Study solves mystery of how first animals appeared on Earth

Research led by The Australian National University (ANU) has solved the mystery of how the first animals appeared on Earth, a pivotal moment for the planet without which humans would not exist.

Lead researcher Associate Professor Jochen Brocks said the team found the answer in ancient sedimentary rocks from central Australia. “We crushed these rocks to powder and extracted molecules of ancient organisms from them,” said Dr Brocks from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences. “These molecules tell us that it really became interesting 650 million years ago. It was a revolution of ecosystems, it was the rise of algae.”

Dr Brocks said the rise of algae triggered one of the most profound ecological revolutions in Earth’s history, without which humans and other animals would not exist.

“Before all of this happened, there was a dramatic event 50 million years earlier called Snowball Earth,” he said. “The Earth was frozen over for 50 million years. Huge glaciers ground entire mountain ranges to powder that released nutrients, and when the snow melted during an extreme global heating event rivers washed torrents of nutrients into the ocean.”

Dr Brocks said the extremely high levels of nutrients in the ocean, and cooling of global temperatures to more hospitable levels, created the perfect conditions for the rapid spread of algae. It was the transition from oceans being dominated by bacteria to a world inhabited by more complex life, he said.

“These large and nutritious organisms at the base of the food web provided the burst of energy required for the evolution of complex ecosystems, where increasingly large and complex animals, including humans, could thrive on Earth,” Dr Brocks said. Source: Study solves mystery of how first animals appeared on Earth

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Helen Czerski on the fun of physics

University College London physicist Helen Czerski studies the properties of the bubbles that form in the ocean, including their optics, acoustics, and influence on the surrounding atmosphere. BBC viewers will recognize her as the host of several science programs, most recently Colour: The Spectrum of Science and Sound Waves: The Symphony of Physics. She also writes the Everyday Science column for Focus Magazine.

In her new book, Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life, Czerski uses quotidian phenomena—a bubble bath, say, or a stain left on a coffee cup—to explore fundamental concepts like gravity and surface tension. According to Physics Today reviewer Brad Halfpap, she succeeds with aplomb. Storm in a Teacup, he writes, “will entertain and educate any person with a healthy curiosity about the natural world.”

Physics Today caught up with Czerski to ask about the inspiration for her book, her work with the BBC, and the best thing about being a physicist.

PT: What inspired you to write Storm in a Teacup, and what were you hoping readers would walk away with at the end?

CZERSKI: I wanted to write it because it was stuff that no one was talking about, and I find it so frustrating. People associate the word physics, especially in the public domain, with quantum mechanics and cosmology. For me physics is all about the messy stuff in the middle, mostly classical physics that actually makes the world work. And no one talks about it. No one talks about the fun of physics and how important the basics are. And I tend to believe that no one should be worrying about the universe until they understand their toaster. Toast has got quite a lot of fundamental physics in it! You’ve got blackbody radiation and electromagnetism in the same thing in your kitchen, and you get toast.

I wanted to share that view of physics. That it isn’t this distant or serious thing where you think philosophical great thoughts about the universe. It’s right here. It is the most democratic thing possible. We all live under the same physical laws. And while it takes a lot of time and effort to really dig into some of the details, the basics are visible to everyone.

The biggest point I hope comes from the book is that the same physical principles that explain why your coffee cup does something also explain how some of the most modern technology we have exists. These are things a citizen needs to know, because if you understand a physical law, it doesn’t just give you a coffee cup. It gives you the telescopes, and the weather, and the big, important things that we need to know about as well.

PT: Why do you think citizens in the modern world need to know more about the physics of everyday life?

CZERSKI: Well, there’s too much to know. We can search for anything with Google, and it’s more than we could ever possibly deal with. In an age when there’s too much to know, people might think, “Why should I trust what a scientist says more than I should trust what anyone else says?” And the reason is that scientists try things again and again. They can say something about how toast falls off a table because they pushed the toast off the table lots of times. They pushed it off with jam on it. They pushed it off with butter on it. They pushed it off upside down. And that very basic scientific approach is there for everyone. It’s not hidden in some physics lab. People can try it themselves. I think that if people see the start of that process, they get more confidence in where all this information comes from.

