a major stir when the first fossil was unearthed in 1861 - just two years after Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species.

With the claws and teeth of a dinosaur, but the feathers of a bird, it was immediately recognised as a transitional form - proof of Darwin's theory.

Hailed as 'the first true bird', the discovery shook the scientific community. Not bad for an animal as small as a magpie - only 20 inches from head to tail.

In recent years, more primitive bird ancestors have been unearthed in Liaoning, China. But the fascination with Archaeopteryx has endured - driven by the unsolved mystery over its ability to fly.

Around 150 million years ago, the modern-day region of Germany where Archaeopteryx lived was an archipelago of islands in a shallow tropical sea, covered in lush vegetation.

'We want to know how Archaeopteryx lived,' says Martin Roeper, curator of the Solnhofen Museum, which houses one of the specimens.

'Was he a little dinosaur running, climbing trees - or was he flying? That's the most important question. Could Archaeopteryx fly or not?'

The answer grows closer as new, microscopic details of its anatomy emerge from ever more precise scans.

Blood vessels within the bones, for example, can be compared to modern birds.

One by one, the 12 fossils have been arriving at the ESRF. And very soon there may be a major breakthrough to announce.

In the meantime: 'What is really remarkable are the feathers - they are far more visible by this new scan than by looking at the original specimen,' says Paul Tafforeau.

'But that's not all, because this technique reveals a lot about the anatomy that's not visible below the surface.

'You can see many hidden details inside the stone. With these we can better understand what Archaeopteryx really was.'

If this X-ray spectacle can be repeated with other famous fossils, there may be other discoveries that ruffle the feathers of established wisdom.

And not only scientists will see the benefit, says Martin Roeper.

'In former times the visitors to our museum cannot easily understand the fossil - because they cannot see the feathers.

'But now that we see the whole wings - now everyone can see that Archaeopteryx really is a very fine specimen.'