Tuesday, November 17, 2009


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Many of us have been rescued from unfamiliar territory by directions from a Global Positioning System (GPS) navigator. GPS satellites send signals to a receiver in your GPS navigator, which calculates your position based on the location of the satellites and your distance from them. The distance is determined by how long it took the signals from various satellites to reach your receiver. The system works well, and millions rely on it every day, but what tells the GPS satellites where they are in the first place?

"For GPS to work, the orbital position, or ephemeris, of the satellites has to be known very precisely," said Dr. Chopo Ma of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "In order to know where the satellites are, you have to know the orientation of the Earth very precisely."

This is not as obvious as simply looking at the Earth – space is not conveniently marked with lines to determine our planet's position. Even worse, "everything is always moving," says Ma. Earth wobbles as it rotates due to the gravitational pull (tides) from the moon and the sun. Even apparently minor things like shifts in air and ocean currents and motions in Earth's molten core all influence our planet's orientation.

Just as you can use landmarks to find your place in a strange city, astronomers use landmarks in space to position the Earth. Stars seem the obvious candidate, and they were used throughout history to navigate on Earth. "However, for the extremely precise measurements needed for things like GPS, stars won't work, because they are moving too," says Ma.

What is needed are objects so remote that their motion is not detectable. Only a couple classes of objects fit the bill, because they also need to be bright enough to be seen over incredible distances. Things like quasars, which are typically brighter than a billion suns, can be used. Many scientists believe these objects are powered by giant black holes feeding on nearby gas. Gas trapped in the black hole's powerful gravity is compressed and heated to millions of degrees, giving off intense light and/or radio energy.

Most quasars lurk in the outer reaches of the cosmos, over a billion light years away, and are therefore distant enough to appear stationary to us. For comparison, a light year, the distance light travels in a year, is almost six trillion miles. Our entire galaxy, consisting of hundreds of billions of stars, is about 100,000 light years across.

A collection of remote quasars, whose positions in the sky are precisely known, forms a map of celestial landmarks in which to orient the Earth. The first such map, called the International Celestial Reference Frame (ICRF), was completed in 1995. It was made over four years using painstaking analysis of observations on the positions of about 600 objects.

Ma led a three-year effort to update and improve the precision of the ICRF map by scientists affiliated with the International Very Long Baseline Interferometry Service for Geodesy and Astrometry (IVS) and the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Called ICRF2, it uses observations of approximately 3,000 quasars. It was officially recognized as the fundamental reference system for astronomy by the IAU in August, 2009.

Making such a map is not easy. Despite the brilliance of quasars, their extreme distance makes them too faint to be located accurately with a conventional telescope that uses optical light (the light that we can see). Instead, a special network of radio telescopes is used, called a Very Long Baseline Interferometer (VLBI).

The larger the telescope, the better its ability to see fine detail, called spatial resolution. A VLBI network coordinates its observations to get the resolving power of a telescope as large as the network. VLBI networks have spanned continents and even entire hemispheres of the globe, giving the resolving power of a telescope thousands of miles in diameter. For ICRF2, the analysis of the VLBI observations reduced uncertainties in position to angles as small as 40 microarcseconds, about the thickness of a 0.7 millimeter mechanical pencil lead in Los Angeles when viewed from Washington. This minimum uncertainty is about five times better than the ICRF, according to Ma.

These networks are arranged on a yearly basis as individual radio telescope stations commit time to make coordinated observations. Managing all these coordinated observations is a major effort by the IVS, according to Ma.

Additionally, the exquisite precision of VLBI networks makes them sensitive to many kinds of disturbances, called noise. Differences in atmospheric pressure and humidity caused by weather systems, flexing of the Earth's crust due to tides, and shifting of antenna locations from plate tectonics and earthquakes all affect VLBI measurements. "A significant challenge was modeling all these disturbances in computers to take them into account and reduce the noise, or uncertainty, in our position observations," said Ma.

Another major source of noise is related to changes in the structure of the quasars themselves, which can be seen because of the extraordinary resolution of the VLBI networks, according to Ma.

The ICRF maps are not only useful for navigation on Earth; they also help us find our way in space -- the ICRF grid and some of the objects themselves are used to assist spacecraft navigation for interplanetary missions, according to Ma.