PT: One of the things that I thought were particularly engaging about Storm in a Teacup was the way you zoom in and out from everyday phenomena to some of the biggest, most exciting ideas in physics. Was it a challenge to link those concepts together?

CZERSKI: No, because the best thing about physics is that physicists are fundamentally really lazy. We learn one principle and then we keep applying it. And the best thing is that once you’ve learned a principle in one place, you then see it in lots of others. Once you learn why popcorn pops—the ideal gas law—you also have the physics that leads to steam engines, rockets, and the weather. That’s my favorite thing about physics: the universality of those rules and the fact that they apply in lots of places. You just get out the same toolbox, and you get richer as you go because the fundamentals of the toolbox are not changing anytime soon. Source: Q&A: Helen Czerski on the fun of physics

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The Devil’s Den

The Devil’s Den or Devil’s Den is a burial chamber located on Fyfield Hill near Marlborough, Wiltshire, England. (Not to be confused with the Devil’s Den Cave in Florida, USA). The chamber is what is left of a neolithic passage grave on Fyfield Down. Two standing stones, a capstone and two fallen stones are all that remain of what was the entrance to a long mound, described in the 1920s as being around 230 ft long. The capstone is believed to weigh 17 tons. The burial chamber was reconstructed in 1921. Source: RZR Television

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This robot may someday save your life

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Scientists Have Invented a Graphene-Based Sieve That Turns Seawater Into Drinking Water

Researchers have achieved a major turning point in the quest for efficient desalination by announcing the invention of a graphene-oxide membrane that sieves salt right out of seawater.

At this stage, the technique is still limited to the lab, but it’s a demonstration of how we could one day quickly and easily turn one of our most abundant resources, seawater, into one of our most scarce – clean drinking water.

The team, led by Rahul Nair from the University of Manchester in the UK, has shown that the sieve can efficiently filter out salts, and now the next step is to test this against existing desalination membranes.

“Realisation of scalable membranes with uniform pore size down to atomic scale is a significant step forward and will open new possibilities for improving the efficiency of desalination technology,” says Nair. “This is the first clear-cut experiment in this regime. We also demonstrate that there are realistic possibilities to scale up the described approach and mass produce graphene-based membranes with required sieve sizes.”

Graphene-oxide membranes have long been considered a promising candidate for filtration and desalination, but although many teams have developed membranes that could sieve large particles out of water, getting rid of salt requires even smaller sieves that scientists have struggled to create.

One big issue is that, when graphene-oxide membranes are immersed in water, they swell up, allowing salt particles to flow through the engorged pores.  The Manchester team overcame this by building walls of epoxy resin on either side of the graphene oxide membrane, stopping it from swelling up in water. This allowed them to precisely control the pore size in the membrane, creating holes tiny enough to filter out all common salts from seawater. The key to this is the fact that when common salts are dissolved in water, they form a ‘shell’ of water molecules around themselves.

“Water molecules can go through individually, but sodium chloride cannot. It always needs the help of the water molecules,” Nair told Paul Rincon from the BBC. “The size of the shell of water around the salt is larger than the channel size, so it cannot go through.”

Not only did this leave seawater fresh to drink, it also made the water molecules flow way faster through the membrane barrier, which is perfect for use in desalination.

“When the capillary size is around one nanometre, which is very close to the size of the water molecule, those molecules form a nice interconnected arrangement like a train,” Nair explained to Rincon. “That makes the movement of water faster: if you push harder on one side, the molecules all move on the other side because of the hydrogen bonds between them. You can only get that situation if the channel size is very small.” Source: ScienceAlert

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Why do we have blood types?

More than a century after their discovery, we still don’t really know what blood types are for. Do they really matter? Carl Zimmer investigates.

Listen to or download an audiobook of this story on SoundCloud and iTunes.

When my parents informed me that my blood type was A+, I felt a strange sense of pride. If A+ was the top grade in school, then surely A+ was also the most excellent of blood types – a biological mark of distinction.

It didn’t take long for me to recognise just how silly that feeling was and tamp it down. But I didn’t learn much more about what it really meant to have type A+ blood. By the time I was an adult, all I really knew was that if I should end up in a hospital in need of blood, the doctors there would need to make sure they transfused me with a suitable type.

