Recent Interesting Science Articles (September 2015)

Still mostly biology this month though the most visible bit of news is space stuff.

  • This being NASA’s announcement that its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has discovered liquid water on the planet’s surface. The water involved is highly briny, which helps keep it liquid at low temperatures, and even so it only flows seasonally when it’s not too cold. Plus, of course, we’ve long known that water already exists on Mars in the form of ice and ancient water deep beneath the surface. Still it’s a significant milestone that will reinvigorate the search for life on the red planet. I suspect that this will also cause NASA to be much more careful about contaminating Mars with microbial life from Earth.
  • But the most significant finding over the past month is probably this paper about a new species of the homo genus found in Africa. Now dubbed homo naledi, they are represented by fossils found of at least 15 distinct individuals in South Africa. The discovery was originally made in 2013 but it has taken until now to fully study the fossils and the researchers’ conclusion is that the unique morphology of the specimens warrant classifying them as belonging to a hitherto unknown and now extinct specifies of humanity. Early reporting of this paper excitedly emphasized that they may had culture as the fossils were all found together is what is thought to be a burial site. This is a shock given that this should date from long before any form of civilization. But I’m dubious about this since it’s also possible that it was just a convenient place to dispose of trash.
  • Moving on to more sci-fi stuff, DARPA announced the development of neural technologies that allow patients to experience sensation from prosthetic limbs. This is rather crude at the moment as the connection is formed with electrode arrays on the patient’s and sensory motor cortex to torque sensors on an artificial hand, allowing the patient to both feel and control the individual fingers of the hand. Basically it amounts to a proof that cybernetic limbs that can transmit a sense of touch are possible.
  • Finally, this Nature article talks about how a genomics firm in China is now offering gene-edited pigs for sale to the public as pets. These pigs have been modified to disable one of two copies of the growth hormone receptor genes that they possess, so that instead of their normal weight of around 35 to 50 kilograms, they will grow only to about 15 kilograms. The company also claims that in the near future, they will offer versions that can be modified to have different coat colors and patterns. But as the article notes, pigs’ size are not the only reason why they are not generally raised as household pets and owners who expect to be able to house train them will end up being disappointed.

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