Friday, July 23, 2010

BABY BRAIN GROWTH MIRRORS CHANGES FROM APES TO HUMANS

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A study undertaken to help scientists concerned with abnormal brain development in premature babies has serendipitously revealed evolution's imprint on the human brain.

Scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that the human brain regions that grow the most during infancy and childhood are nearly identical to the brain regions with the most changes when human brains are compared to those of apes and monkeys.

Researchers report the finding in a detailed comparison of the brains of normal-term infants and healthy young adults published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists conducted the study to help assess the long-term effects of premature birth on brain development. These can include increased risks of learning disabilities, attention deficits, behavioral problems and cognitive impairments.

"Pre-term births have been rising in recent years, and now 12 percent of all babies in the United States are born prematurely," says Terrie Inder, MD, PhD, professor of pediatrics. "Until now, though, we were very limited in our ability to study how premature birth affects brain development because we had so little data on what normal brain development looks like."

Among the questions Inder and her colleagues hope to answer is the extent to which the brain can adapt to developmental limitations or setbacks imposed by early birth. They are also helping to develop clinical strategies to promote such adaptations and normalize development.

The study used a technique for comparative brain anatomy called surface reconstruction pioneered by senior author David Van Essen, PhD, Edison Professor and head of the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology. Surface reconstruction helps scientists more closely align comparable regions and structures in many different brains and has been used to create online atlases of brain structure.

First author Jason Hill, an MD/PhD student, analyzed the brain scans of 12 full-term infants and compared these to scans from 12 healthy young adults. Data from the two groups were combined into a single atlas to help scientists quantify the differences between the infant and young-adult brains.

They found that the cerebral cortex, the wrinkled area on the surface of the brain responsible for higher mental functions, grows in an uneven fashion. Every region expands as the brain matures, but one-quarter to one-third of the cortex expands approximately twice as much as other cortical areas during normal development.

"Through comparisons between humans and macaque monkeys, my lab previously showed that many of these high-growth regions are expanded in humans as a result of recent evolutionary changes that made the human brain much larger than that of any other primate," says Van Essen. "The correlation isn't perfect, but it's much too good to put down to chance."

The high-growth regions are areas linked to advanced mental functions such as language, reasoning, and what Van Essen calls "the abilities that make us uniquely human." He speculates that the full physical growth of these regions may be delayed somewhat to allow them to be shaped by early life experiences.

Inder notes another potential explanation for the different development rates: the limitations on brain size imposed by the need to pass through the mother's pelvis at birth may force the brain to prioritize.

"Vision, for example, is a brain area that is important at birth so an infant can nurse and learn to recognize his or her parents," Inder says. "Other areas of the brain, less important very early in life, may be the regions that see greater growth as the child matures."

Researchers are currently conducting similar scans of premature babies at birth and years later.

"This study and the data that we're gathering now could provide us with very powerful tools for understanding what goes wrong structurally in a wide range of childhood disorders, from the aftereffects of premature birth to conditions like autism, attention-deficit disorder or reading disabilities," Inder says.

(Photo: WUSTL)

Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis

FOR SPEEDIEST ATHLETES, IT'S ALL IN THE CENTER OF GRAVITY

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In the record books, the swiftest sprinters tend to be of West African ancestry and the faster swimmers tend to be white.

A study of the winning times by elite athletes over the past 100 years reveals two distinct trends: not only are these athletes getting faster over time, but there is a clear divide between racers in terms of body type and race.

Last year, a Duke University engineer explained the first trend – athletes are getting faster because they are getting bigger. Adrian Bejan, professor of engineering at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, now believes he can explain the second trend.

In a paper published online in the International Journal of Design and Nature and Ecodynamics, Bejan, and co-authors Edward Jones, a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University currently teaching at Howard University, and Duke graduate Jordan Charles, argue that the answer lies in athletes' centers of gravity. That center tends to be located higher on the body of blacks than whites. The researchers believe that these differences are not racial, but rather biological.

"There is a whole body of evidence showing that there are distinct differences in body types among blacks and whites," said Jones, who specializes in adolescent obesity, nutrition and anthropometry, the study of body composition. "These are real patterns being described here -- whether the fastest sprinters are Jamaican, African or Canadian -- most of them can be traced back generally to Western Africa."

Swimmers, Jones said, tend to come from Europe, and therefore tend to be white. He also pointed out that there are cultural factors at play as well, such as a lack of access to swimming pools to those of lower socioeconomic status.

It all comes down to body makeup, not race, Jones and Bejan said.