And yet there remained some nagging questions. Why do 40 per cent of Caucasians have type A blood, while only 27 per cent of Asians do? Where do different blood types come from, and what do they do? To get some answers, I went to the experts – to haematologists, geneticists, evolutionary biologists, virologists and nutrition scientists.

In 1900 the Austrian physician Karl Landsteiner first discovered blood types, winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research in 1930. Since then scientists have developed ever more powerful tools for probing the biology of blood types. They’ve found some intriguing clues about them – tracing their deep ancestry, for example, and detecting influences of blood types on our health. And yet I found that in many ways blood types remain strangely mysterious. Scientists have yet to come up with a good explanation for their very existence.

“Isn’t it amazing?” says Ajit Varki, a biologist at the University of California, San Diego. “Almost a hundred years after the Nobel Prize was awarded for this discovery, we still don’t know exactly what they’re for.”

My knowledge that I’m type A comes to me thanks to one of the greatest discoveries in the history of medicine. Because doctors are aware of blood types, they can save lives by transfusing blood into patients. But for most of history, the notion of putting blood from one person into another was a feverish dream.

Renaissance doctors mused about what would happen if they put blood into the veins of their patients. Some thought that it could be a treatment for all manner of ailments, even insanity. Finally, in the 1600s, a few doctors tested out the idea, with disastrous results. A French doctor injected calf’s blood into a madman, who promptly started to sweat and vomit and produce urine the colour of chimney soot. After another transfusion the man died.

Such calamities gave transfusions a bad reputation for 150 years. Even in the 19th century only a few doctors dared try out the procedure. One of them was a British physician named James Blundell. Like other physicians of his day, he watched many of his female patients die from bleeding during childbirth. After the death of one patient in 1817, he found he couldn’t resign himself to the way things were.

“I could not forbear considering, that the patient might very probably have been saved by transfusion,” he later wrote.

Human patients should only get human blood, Blundell decided. But no one had ever tried to perform such a transfusion. Blundell set about doing so by designing a system of funnels and syringes and tubes that could channel blood from a donor to an ailing patient. After testing the apparatus out on dogs, Blundell was summoned to the bed of a man who was bleeding to death. “Transfusion alone could give him a chance of life,” he wrote.

Several donors provided Blundell with 14 ounces of blood, which he injected into the man’s arm. After the procedure the patient told Blundell that he felt better – “less fainty” – but two days later he died.

Still, the experience convinced Blundell that blood transfusion would be a huge benefit to mankind, and he continued to pour blood into desperate patients in the following years. All told, he performed ten blood transfusions. Only four patients survived.

While some other doctors experimented with blood transfusion as well, their success rates were also dismal. Various approaches were tried, including attempts in the 1870s to use milk in transfusions (which were, unsurprisingly, fruitless and dangerous). Continue reading

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Who Lived in North West England During the Bronze Age?

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Temperature anomalies by country and continent

This video was prepared and shared by Antti Lipponen ( using the compiled temperature measurements across the Earth’s countries and regions in the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies database, which extends back to the 19th century. Each bar shows the temperature for a given country compared to the baseline used by NASA Goddard – the average global temperature from 1951-1980. Using this projection you get both the global impression of everything getting warmer, particularly over the last 40 years, as well as a view of local and regional heat waves. How big a heat wave was the one that hit your country in some year? How does that compare to the global changes that have hit since? Scroll through this clip and find out.

Source – JBB – Video credit (CC licensed):

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Hydrogen Fuel Could Become a Viable Energy Alternative Thanks to This Aluminium Alloy

If you have seen or read The Martian, you may recall the stranded astronaut converting a hydrogen-based fuel into water.  Well, we may have just discovered material that easily reverses this process. Researchers at the US Army Aberdeen Proving Ground Research Laboratory were developing a high-strength aluminium alloy when they made a startling discovery.

During routine testing of the alloy, water poured over its surface started bubbling and producing hydrogen gas. This is an unusual reaction – typically, aluminium exposed to water oxidises, creating a protective barrier to prevent further reactions from occurring. In this case, though, the hydrogen-producing reaction just kept going, signaling the possibility of a portable, affordable source of hydrogen for fuel cells and other energy applications.