Despite its usefulness for things like GPS, the primary application for the ICRF maps is astronomy. Researchers use the ICRF maps as driving directions for telescopes. Objects are referenced with coordinates derived from the ICRF so that astronomers know where to find them in the sky.

Also, the optical light visible to our eyes is only a small part of the electromagnetic radiation produced by celestial objects, which ranges from less-energetic, low-frequency radiation, like radio and microwaves, through optical light to highly energetic, high-frequency radiation like X-rays and gamma-rays.

Astronomers use special detectors to make images of objects producing radiation our eyes can't see. Even so, since things in space can have extremely different temperatures, objects that generate radiation in one frequency band, say optical, do not necessarily produce radiation in another, perhaps radio. The main scientific use of the ICRF maps is a precise grid for combining observations of objects taken using different frequencies and accurately locating them relative to each other in the sky.

Astronomers also use the frame as a backdrop to record the motion of celestial objects closer to us. Tracing how stars and other objects move provides clues to their origin and evolution.

The next update to the ICRF may be done in space. The European Space Agency plans to launch a satellite called Gaia in 2012 that will observe about a half-million quasars. Gaia uses an optical telescope, but because it is above the atmosphere, the satellite will be able to clearly see these faint objects and precisely locate them in the sky. The mission will use quasars that are optically bright, many of which are too dim in radio to be useful for the VLBI networks. The project expects to have enough observations by 2018 to 2020 to produce the next-generation ICRF.

ICRF2 involved researchers from Australia, Austria, China, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Ukraine, and the United States; and was funded by organizations from these countries, including NASA. The analysis efforts are coordinated by the IVS. The IAU officially adopts the ICRF maps and recommends their occasional updates.

(Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC))



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A painstaking analysis of thousands of genes and the proteins they encode shows that human beings are biologically complex, at least in part, because of the way humans evolved to cope with redundancies arising from duplicate genes.

"We have found a specific evolutionary mechanism to account for a portion of the intricate biological complexity of our species," said Ariel Fernandez, professor of bioengineering at Rice University. "It is a coping mechanism, a process that enables us to deal with the fitness consequences of inefficient selection. It enables some of our proteins to become more specialized over time, and in turn makes us more complex."

Fernandez is the lead author of a paper slated to appear in the December issue of the journal Genome Research. The research is available online now.

Fernandez said the study drew from previous findings by his own research group and from seminal work of Michael Lynch, Distinguished Professor of Biology at Indiana University and a recently elected a fellow of the National Academy of Science. Lynch's work has shown that natural selection is less efficient in humans as compared with simpler creatures like bacteria. This "selection inefficiency" arises from the smaller population size of humans as compared with unicellular organisms.

"In all organisms, genes get duplicated every so often, for reasons we don't fully understand," Fernandez said. "When working efficiently, natural selection eliminates many of these duplicates, which are called 'paralogs.' In our earlier work, we saw that an unusual number of gene duplicates had survived in the human genome, which makes sense given selection inefficiency in humans."

In prior research on protein structure, Fernandez's team found that some proteins are packaged more poorly than others. Moreover, they found that the least-efficiently packed proteins are structurally stable only when they bind with partner proteins to form complexes.

"These poorly packed proteins are potential troublemakers when gene duplication occurs," Fernandez said. "The paralog encodes more copies of the protein than the body needs. This is called a 'dosage imbalance,' and it can make us sick. For instance, dosage imbalance has been implicated in Alzheimer's and other diseases."

Given selection inefficiency, Fernandez knew that paralogs encoding poorly packed proteins could remain in the human genome for quite a while. So he and graduate student Jianpeng Chen decided to examine whether gene duplicates had remained in the genome long enough for random genetic mutations to affect the paralogs dissimilarly. Fernandez and Chen, now a senior researcher in Beijing, China, cross-analyzed databases on genomics, protein structure, microRNA regulation and protein expression in such troublesome paralogs.

"The longer these duplicate genes stick around due to inefficient selection, the more likely they are to suffer a random mutation," Fernandez said. "Portions of every gene act to regulate protein expression -- by binding with microRNA, for example. We found numerous instances where random mutations had caused paralogs to be expressed dissimilarly, in ways that removed detrimental dosage imbalances."

