Science and research NEWS

Research NEWS

Leave a comment

Top HIV/AIDS Researchers Killed on Malaysian Jet

An unconfirmed number of the world’s leading HIV/AIDS researchers and activists were among the 298 people killed on a Malaysian passenger jet that was shot down over Ukraine, although the airline has not yet released names and figures.

The researchers were en route to the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia, set to begin Sunday.

The Sydney Morning Herald said those attending a preconference meeting in Sydney were told that around 100 of their colleagues were on the plane. Subsequent media outlets have since noted that the number may be fewer.

The plane, which was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, crashed yesterday. American intelligence authorities believe a surface-to-air missile brought the aircraft down in eastern Ukraine but it is not yet clear who fired it.

“There’s been confirmed a number of senior people who were coming out here who were researchers, who were medical scientists, doctors, people who’ve been to the forefront of dealing with AIDS across the world,” Victoria Premier Denis Napthine told reporters in Melbourne. “The exact number is not yet known, but there is no doubt it’s a substantial number.”

The former president of the International AIDS Society Joep Lange, MD, a well-known HIV researcher from the Netherlands, was believed to be among the dead, along with his wife and collaborator Jacqueline van Tongeren.

Dr. Joep Lange. JEAN AYISSI/AFP/Getty Images

Chris Beyrer, president-elect of the International AIDS Society, said if reports of Dr. Lange’s death were true, “then the HIV/AIDS movement has truly lost a giant,” the Associated Press reported.

Nobel laureate Dr. Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, codiscoverer of the AIDS virus and president of the International AIDS Society, paid tribute to Dr. Lange in a speech in the Australian capital, Canberra.

“Joep was a wonderful person — a great professional — but more than that, a wonderful human being,” she said. “If it is confirmed, it will be a terrible loss for all of us. I have no words, really, to try to express my sadness. I feel totally devastated.”

The conference will continue out of respect for the lives lost: “Because we know that it’s really what they would like us to do,” she told reporters.

Dr. Lange had been working on HIV since the earliest years of the epidemic, participating in clinical trials and research across the world, Dr. Barre-Sinoussi said.

“The cure for AIDS may have been on that plane. We just don’t know. You can’t just help but wonder about the kind of expertise on that plane,” Trevor Stratton, an HIV consultant, told an Australian television station.

The conference is expected to be attended by 14,000 delegates from around the world. Former US President Bill Clinton and British activist/musician Sir Bob Geldof are to deliver speeches.

The World Health Organization’s Geneva-based spokesman Glenn Thomas, who was en route to the conference, was also among the dead, said Christian Lindmeier, spokesman for the organization’s Western Pacific region. “Everybody’s devastated,” Lindmeier said. “It’s a real blow.”

Some 35 million people live with HIV, although global AIDS-related deaths and new infections have fallen by more than a third in a decade, raising hopes of beating the killer disease by 2030, the United Nations

Leave a comment

NASA’s ‘Flying Saucer’ Readies for First Test Flight

To test a new technology for landing heavy payloads on Mars, NASA is about to drop a flying-saucer shaped vehicle from a helium balloon high above Earth’s surface.

The first launch opportunity for the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) is June 3rd at 8:30 a.m. HST, when the launch window opens at the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii.  Officials are calling it an “engineering shakeout flight.”


A saucer-shaped test vehicle holding equipment for landing large payloads on Mars is shown in the Missile Assembly Building at the US Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kaua‘i, Hawaii.  More

“The agency is moving forward and getting ready for Mars as part of NASA’s Evolvable Mars campaign,” says Michael Gazarik, associate administrator for Space Technology at NASA Headquarters in Washington. As NASA plans increasingly ambitious robotic missions to Mars, laying the groundwork for human science expeditions to come, missions will require larger and heavier spacecraft. The objective of the LDSD project is to see if the cutting-edge, rocket-powered test vehicle operates as it was designed — in near-space at high Mach numbers.

The way NASA’s saucer climbs to test altitude is almost as distinctive as the test vehicle itself.