This serendipitous discovery, announced in July, has the potential to reinvigorate the hydrogen fuel industry. aluminium that could react with water in a sustainable way would be able to produce hydrogen on demand. This would make hydrogen fuel cells much easier to use since there would be no need to pressurise and transport hydrogen gas for use. Instead, simple, stable tanks of water and pieces of aluminium would be all you’d need.

Previous attempts to drive the aluminium/water reaction required catalysts or high temperatures, and they were slow. Ultimately, they were only about 50 percent efficient, and obtaining the hydrogen took hours.In contrast, the method that uses this new alloy takes less than three minutes to achieve almost 100 percent efficiency. Source: Hydrogen Fuel Could Become a Viable Energy Alternative Thanks to This Aluminium Alloy

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This is the eleventh illustrated essay, in a series of twelve, which describes some of the houses and places associated with Jane Austen, and her novels, as well as the film and TV adaptations, although it is not a comprehensive gazetteer.


The novel is the story of Frances (Fanny) Price, the second eldest child of a family of nine children, sent at the age of ten to live with a more well-to-do uncle and aunt in their large house, Mansfield Park. One of the themes is that of the status of “poor relations”, and how the apparent generosity of some relatives can be offset and marred by the condescending unkindness of others. With modern eyes, perhaps we see more keenly the psychological vulnerability of children separated from their natural parents.

The table below excludes radio and stage productions. For details of these, see Ref B.

Table 1 Film and TV productions of “Mansfield Park”




Sylvestra Le Touzel Nicholas Farrell 1983, BBC TV serial,
Frances O’Connor Jonny Lee Miller 1999 , film, production directed by Patricia Rozema,
Billie Piper Blake Ritson 2007, TV film production, directed by Iain B McDonald, ,

(i) Themes within the Novel

The novel contains a number of more profound themes than that of the alienation of poor relations. Virginia Woolf and other writers identified the locations and events in the story as symbols of these themes, “For instance, the ha-ha in ‘Sotherton Court’ is a boundary which some will cross, while others will not, thus indicating the future moral transgressions of Maria Bertram and Henry Crawford. Later on in the novel, the theatricals (based upon Lovers’ Vows) in which the company is involved at the request of Tom Bertram, (with the exception of Fanny) is further indication of real life future behaviour.” (Ref B)

The “ha-ha” is an invention of eighteenth century landscape gardeners. It is a kind of “one-way” fence. As illustration 1 shows, stock like cattle or sheep, can graze right up to the wall but cannot get over it. On the opposite side of the ha-ha there is an uninterrupted view (2) from the big house, of lawns merging into meadows and pasture lands. It was part of the fashionable movement for picturesque and landscape qualities discussed in Part J of this series.

The ha-ha, in the grounds of Castle Ashby, is just discernible as a line between the darker foliage under the trees, and the mid-green of the bank sloping down towards the wall. Beyond the pale green meadow is a view of the lake, surrounded by trees.

The amateur theatricals mentioned earlier, involved an obscure German play, “Das Kind der Liebe”, by August von Kotzebue, rather euphemistically translated into English as “Lovers’ Vows”, but more accurately as, “Love Child” or “Bastard”. The English version was written by Elizabeth Inchbald, (3) who set the play in Germany. The social attitudes to sex outside marriage, and illegitimacy, represented in the play did not chime with respectable English society in the Regency Period, hence Fanny Price’s refusal to take part. Nowadays, the play’s only claim to fame is that it appears as part of the plot of “Mansfield Park”. (Ref C)

Surprisingly, in the twenty-first century “Mansfield Park” has proved to be the most controversial of Jane Austen’s novels. This is because it touches very briefly on the issue of slavery in the West Indies. Given the current propensity of some political activists to take offence at practically everything, it is perhaps no surprise that Jane Austen has been attacked in print as a racist. Many other writers have sprung to her defence. Readers can find further details of the debate in Reference B.
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Device could make washing machines lighter and greener

A simple device to cut the weight of washing machines could save fuel, cut carbon emissions, and reduce back injuries, according to researchers. A typical budget washing machine is weighted by 25kg of concrete to stop it moving while on a spin cycle.

The new invention is a sealable plastic container that is filled with water – but only once the machine is in place. The team at Nottingham Trent University says the change makes machines easier – and cheaper – to transport.