Lynch said one aspect of Fernandez's research that is potentially groundbreaking is the observed tendency of proteins to evolve a more open structure in complex organisms.

"This observation fits with the general theory that large organisms with relatively small population sizes -- compared to microbes -- are subject to the vagaries of random genetic drift and hence the accumulation of very mildly deleterious mutations," Lynch said.

In principle, he said, the accumulation of such mutations may encourage a slight breakdown in protein stability. This, in turn, opens the door to interactions with other proteins that can return a measure of that lost stability.

"These are the potential roots for the emergence of novel protein-protein interactions, which are the hallmark of evolution in complex, multicellular species," Lynch said. "In other words, the origins of some key aspects of the evolution of complexity may have their origins in completely nonadaptive processes."

Fernandez said the research reveals how increasingly specialized proteins can evolve. He drew an analogy to a business that hires two delivery drivers that initially cover the same parts of town but eventually specialize to deliver only to specific neighborhoods.

"Eventually, even if times become tough, you cannot lay off either of them because they each became so specialized that your company needs them both," he said.

The more simple a creature is, the fewer specialized proteins it possesses. Humans and other higher-order mammals need many specialized proteins to build the specialized tissues in their skin, skeleton and organs. Even more specialized proteins are needed to maintain and regulate them. This complexity requires that the duplicates of the original jack-of-all-trades gene be retained, but this does not happen unless selection is inefficient. This is frequently a point of contention between proponents of evolution and intelligent design.

Fernandez and Chen looked at duplicate genes across the human genome and found that the more poorly packed a protein was, the more likely it was to be distinguished through paralog specialization.

"This supports the case for evolution because it shows that you can drive complexity with random mutations in duplicate genes," Fernandez said. "But this also implies that random drift must prevail over Darwinian selection. In other words, if Darwinian selection were ruthlessly efficient in humans -- as it is in bacteria and unicellular eukaryotes -- then our level of complexity would not be possible."

Rice University


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Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have developed a theoretical model that informs the understanding of evolution and determines how quickly an organism will evolve using a catalogue of “evolutionary speed limits.” The model provides quantitative predictions for the speed of evolution on various “fitness landscapes,” the dynamic and varied conditions under which bacteria, viruses and even humans adapt.

A major conclusion of the work is that for some organisms, possibly including humans, continued evolution will not translate into ever-increasing fitness. Moreover, a population may accrue mutations at a constant rate - a pattern long considered the hallmark of “neutral” or non-Darwinian evolution - even when the mutations experience Darwinian selection.

While much is known about the qualitative aspects of evolutionary theory - that organisms mutate and these mutations are selected by the environment and are gradually absorbed by the entire population, very little is known about how, or how quickly, this is accomplished. Information on evolution between consecutive generations is hard to come by, and the lack of understanding has real-world implications. Public-health officials would have an easier time preparing targeted vaccinations, or combating drug resistance, if they understood the evolutionary speed limits on viruses and bacteria such as influenza and M. tuberculosis.

Penn researchers presented a theory of how the fitness of a population will increase over time, for a total of 14 types of underlying landscapes or “speed limits” that describe the consequences of available genetic mutations. These categories determine the speed and pattern of evolution, predicting how a population’s overall fitness, and the number of accumulated beneficial mutations, are expected to increase over time.

Researchers compared the theory to the data from a two-decades study of E. coli to investigate how the bacterium evolves. Organisms of that simplicity and size reproduce more rapidly than larger species, providing 40,000 generations of data to study.

“We asked, quantitatively, how a population’s fitness will increase over time as beneficial mutations accrue,” said Joshua B. Plotkin, principal investigator and an assistant professor in the Department of Biology in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences. His research focuses on evolution at the molecular scale.

“This was an attempt to provide a theoretical framework for studying rates of molecular evolution,” said first-author Sergey Kryazhimskiy, also of the Department of Biology. “We applied this theory to infer the underlying fitness landscape of bacteria, using data from a long-term bacterial experiment.”.

In some theoretically conceivable landscapes, fitness levels are expected to increase exponentially forever because of an inexhaustible supply of beneficial mutations. But in more realistic landscapes the rate of adaptive substitutions (mutations that improve an organism’s fitness) eventually lose steam, resulting in sub-linear fitness growth. In some of these landscapes, the fitness eventually levels out and the organism ceases to adapt, even though mutations may continue to accrue.