“We use a helium balloon — that, when fully inflated, would fit snugly into Pasadena’s Rose Bowl — to lift our vehicle to 120,000 feet,” said Mark Adler, project manager for the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “From there we drop it for about one and a half seconds. After that, it’s all about going higher and faster — and then it’s about putting on the brakes.”

A fraction of a second after dropping from the balloon, and a few feet below it, four small rocket motors will fire to spin up and gyroscopically stabilize the saucer. A half second later, a Star 48B long-nozzle, solid-fueled rocket engine will kick in with 17,500 pounds of thrust, sending the test vehicle to the edge of the stratosphere.


A saucer-shaped vehicle designed to test interplanetary landing devices hangs on a tower in preparation for launch at the Pacific Missile Range. More

“Our goal is to get to an altitude and velocity which simulates the kind of environment one of our vehicles would encounter when it would fly in the Martian atmosphere,” said Ian Clark, principal investigator of the LDSD project at JPL. “We top out at about 180,000 feet and Mach 4. Then, as we slow down to Mach 3.8, we deploy the first of two new atmospheric braking systems.”

“After years of imagination, engineering and hard work, we soon will get to see our Keiki o ka honua, our ‘boy from Earth,’ show us its stuff,” says Adler. “If our flying saucer hits its speed and altitude targets, it will be a great day.”

The project management team decided also to fly two supersonic decelerator technologies that will be thoroughly tested during two more LDSD flight tests next year. If this year’s test vehicle flies as expected, the LDSD team may get a treasure-trove of data on how the 6-meter supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator (SIAD-R) and the supersonic parachute operate a full year ahead of schedule.

The SIAD-R, essentially an inflatable doughnut that increases the vehicle’s size and, as a result, its drag, is deployed at about Mach 3.8. It will quickly slow the vehicle to Mach 2.5 where the parachute, the largest supersonic parachute ever flown, first hits the supersonic flow. About 45 minutes later, the saucer is expected to make a controlled landing onto the Pacific Ocean off Hawaii.

NASA TV will carry live images and commentary of LDSD engineering test. The test vehicle itself carries several onboard cameras. It is expected that video of selected portions of the test, including the rocket-powered ascent, will be downlinked during the commentary. Websites streaming live video of the test include and

Leave a comment

Solar Mini-Max

Years ago, in 2008 and 2009 an eerie quiet descended on the sun.  Sunspot counts dropped to historically-low levels and solar flares ceased altogether.  As the longest and deepest solar minimum in a century unfolded, bored solar physicists wondered when “Solar Max” would ever return.

They can stop wondering. “It’s back,” says Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center.  “Solar Max has arrived.”


A new ScienceCast video examines the curious Solar Max of 2014.  Play it

Pesnell is a leading member of the NOAA/NASA Solar Cycle Prediction Panel, a blue-ribbon group of solar physicists who meet from time to time to forecast future solar cycles.  It’s not as easy as it sounds. Although textbooks call it the “11-year solar cycle,” the actual cycle can take anywhere from 9 to 14 years to complete.  Some Solar Maxes are strong, others weak, and, sometimes, as happened for nearly 70 years in the 17th century, the solar cycle can vanish altogether. 

Pesnell points to a number of factors that signal Solar Max conditions in 2014: “The sun’s magnetic field has flipped; we are starting to see the development of long coronal holes; and, oh yes, sunspot counts are cresting.”

Another panelist, Doug Bieseker of the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center, agrees with Pesnell: “Solar Maximum is here …. Finally.” According to an analysis Bieseker presented at NOAA’s Space Weather Workshop in April, the sunspot number for Solar Cycle 24 is near its peak right now.

They agree on another point, too:  It is not very impressive. 

“This solar cycle continues to rank among the weakest on record,” comments Ron Turner of Analytic Services, Inc. who serves as a Senior Science Advisor to NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program.  To illustrate the point, he plotted the smoothed sunspot number of Cycle 24 vs. the previous 23 cycles since 1755. “In the historical record, there are only a few Solar Maxima weaker than this one.”