By replacing the concrete with empty containers, the weight of the machine is cut by a third. If the change became standard, it would cut the weight of trucks carrying the machines which would in turn cut emissions. The research suggests that with around 3.5 million washing machines sold annually in the UK, the new device could save around 44,625 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

Researchers replaced the concrete block (left) with a plastic container that can be filled with water (right)

The idea was devised by product design company Tochi Tech Ltd, which works with the university to find innovative solutions to manufacturing common appliances. It was tested by an undergraduate on a project, Dylan Knight, 22. He told BBC News: “Everyone thinks the idea must have been thought of before. No one can really believe it. But I promise you it definitely works.” Source – BBC

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There are bodies under the giant heads of Easter Island

The Giant stone heads on eater Island are images that we’ve all grown up seeing and hearing about, many of us dream of visiting them and looking for ourselves, it now seems that if we get to make the journey we’ll see more than our ancestors ever did.

The reason people think they are [only] heads is there are about 150 statues buried up to the shoulders on the slope of a volcano, and these are the most famous, most beautiful and most photographed of all the Easter Island statues.

The hundreds of finely carved statues found across Easter Island bore mute witness to the collapse of Polynesia’s most advanced megalithic culture. Easter Island is one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world.

The nearest inhabited land (around 50 residents in 2013) is Pitcairn Island 1,289 miles away; the nearest town with a population over 500 is Rikitea, on the island of Mangareva, 1,619 miles away; the nearest continental point lies just in central Chile, 2,182 miles away.

The large stone statues, or moai, for which Easter Island is famous, were carved during the period A.D. 1100–1680 (rectified radio-carbon dates). A total of 887 monolithic stone statues have been inventoried on the island and in museum collections.

Although often identified as “Easter Island heads,” the statues have torsos, most of them ending at the top of the thighs, although a small number are complete figures that kneel on bent knees with their hands over their stomachs. Some upright moai have become buried up to their necks by shifting soils. More here: Outdoorrevival

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The Incredible Biodiversity of the Oceans

Thanks to Phil Krause for bringing this to our attention.

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Zermatt: ‘Longest’ hanging pedestrian bridge opens in Switzerland

A nearly 500m (1,640ft) bridge for hikers billed as the longest hanging pedestrian bridge in the world has opened near the Swiss town of Zermatt. The 494m bridge, named the Europabrücke (Europe Bridge), hangs up to 85m above the Grabengufer ravine.

The Zermatt Tourist Board says it is the world’s longest, although a 405m bridge in Reutte in Austria hangs 110m higher above the ground. It replaces a previous bridge that had been damaged by rock falls.

The new bridge, whose cables weigh about eight tonnes, is equipped with a system to prevent it from swinging, the Zermatt Tourist Board said. It forms part of a two-day hiking route between Zermatt and Grächen in southern Switzerland with views of the Matterhorn mountain. Source: BBC

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Roman Roads of Britain

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Walking on beautiful clean ice in Slovakian Mountains

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This is the tenth illustrated essay, in a series of twelve, describing houses and places associated with Jane Austen, and her novels, although it is not a comprehensive gazetteer.


(i) The Picturesque

A dictionary definition of “picturesque” is, “like or fit to be the subject of a striking picture” (Ref A), and the word dates back as far as 1703, being derived from the Italian, “pintorisco”, in the manner of a painter. (Ref B) The entire concept of “picturesque” views, places or residences became increasingly popular in the mid-eighteenth century. Maggie Lane, in her book (Ref C) discusses the idea of the “picturesque” at some length, with regard to possible influences on the life of Jane Austen and her works.

She draws attention to the artist William Sawrey Gilpin, (1724-1804) who was also what we would now call a, “travel writer.” He wrote two travel books, “Observations on the English Lakes Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty“, 1786, and “Observations on the Western Parts of England Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty“, 1798. Gilpin, as a skilled professional artist, set out precise rules for the production of this effect of picturesque beauty. His full name is used to distinguish him from his uncle, the Rev William Gilpin, (2)who is claimed (Ref D) to be the originator of the concept of “picturesque”, although the idea had been current since the seventeenth century. (Ref B) Perhaps one of the greatest exponents of the picturesque was JMW Turner (3).