E. coli, for example, has been observed to increase its rate of cellular division by roughly 40 percent during the course of 40,000 generations. Initially, the bacterial fitness increased rapidly, but eventually the fitness leveled out. These data have allowed the research team to infer that early mutations, while conferring large beneficial effects, also diminish the beneficial effects of subsequent mutations.

According to the study, a population’s fitness and substitution trajectories -the mutations acquired to achieve higher fitness- depend not on the full distribution of fitness effects of available mutations but rather on the expected fixation probability and the expected fitness increment of mutations. This mathematical observation greatly simplifies the possible trajectories of evolution into 14 distinct categories.

Researchers demonstrated that linear substitution trajectories that signify a constant rate of accruing mutations, long considered the hallmark of neutral evolution, can arise even when mutations are strongly beneficial. The results provide a basis for understanding the dynamics of adaptation and for inferring properties of an organism’s fitness landscape from long-term experimental data. Applying these methods to data from bacterial experiments allowed the researchers to characterize the evolutionary relationships among beneficial mutations in the E. coli genome.

University of Pennsylvania


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In 2005, a gigantic, 35-mile-long rift broke open the desert ground in Ethiopia. At the time, some geologists believed the rift was the beginning of a new ocean as two parts of the African continent pulled apart, but the claim was controversial.

Now, scientists from several countries have confirmed that the volcanic processes at work beneath the Ethiopian rift are nearly identical to those at the bottom of the world's oceans, and the rift is indeed likely the beginning of a new sea.

The new study, published in the latest issue of Geophysical Research Letters, suggests that the highly active volcanic boundaries along the edges of tectonic ocean plates may suddenly break apart in large sections, instead of little by little as has been predominantly believed. In addition, such sudden large-scale events on land pose a much more serious hazard to populations living near the rift than would several smaller events, says Cindy Ebinger, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Rochester and co-author of the study.

"This work is a breakthrough in our understanding of continental rifting leading to the creation of new ocean basins," says Ken Macdonald, professor emeritus in the Department of Earth Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and who is not affiliated with the research. "For the first time they demonstrate that activity on one rift segment can trigger a major episode of magma injection and associated deformation on a neighboring segment. Careful study of the 2005 mega-dike intrusion and its aftermath will continue to provide extraordinary opportunities for learning about continental rifts and mid-ocean ridges."

"The whole point of this study is to learn whether what is happening in Ethiopia is like what is happening at the bottom of the ocean where it's almost impossible for us to go," says Ebinger. "We knew that if we could establish that, then Ethiopia would essentially be a unique and superb ocean-ridge laboratory for us. Because of the unprecedented cross-border collaboration behind this research, we now know that the answer is yes, it is analogous."

Atalay Ayele, professor at the Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, led the investigation, painstakingly gathering seismic data surrounding the 2005 event that led to the giant rift opening more than 20 feet in width in just days. Along with the seismic information from Ethiopia, Ayele combined data from neighboring Eritrea with the help of Ghebrebrhan Ogubazghi, professor at the Eritrea Institute of Technology, and from Yemen with the help of Jamal Sholan of the National Yemen Seismological Observatory Center. The map he drew of when and where earthquakes happened in the region fit tremendously well with the more detailed analyses Ebinger has conducted in more recent years.

Ayele's reconstruction of events showed that the rift did not open in a series of small earthquakes over an extended period of time, but tore open along its entire 35-mile length in just days. A volcano called Dabbahu at the northern end of the rift erupted first, then magma pushed up through the middle of the rift area and began "unzipping" the rift in both directions, says Ebinger.

Since the 2005 event, Ebinger and her colleagues have installed seismometers and measured 12 similar—though dramatically less intense—events.

"We know that seafloor ridges are created by a similar intrusion of magma into a rift, but we never knew that a huge length of the ridge could break open at once like this," says Ebinger. She explains that since the areas where the seafloor is spreading are almost always situated under miles of ocean, it's nearly impossible to monitor more than a small section of the ridge at once so there's no way for geologists to know how much of the ridge may break open and spread at any one time. "Seafloor ridges are made up of sections, each of which can be hundreds of miles long. Because of this study, we now know that each one of those segments can tear open in a just a few days."