As a result, many researchers have started calling the ongoing peak a “Mini-Max.”


This plot prepared by Ron Turner of Analytic Services, Inc., shows the smoothed sunspot number of Cycle 24 (red) vs. the previous 23 cycles since 1755.  Larger image

Pesnell believes that “Solar Cycle 24, such as it is, will probably start fading by 2015.” Ironically, that is when some of the bigger flares and magnetic storms could occur.  Biesecker has analyzed historical records of solar activity and he finds that most large events such as strong flares and significant geomagnetic storms typically occur in the declining phase of solar cycles—even weak ones.

Indeed, this “Mini-Max” has already unleashed one of the strongest storms in recorded history.  On July 23, 2012, a plasma cloud or “CME” rocketed away from the sun as fast as 3000 km/s, more than four times faster than a typical eruption. The storm tore through Earth orbit, but fortunately Earth wasn’t there. Instead it hit NASA’s STEREO-A spacecraft, which recorded the event for analysis.  Researchers now believe the eruption was as significant as the iconic Carrington Event of 1859—a solar storm that set telegraph offices on fire and sparked Northern Lights as far south as Hawaii. If the 2012 “superstorm” had hit Earth, the damage to power grids and satellites would have been significant.

It all adds up to one thing: “We’re not out of the woods yet,” says Pesnell.  Even a “Mini-Max” can stir up major space weather—and there’s more to come as the cycle declines.

Leave a comment

Neandertal ancestor? Ancient skulls suggest a long path to Neandertals

A clutch of skulls found deep inside a Spanish cave look a lot like Neandertals, an ancient humanlike species. But the shape of these skulls is not quite what scientists would expect from a Neandertal. Such a mix of features suggests that this species, which lived long before Neandertals, was related to them. The new findings also suggest Neandertals went through a long and complicated evolution.

The oldest known true Neandertals lived about 200,000 years ago. (The oldest human remains, for comparison, also date back some 200,000 years.) The 17 skulls analyzed for the new study came from far more ancient hominids: These pre-human folk lived roughly 430,000 years ago. Their skulls provide the oldest evidence of Neandertal-like features, says Juan Luis Arsuaga. This paleontologist led the new study. He works at Complutense University of Madrid, in Spain.

The newfound skulls had protruding teeth and no chin. Those Neandertal-like features suggest these ancient folk used their mouths — like tools — to hold onto things. This ability may have been important to the survival of Neandertals, Arsuaga toldScience News. He and his coworkers describe their findings in the June 20 Science.

Like all living things, Neandertals evolved from an earlier species. That means they changed, probably slowly, over long stretches of time. The skulls in Spain came from a species that lived long before proper Neandertals — but they probably had a common ancient ancestor. The new study suggests that the Neandertal species evolved through many twists and turns. The newly analyzed skulls belonged to one species that popped up during that evolution.

Indeed, the skulls that ended up in a Spanish cave may have come from one of many species that arose and went extinct long before true Neandertals, says Jean-Jacques Hublin.  An anthropologist not involved in the new study, he works at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. 

The brain case — the rear part of the skull that holds the brain — was rather small in the 430,000-year-old folk, says Hublin. Both humans and Neandertals have large brain cases. The newly analyzed skulls suggest that humans and Neandertals may have evolved their big brains in different ways, Hublin says. Over time, those differences may have led humans to success — and Neandertals to extinction.

Arsuaga says the bones raise other questions, too. They showed up at a site now called Sima de los Huesos, or “pit of bones.”  But scientists don’t know how the ancient bones got there.

No populations as old as these pre-Neandertals are known to have practiced end-of-life rituals, such as burying their dead, Arsuaga points out. So how did these ancient bones end up in a Spanish cave? “Someone, some agent had to put them there,” he told Science News. But who or what is responsible? That, he says, is “a problem that is very difficult to solve.”