Maggie Lane considers that Jane Austen was very familiar with Gilpin’s works, and with reference to Warwick Castle and Kenilworth Castle, she “was now able to visit two of these places for herself, and see with her own eyes what she had long been familiar with, from Gilpin’s description.” (Ref C)

The concept of the “picturesque” has obviously survived intact to the present day, or how else can we explain the relentlessly search by TV and film companies for locations? Instead of settling on one suitable grand house, or pretty village, it seems necessary to scour Britain for multiple locations, which must surely add to the costs of production.

(ii) “Pride and Prejudice” 1940 film

This is probably Jane Austen’s best-known novel, and has been made into at least two successful films (1940, 2008) and also two TV series (1967, 1995). The 1940 film starred Laurence Olivier (5) as Mr Darcy, and Greer Garson (4) as the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, but her dress was rather too low-cut for a respectable young woman in the Regency period.

Briefly, the novel charts the developing relationship between the intelligent Elizabeth, eldest and favourite daughter of the bookish Mr Bennet, a country gentleman of modest means, and Mr Darcy, a wealthy Derbyshire landowner. The plot is beset by confusion and misunderstandings created by the pride and prejudice of the novel’s title, before the two young people eventually marry.
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The Future of Farming – Industrial Autonomous Tractor Concept!

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Human Arrival In Australia Pushed Back 18,000 Years

Thanks to Phil Krause for suggesting this post

We’ve long known that modern humans, or Homo sapiens, existed in Africa as far back as 200,000 years ago. Early humans in Australia were once thought to have arrived 47,000 years ago, signaling one of the later stops in the journey of human migration and one that would have required massive sea voyages.

A new discovery, recently published in the journal Nature, is challenging that, dating human arrival in Australia to 65,000 years ago, making Aboriginal Australian societies 18,000 years older than previously thought (although pending research on a rock shelter sitecould shift that downward closer to 10,000 years, if that pans out).

A team of archaeologists from the University of Queensland came to their conclusions by excavating a rock shelter in Majedbebe, a region in northern Australia, during digs conducted in 2012 and 2015. Among the artifacts found in the region were stone tools and hatchets, indicating an advanced understanding of weapon making. Similar hatches did not appear in other cultures for another 20,000 years, claimed the study’s authors.

“The axes were perfectly preserved, tucked up against the back wall of the shelter as we dug further and further,” one of the study’s authors, Chris Clarkson, told Australia’s Fairfax Media.

Previous methods of dating artifacts relied on a technique called radiocarbon dating. However, the technique is only capable of providing accurate dates as far back as 45,000 years ago.

To reach their conclusion that humans arrived in Australia 65,000 years ago, the researchers used an additional technique called optically stimulated luminescence (OSL). The technique is applied to mineral grains and determines when it was last exposed to light, thus indicating to researchers how long an artifact has been buried.

The artifacts found by the archaeological team initially dated back only 10,000 years. As they dug further into the shelter, the found tools dating back 35,000, 40,000, and 65,000 years. Source: NatGeo

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Scientists can now clone thousands of genes in a single reaction

Things are about to speed up dramatically in genetic research, with scientists developing a new technique that can clone thousands of genes in a single reaction.

The new technology, called a LASSO probe, could be used to create libraries of proteins from DNA samples, speeding up the search for new drugs by replacing the tedious methods of gene cloning currently used….

….In this new study, the LASSO probe – which stands for “long adaptor single stranded oligonucleotide” – can capture and clone thousands of long DNA fragments and the researchers hope that the new technique will push the limits of what we can currently do.

“Our goal is to make it cheap and easy for any researcher in any field to clone and express the entire set of proteins from any organism,” said co-researcher Ben Larman from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “Until now, such a prospect was only realistic for high-powered research consortia studying model organisms like fruit flies or mice.”

How does this new technique work?

A collection of LASSO probes were used to grab desired DNA sequences, you can think of it like the way a rope lasso is used to capture cattle. Instead of aiming for the spiky horns of a cow, the LASSO probe targets a DNA sequence up to a few thousand base pairs long – the typical length of a gene’s protein code.

The study is a proof of concept, with the LASSO probes used to capture over 3,000 DNA fragments from the E. coli bacterial genome. The results show the probes successfully captured around 75 percent of the gene they targeted.  Source: Scientists can now clone thousands of genes in a single reaction

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