Ebinger and her colleagues are continuing to monitor the area in Ethiopia to learn more about how the magma system beneath the rift evolves as the rift continues to grow.

(Photo: Rochester U.)

Rochester University


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From their very first days, newborns' cries already bear the mark of the language their parents speak, reveals a new study published online on November 5th in Current Biology, a Cell Press publication. The findings suggest that infants begin picking up elements of what will be their first language in the womb, and certainly long before their first babble or coo.

"The dramatic finding of this study is that not only are human neonates capable of producing different cry melodies, but they prefer to produce those melody patterns that are typical for the ambient language they have heard during their fetal life, within the last trimester of gestation," said Kathleen Wermke of the University of Würzburg in Germany. "Contrary to orthodox interpretations, these data support the importance of human infants' crying for seeding language development."

Human fetuses are able to memorize sounds from the external world by the last trimester of pregnancy, with a particular sensitivity to melody contour in both music and language, earlier studies showed. Newborns prefer their mother's voice over other voices and perceive the emotional content of messages conveyed via intonation contours in maternal speech (a.k.a. "motherese"). Their perceptual preference for the surrounding language and their ability to distinguish between different languages and pitch changes are based primarily on melody.

Although prenatal exposure to native language was known to influence newborns' perception, scientists had thought that the surrounding language affected sound production much later, the researchers said. It now appears that isn't so.

Wermke's team recorded and analyzed the cries of 60 healthy newborns, 30 born into French-speaking families and 30 born into German-speaking families, when they were three to five days old. That analysis revealed clear differences in the shape of the newborns' cry melodies, based on their mother tongue.

Specifically, French newborns tend to cry with a rising melody contour, whereas German newborns seem to prefer a falling melody contour in their crying. Those patterns are consistent with characteristic differences between the two languages, Wermke said.

The new data show an extremely early impact of native language, the researchers say. Earlier studies of vocal imitation had shown that infants can match vowel sounds presented to them by adult speakers, but only from 12 weeks on. That skill depends on vocal control that just isn't physically possible much earlier, the researchers explain.

"Imitation of melody contour, in contrast, is merely predicated upon well-coordinated respiratory-laryngeal mechanisms and is not constrained by articulatory immaturity," they write. "Newborns are probably highly motivated to imitate their mother's behavior in order to attract her and hence to foster bonding. Because melody contour may be the only aspect of their mother's speech that newborns are able to imitate, this might explain why we found melody contour imitation at that early age."

Cell Press


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The same genes that are chemically altered during normal cell differentiation, as well as when normal cells become cancer cells, are also changed in stem cells that scientists derive from adult cells, according to new research from Johns Hopkins and Harvard.

Although genetically identical to the mature body cells from which they are derived, induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are notably special in their ability to self-renew and differentiate into all kinds of cells. And now scientists have detected a remarkable if subtle molecular disparity between the two: They have distinct "epigenetic" signatures; that is, they differ in what gets copied when the cell divides, even though these differences aren't part of the DNA sequence.

"Relatively little study has been done on the epigenetic nature of stem cells," says Andrew Feinberg, M.D., M.P.H., a professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "To date, the bulk of what is known about stem cells is focused on how you create them and grow them and so forth, but not on the essence of them, and what is fundamentally different about these cells."

To compare and contrast mature connective tissue cells called fibroblasts with the pluripotent stem cells into which they were reprogrammed, the investigators focused on a chemical change known as methylation. This chemical change which, associated with silencing genes, is classified as epigenetic because, although not part of the DNA sequence, is copied when a cell divides. They identified and then measured so-called differentially methylated regions (DMRs) of genes whose expression was changed in the process of being reprogrammed from a parent cell to a stem cell.

Building on previous research that looked at where differently methylated sites were located in cancer cells, as well as on research that had shown these same sites matching up with many of the methylated areas that had been implicated in the differentiation of normal brain, liver and spleen tissues, the team discovered that the reprogramming of a cell to become a stem cell apparently involves many of the very same DMRs and genes.

"The surprise," says Feinberg, "is that there is such a degree of overlap between the differently methylated regions and genes that are involved in turning a fibroblast into a stem cell and turning a normal cell into a cancer cell."