Leave a comment

Here’s a list of tips that leading health agencies recommend to help antibiotics remain effective longer

Antibiotics are wonder drugs. They can cure infections that used to commonly kill people. In recent years, however, many of the bacteria that these medicines used to wipe out are finding ways to survive. That means potentially killer infections are cropping up more often. There are still a few medicines that seem to quash resistant germs. The number of drugs in this category, however, has been falling. Doctors tend to avoid using these drugs — which they call the “last line of defense” — until they find that other drugs aren’t working. Meanwhile, biologists and engineers are working to develop new antibiotic treatments.

But in this crusade to fight antibiotic resistance, everyone has a role to play. Here are some tips on what you can do:

  • Use antibiotics wisely. Don’t expect the doctor to prescribe antibiotics every time you get a cough or fever. Viruses cause many of these, and antibiotics don’t kill viruses. Also keep in mind that even for some infections caused by bacteria, antibiotics aren’t needed. You will often get better just as quickly without taking these medicines. Be patient, though — some coughs can take three to four weeks to clear.
  • Learn how to deal with viral infections. Don’t pressure your doctor for antibiotics if it appears that you have a viral infection, with a cough, fever and chills. Instead, get plenty of rest and drink fluids as your immune system tackles the infection. Over-the-counter medications might help relieve symptoms as your body fights off the infection.
  • Take antibiotics exactly as prescribed. Follow the labeled instructions precisely. And even as you start to feel better, continue taking the rest of this medicine. Some infections aren’t truly gone when you start to feel better. If you don’t finish the last of your medicine, you allow some still-lingering germs to develop resistance. Now, if you spread them by sneezing, coughing or touching a surface with germy hands, antibiotics may not help the next person who becomes infected (and it could be a friend or family member).
  • Never take antibiotics that were prescribed for someone else. That medicine may not be right for your illness. Taking the wrong medicine may delay your recovery and allow bacteria to multiply — perhaps developing resistance along the way.
  • Never take antibiotics without a prescription. In many countries, a prescription is not needed to get these medicines. You are unlikely to know which, if any, will help your particular infection. And taking antibiotics when you don’t need them contributes to the development of resistance.
  • Stay at home when you’re sick. Prevent the spread of your germs by avoiding contact with others, by washing your hands frequently and by getting the rest that your body needs to heal.


Leave a comment

Strangest Genitals In The Animal Kingdom


Here at IFLS, we love many things. But we relish the opportunity to talk about two of our favorite subjects- animals, and genitals. So we thought we would dedicate an entire article on wacky willies and quirky nether regions. Because who doesn’t love to learn about four headed penises and musical privates? You can thank us afterwards for this enlightening genital journey.

“Singing” Genitals

Who wants a musical penis?! Don’t lie, of course you do. Water boatmen (Micronecta scholtzi) are tiny freshwater insects that you’ll find throughout Europe. They might not look like much, but they’re actually the loudest animal relative to body size. They can create noises of up to 99 decibels, which is roughly equivalent to listening to an orchestra from the front row. How do they do it? With their penises, of course. Similar to how a cricket will produce sound by rubbing body parts together, water boatmen rub their penis along their ribbed abdomen, kind of like a Guiro, only much more amusing. This is called stridulation.

Image credit: BBC Nature

Four Headed Penises?!

Like the platypus, echidnas are monotremes, or egg-laying mammals. There are four extant species of echidna that you can find in New Guinea and Australia. Alongside looking like a platypus/hedgehog hybrid, echidnas have various other odd features. Their tongues are extremely long, reaching around 7 inches in length. And then there’s the penis. Their penises actually have four heads. Yes, you read that correctly. If it’s any consolation, only one is active at a time; they actually rotate (in the line of duty, not physically like an exorcist penis), because obviously we don’t want one getting all the action. But it doesn’t end there. Females will mate with lots of males, and to ensure the best chance of reproductive success the sperm bundle together like a comet in order to swim more efficiently. Super sperm.

Image credit: Gordon Grigg, University of Queensland


There isn’t a great deal to say about the genitals of the elasmobranchs (sharks, rays and skates), except just to point out that they have a pointy double penis. These reproductive organs, called claspers, are used to deposit sperm into the female’s cloaca. This would perhaps be a good time to mention that cloacas are equally weird- they are the singular opening found in some animals that are used for urination, mating and defecation. Nice.