The study, done jointly with George Q. Daley, M.D., Ph.D., and colleagues from Harvard University, was published Nov. 1 in the advanced online edition of Nature Genetics. The researchers suggest in the study that certain sites throughout the genome appear to be generally involved in distinguishing DNA methylation among different cell types and cancers, and these same sites are involved in reprogramming fibroblasts back into stem cells.

The scientists used the CHARM method (comprehensive high-throughput arrays for relative methylation) to survey where, across the genomes of nine human iPS cell lines, genes had been silenced, or turned off, and then compared these DNA methylation sites with those of the fibroblasts the iPS cells were derived from.

"This type of research gets to the fabric of the fundamental differences between stem cells and their parental cells," says Akiko Doi, a doctoral candidate in the graduate program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine at Johns Hopkins. "Clearly, that fabric involves these DMRs, which are essential to our understanding the nature of these potentially therapeutic iPS cells."

As scientists learn more about the epigenetics of reprogrammed cells, they may find new ways of creating them or using them. "If we discover that certain genes or regions are altered in iPS cells," says Feinberg, "then we might be able to target these and come up with new ways of approaching stem cell therapy.

"We can try to correlate these differences with the ways these iPS cells behave, and answer questions such as which ones are more stable and which ones form tumors. If we can use the epigenetic information to characterize these cells, this could inform how we might use them therapeutically."

Adds Daley, director of the Stem Cell Transplantation Program at HHMI/Children's Hospital in Boston, "Our data also point to differences between iPS cells and embryonic stem (ES) cells, which everyone has felt were similar if not identical. Such differences may prove important in the behavior of iPS cells in studies on tissue formation and may complicate therapies based on iPS cells. We need to develop ways of generating iPS cells that are a closer match to ES cells in their methylation patterns. Only then will we be confident that iPS cells are a safe replacement for ES cells in research and therapy."

Johns Hopkins Medicine


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Paleontologists from the University of California, Berkeley, and the Museum of the Rockies have wiped out two species of dome-headed dinosaur, one of them named three years ago – with great fanfare – after Hogwarts, the school attended by Harry Potter.

Their demise comes after a three-horned dinosaur, Torosaurus, was assigned to the dustbin of history last month at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in the United Kingdom, the loss in recent years of quite a few duck-billed hadrosaurs and the probable disappearance of Nanotyrannus, a supposedly miniature Tyrannosaurus rex.

These dinosaurs were not separate species, as some paleontologists claim, but different growth stages of previously named dinosaurs, according to a new study. The confusion is traced to their bizarre head ornaments, ranging from shields and domes to horns and spikes, which changed dramatically with age and sexual maturity, making the heads of youngsters look very different from those of adults.

"Juveniles and adults of these dinosaurs look very, very different from adults, and literally may resemble a different species," said dinosaur expert Mark B. Goodwin, assistant director of UC Berkeley's Museum of Paleontology. "But some scientists are confusing morphological differences at different growth stages with characteristics that are taxonomically important. The result is an inflated number of dinosaurs in the late Cretaceous."

Goodwin and John "Jack" Horner of the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University in Bozeman, are the authors of a new paper analyzing North American dome-headed dinosaurs that appeared this week in the public access online journal PLoS One.

Unlike the original dinosaur die-off at the end of the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago, this loss of species is the result of a sustained effort by paleontologists to collect a full range of dinosaur fossils – not just the big ones. Their work has provided dinosaur specimens of various ages, allowing computed tomography (CT) scans and tissue study of the growth stages of dinosaurs.

In fact, Horner suggests that one-third of all named dinosaur species may never have existed, but are merely different stages in the growth of other known dinosaurs.

"What we are seeing in the Hell Creek Formation in Montana suggests that we may be overextended by a third," Horner said, a "wild guess" that may hold true for the various horned dinosaurs recently discovered in Asia from the Cretaceous. "A lot of the dinosaurs that have been named recently fall into that category."

The new paper, published online Oct. 27, contains a thorough analysis of three of the four named dome-headed dinosaurs from North America, including Pachycephalosaurus wyomingensis, the first "thick-headed" dinosaur discovered. After that dinosaur's description in 1943, many speculated that male pachycephalosaurs used their bowling ball-like domes to head-butt one another like big-horn sheep, though Goodwin and Horner disproved that notion in 2004 after a thorough study of the tissue structure of the dome.

Many paleontologists now realize that the elaborate head ornaments of dinosaurs, from the huge bony shield and three horns of Triceratops to the coxcomb-like head gear of some hadrosaurs, were not for combat, but served the same purpose as feathers in birds: to distinguish between species and indicate sexual maturity.

"Dinosaurs, like birds and many mammals, retain neoteny, that is, they retain their juvenile characteristics for a long period of growth," Horner said, "which is a strong indicator that they were very social animals, grouping in flocks or herds with long periods of parental care."

These head ornaments, which probably had horny coverings of keratin that may have been brightly-colored as they are in many birds, started growing when these dinosaurs reached about half their adult size, and were remodeled as these dinosaurs matured, continuing to change shape even into adulthood and old age, according to the researchers.

In the new paper, Horner and Goodwin compared the bone structures of Pachycephalosaurus with that of a domeheaded dinosaur, Stygimoloch spinifer, discovered in Montana by UC Berkeley paleontologists in 1973, and a dragon-like skull discovered in South Dakota and named in 2006 as a new species, Dracorex hogwartsia.

With the help of CT scans and microscopic analysis of slices through the bones of Pachycephalosaurus and Stygimoloch, the team concluded that Stygimoloch, with its high, narrow dome, growing tissue and unfused skull bones, was probably a pachycephalosaur subadult, in a stage just before sexual maturity.

Dracorex is one of a kind, and thus unavailable for dissection, but morphological analysis indicates it is a juvenile that hasn't yet formed a dome, although the top of its skull shows thickening suggestive of an emerging dome.

"Dracorex's flat skull, nodules on the front end and small spikes on back, and thickened but undomed frontoparietal bone all confirm that, ontogenetically, it is a juvenile Pachycephalosaurus," Goodwin said.

Comparison of these skulls to other fossils in the hands of private collectors confirm the conclusions, they said. In all, they looked at 21 dome-headed dinosaur skulls and cranial elements from North America.

The key to this analysis, Horner said, was years of field work in Montana by his team and Goodwin's in search of fossils of all sizes.

"We have gone out in the Hell Creek Formation for 11 years doing nothing but collecting absolutely everything we could find, which is the kind of collecting that is required," he said. "If you think about Triceratops, people had collected for 100 years and still hadn't found any juveniles. And we went out and spent 11 years collecting everything, and we found all kinds of them."

"Early paleontologists recognized the distinction between adults and juveniles, but people have lost track of looking at ontogeny – how the individual develops – when they discover a new fossil," Goodwin said. "Dinosaurs are not mammals, and they don't grow like mammals."

In fact, the so-called metaplastic bone on the heads of horned dinosaurs grows and dissolves, or resorbs, throughout life like no other bone, Horner said, and is reminiscent of the growth and loss of horns today in elk and deer. In earlier studies, Horner and Goodwin found dramatic remodeling of metaplastic bone in Triceratops, which led to their subsequent focus on dome-headed dinosaurs.

"Metaplastic bones get long and shorten, as in Triceratops, where the horn orientation is backwards in juveniles and forward in adults," Horner said. Even in older specimens, such as the fossil previously named Torosaurus, bone in the face shield resorbs to create holes along the margin. John Scannella, Horner's student at Montana State, presented a paper reclassifying Torosaurus as an old Triceratops at the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Bristol, U.K., on Sept. 25.

"In order for that huge amount of bone to move, there has to be a lot of deposition and resorption," Horner said.

Horner and Goodwin continue to search for dinosaur fossils in the Hell Creek Formation, which is rich in Triceratops, dome-headed dinosaurs, hadrosaurs and tyrannosaurs. Analysis of growth stages in these taxa will have implications for other horned dinosaurs that are being uncovered in Asia and elsewhere.

"There are other horned dinosaurs I think may be over split," that is, split into too many new species rather than being lumped together as one species, Goodwin said.

(Photo: Holly Woodward/Montana State University)

University of California, Berkeley


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McGill University researchers and their colleagues in VERITAS, an international collaboration of astronomers, have discovered the first example of a very-high-energy gamma-ray source associated with a starburst galaxy - a discovery that provides fundamental insight into the origin of cosmic rays.