Image credit: Jean-Lou Justine, via Wikimedia Commons

Willy Wars

Good sir, I challenge you to a dual of… Penis cuffs? Hmm… Flatworms are hermaphrodites, meaning that they have both male and female reproductive organs. Producing eggs is more costly than producing sperm, so when two flatworms come together to mate they fight over who gets to wear the trousers in the relationship. During the penis crusade, the flatworms will fence, sometimes quite violently, in an attempt to impregnate the other without getting pregnant themselves.

Image credit: Yeowatzup, via Wikimedia Commons


Snakes and lizards, which are collectively known as squamates, have some rather funky genitals. Their male sexual organ is called a hemipenis; individual males have two hemipenes which they alternate between when mating with females. Some are even embellished with sharp spines to stop the male from slipping out of the female’s cloaca. Lovely.

Rattlesnake hemipenis. Image credit: Tess Thornton, via Wikimedia Commons.

Giant Genitals

Relative to their body size, barnacles have the largest penises in the animal kingdom; they can be up to 40 times the length of their body. I think that would be a tad difficult to tuck away if that were the case for humans. Barnacles are sessile organisms, i.e. fixed and immobile. They are therefore equipped with these giant genitals in order to seek out females that could be some distance away. Some other sessile organisms have evolved a slightly different approach by just shooting their load into the environment so the sperm may cross paths with an egg.

Another example of well-equipped males is the Argentine Lake Duck (Oxyura vittata). A report back in 2011 in Nature described this animal as having the longest bird penis on record, reaching a whopping 42.5 centimeters. Most birds don’t actually have penises and they instead mate by touching openings. This finding was therefore a bit of a surprise, and scientists aren’t entirely sure as to why it is quite so long. Some speculate that the brush-like tip of the penis may serve to remove sperm from other males that has already been deposited in the female’s cloaca.

Image Credit: K McCracken/ Nature

Detachable Penises

Argonauts, which are a type of octopus, don’t bother getting cozy and cuddly with their mates during the deed since they pack their sperm into a detachable tentacle called a hectocotylus. This then goes on its merry way and swims into the female to fertilize her. Females can actually store several of these from different males so that she can become fertilized more than once over a period of a few days. No post-coitus snuggles for Argonauts, then.


So I’ve had enough talk of actual penises for one day, sorry. It’s time for females to be in the spotlight. Female hyenas produce a lot of testosterone, meaning that they develop pseudo-penises. These are actually just enlarged clitorises, but they can reach up to 7 inches long! The poor hyenas actually have to give birth through these appendages, and unfortunately a lot of the offspring die of suffocation during the process. Copulation is also tricky business since the male has to somehow get his penis inside her lady penis. Sounds… Interesting…

Swapping Genitals

Earlier this year, a report in Current Biology described insects of the newly discovered genus Neotrogla which have apparently swapped genitals. The female dons a large, penis-like appendage called a gynosome which is inserted into the male’s opening. The gynosomes are adorned with spines so that the male can’t get away, and copulation can last between 40 and 70 hours! Wow.


Leave a comment

How to reset a cell – Washing a cell with acid can turn it into any other type of cell the body may need

Researchers report a surprisingly easy method to change a specialized cell, such as muscle or bone, into becoming a universal stem cell. Stem cells are immature cells that can be coaxed into becoming specialized cells — and they hold a lot of potential for treating sickness and disease

The body needs many different types of stem cells to replace sick, aging or dying cells in its many different tissues. An embryo, a ball of unspecialized cells that will grow into an animal with a backbone, is different. Scientists describe its stem cells as universal “blank slates,” because each can mature into any type of tissue. Now researchers have found a way to create stem cells that mimic the universal role of embryonic cells.

Their method is simple: Just dip the specialized cell briefly in acid. This doesn’t work all of the time. But it did work for 7 to 9 percent of cells taken from newborn mice. And that success rate has surprised a large number of scientists.

Haruko Obokata and her coworkers showed that other ways of stressing a baby mouse’s cells, such as squeezing them, also worked like a reset button. Obokata is a stem-cell biologist at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan. She also works at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Mass.

She and her coworkers described the stem-cell making experiments in two papers in the Jan. 30 issue of Nature.

“It’s fascinating. It’s perplexing. It’s potentially profound, but leaves a lot of reasons to scratch my head,” George Daley toldScience News. He studies stem cells at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. The new findings are “begging to be replicated,” he says. Replication is when other scientists perform the same experiment to see if they get the same results. Daley’s team is working on that now.

Other ways exist to turn ordinary cells into stem cells. These methods tend to be much more complicated, however. One requires removing cells from embryos. Another requires removing the nucleus from a specialized cell and inserting it into an egg cell. In yet another method, scientists turn on certain genes to reset cells into stem cells.

Finding an easy way to turn specialized cells into stem cells could provide advances in many areas of medicine. Easy-to-make stem cells could be used to replace cells in diseased organs.

This might one day help people with such brain diseases as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. It might also help replace diseased cells in the pancreas (seen in diabetes) or the liver cells damaged by hepatitis. Because scientists could use the new stem cells to make any tissue in a test tube, they might have an easier time studying certain diseases and treatments. The new stem cells might one day even be useful in overcoming some conditions that prevent a woman from becoming pregnant or from successfully carrying a baby until it’s ready to be born.

Called STAP cells, the new stem cells can change into more types of cells than other lab-made stem cells. The stem cells in an embryo, for example, are pluripotent. That means they can grow into any type of tissue. STAP cells can do this, too, but also make a placenta. This organ nurtures a fetus in the womb. Other stem cells have a hard time growing into a placenta.

In its new study, Obokata’s team bathed blood, skin, brain, muscle, fat, bone marrow, lung and liver cells from newborn mice in an acid solution. The technique also worked on cells from older mice, but not as well. Now, they’ve started testing the method on human cells.

Many biologists have a hard time believing the new findings. Dieter Egli is one. He’s a stem cell researcher at the New York Stem Cell Foundation. He says he can’t imagine how squeezing or acid-dipping a cell resets it.

“If I were to describe this over a coffee break to one of my colleagues,” he told Science News, “they’d say, ‘You must be kidding.’”

Cells in the body undergo stress all the time. So if this is all it takes to reset a cell into a pluripotent form, then it’s hard to imagine how the body keeps its cells in line, Egli says.

However, if the new method does work as well in people as it seems to do in mice, then it offers an exciting new way to create stem cells. More studies will be needed to confirm that the new method also can reliably engineer stem cells as effectively as current techniques.

In the July 3 Nature, authors of the stem-cell papers (reported above) owned up to substantial problems with their January claims. They said that mistakes in their initial work now make these researchers doubt that the phenomenon they had reported is real. As a result, the authors are retracting their papers — pulling them from Nature. (In a sense, it’s now as if the journal had never published them. One difference: The journal will keep the papers on its website, marked as retracted).

It’s an extreme move. A retraction of published research occurs only when reported data is found to be unreliable or unsupportable. Retraction of research can permanently tarnish a scientist’s reputation, especially if the reason for the retraction is fraud or some other serious misconduct.

RIKEN is the research institute in Japan where much of the now-retracted work had been done. It has been probing into the controversy. In April, it reported that the lead scientist (and possibly some others) had plagiarized material — copied passages without saying where the text originally came from. It also found that the scientists had improperly manipulated their data.

As a result, RIKEN concluded that the study’s lead author, Haruko Obokata, is guilty of misconduct. Obokata disputes that charge. But in the retraction notice, she and her co-authors describe five additional errors, including pictures of the same cells or embryos labeled as different cells or embryos.

Meanwhile, since January researchers in other labs have attempted to replicate the initial reported results. To date, none has been successful. RIKEN is giving Obokata five months to conduct experiments to show that her original findings are real. And all of her research will be videotaped. — Tina Saey