Their results which provide critical evidence to help scientists understand the origin of cosmic rays by clearly linking the processes related to the life-cycle of stars with the acceleration of cosmic rays, will be published in the journal Nature.

The work of McGill professors David Hanna and Kenneth Ragan, from the Department of Physics, may help to unravel the mystery of cosmic rays, energetic particles which bombard the Earth. These particles are produced in violent processes in our own Milky Way and in other galaxies. Although the details of their origin remain a mystery nearly a century after their discovery, it has long been thought that they originate in exploding stars called supernovae. The VERITAS observation of high-energy gamma rays coming from an area of intense stellar production and death will help to shed more light on the details of cosmic ray production.

In this discovery, researchers found starburst galaxy M82 to emit very energetic gamma rays. While dozens of objects have been observed to emit these energetic gamma rays, M82 is unique because it is the first starburst galaxy to be observed doing so. Starburst galaxies carry that name because they are sites of intense star formation -- and thus have large numbers of young, massive stars and supernovae (exploded high-mass stars). For a starburst galaxy to be observed as a gamma-ray emitter thus ties together gamma-ray production with cosmic ray -- charged particle -- production and acceleration in these supernovae, which may help us to understand the origin of cosmic rays.

"VERITAS is the most sensitive instrument in the world for this type of study, and this discovery of a new class of very-high-energy gamma ray emitters will provide more clues to the production and acceleration of cosmic rays," said Kenneth Ragan.

McGill University


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Longer toes and a unique ankle structure provide sprinters with the burst of acceleration that separates them from other runners, according to biomechanists.

"At the start of a sprint the only way a runner can speed up is through the reaction force that results from the action of leg muscles pushing on the ground," said Stephen Piazza, associate professor of kinesiology, Penn State. "Long toes provide sprinters the advantage of maintaining maximum contact with the ground just a little bit longer than other runners."

Piazza and his colleague Sabrina S. M. Lee, former Penn State graduate student now a post-doctoral fellow at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada, studied the muscle architecture of the foot and ankle to look at the differences between sprinters and nonsprinters.

They matched 12 collegiate sprinters with 12 nonathletes of the same height. They measured the distance between the heel and the end of the toes and used ultrasound imaging to measure the sliding of the Achilles tendon during ankle motion, from which the leverage of the tendon can be calculated.

"What we found was that the lever arms (distance between the tendon and center of rotation of the ankle) were significantly shorter -- about 25 percent shorter -- in sprinters," said Piazza, whose findings appeared recently in the Journal of Experimental Biology. "This difference might be explained by a tradeoff between leverage and muscle force-generating capacity."

Because the lever arms are shorter, the muscles shorten less for the same joint rotation. If muscles shorten less, they shorten more slowly, which helps them to produce greater force that more than compensates for the reduced leverage.

While there is little published work on foot shapes and sprinting, previous work on animals suggests that ostriches, greyhounds and cheetahs have feet built for sprinting.

To understand the kind of human foot that would produce a similar sprinting advantage, the researchers developed a simple computer model that could analyze the physiological data they had collected earlier.

"We wanted to see how much acceleration we could get out of the model when we changed the tendon lever arm and the length of the toes," said Piazza. "What we found is that when the Achilles tendon lever arm is the shortest and the toes are longest, we get the greatest acceleration."

Piazza cites other recent research suggesting that shorter toes in modern humans could be an evolutionary adaptation for efficient distance running.

"Maybe our ancestors with longer toes were better sprinters. Or maybe longer toes were selected for at a time when navigating in trees was more important and our toes became shorter as endurance running became more important for our survival," he added.

The Penn State researcher cautions that while the study could be a piece of the puzzle in determining who could potentially be a good sprinter, other physiological components such as body type, cardiovascular physiology and muscle fiber types also should be taken into account.

It also is unclear whether sprinting ability is congenital or whether training can influence the shape of bones in the foot.

"It is not too far-fetched to think that training can help accentuate the shape of the bone," said Piazza. "But if sprinters' skeletal characteristics were shown to be immutable, it would support the coaches' adage that sprinters are born and not made."

Penn State University




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