"Blacks tend to have longer limbs with smaller circumferences, meaning that their centers of gravity are higher compared to whites of the same height," Bejan said. "Asians and whites tend to have longer torsos, so their centers of gravity are lower."

Bejan and Jones cite past studies of the human body which found that on average, the center of gravity is about three percent higher in blacks than whites. Using this difference in body types, the researchers calculated that black sprinters are 1.5 percent faster than whites, while whites have the same advantage over blacks in the water. The difference might seem small, Bejan said, but not when considering that world records in sprinting and swimming are typically broken by fractions of seconds.

The center of gravity for an Asian is even more advantageous to swimming than for a white, but because they tend not to be as tall, they are not setting records, Bejan said.

"Locomotion is essentially a continual process of falling forward," Bejan said. "Body mass falls forward, then rises again. Mass that falls from a higher altitude falls faster. In running, the altitude is set by the location of the center of gravity. For the fastest swimmers, longer torsos allow the body to fall forward farther, riding the larger and faster wave."

The researchers said this evolution of body types and increased speeds can be predicted by the constructal theory, a theory of natural design developed by Bejan that explains such diverse phenomena as river basin formation and basis of animal locomotion (www.constructal.org).

Jones said that the differences in body densities between blacks and whites are well-documented, which helps explain other health differences, such as the observation that black women have a lower incidence of osteoporosis than white women because of the increased density of their bones.

Jones notes that cultural issues can play a role in which form of athletic competition someone chooses, and therefore might excel in.

"When I grew up in South Carolina, we were discouraged from swimming," said Jones, who is black. "There wasn't nearly as much encouragement for us as young people to swim as there was for playing football or basketball. With the right encouragement, this doesn't always have to be the case – just look at the Williams sisters in tennis or Tiger Woods in golf."

(Photo: Duke University)

Duke University

"MAGICAL THINKING" ABOUT ISLANDS IS AN ILLUSION

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Long before TV's campy Fantasy Island, the isolation of island communities has touched an exotic and magical core in us. Darwin's fascination with the Galapagos island chain and the evolution of its plant and animal life is just one example.

Think of the extensive lore surrounding island-bred creatures like Komodo dragons, dwarf elephants, and Hobbit-sized humans. Conventional wisdom has it that they — and a horde of monster-sized insects — are all products of island evolution.

But are they?

Dr. Shai Meiri of Tel Aviv University's Department of Zoology says "yes," they are a product of evolution, but nothing more than one would expect to see by "chance," citing research that shows there's nothing extraordinary about evolutionary processes on islands. He and his colleagues have conducted a number of scientific studies comparing evolutionary patterns of island and mainland ecosystems, and the results refute the idea that islands operate under different, "magical" rules.

"My findings are a bit controversial for some evolutionary biologists," says Dr. Meiri, the author of several papers and essays on island evolution. His research is based on statistical models he developed.

"There is a tendency to believe that big animals become very small on islands, and small animals become very big, due to limited resources or lack of competition. I've shown that this is just not true, at least not as a general rule. Evolution operates on islands no differently than anywhere else."

In a recent study reported in Global Ecology and Biogeography, Dr. Meiri and his colleagues looked at a theoretical optimum body size towards which mammals are expected to grow, on both island communities and on the mainland. "Contemporary evolutionary thinking maintains that smaller island mammals will rapidly grow larger towards the optimal size, while bigger animals will rapidly shrink due to the constraints of competition on the islands. The researchers found that island isolation per se does not really affect the evolutionary rate, the rates of diversification of species, or the rate at which body size shifts in populations of island and mainland animals.

Employing their own statistical tools incorporating large data sets that compared body sizes on various islands and on mainland communities, Dr. Meiri and his colleagues found no such tendency for bizarrely-sized animals to develop on islands. "We concluded that the evolution of body sizes is as random with respect to 'isolation' as on the rest of the planet. This means that you can expect to find the same sort of patterns on islands and on the mainland."

Dr. Meiri attributes our widely held misperceptions about "dragons and dwarfs" to the fact that people tend to notice the extremes more if they are found on islands.

The reason for science and mankind’s fascination with island communities could boil down to "better press," says Dr. Meiri. If observers investigate human beings on 3,000 different South Pacific islands and all but one of the islands are populated by ordinary-sized people, they will tend to concentrate on the unique case. They forget about the other 2,999 islands in the South Pacific with normal-sized humans, and focus on the unusual.

"I think it's purely a psychological bias," Dr. Meiri concludes. "It's just magical thinking. Nothing more." Fantasies about island habitats and the animals that live there are best left for movies, TV shows, and fantasy novels, he adds.

(Photo: TAU)

Tel Aviv University

MIXED PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

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Struggling with your chip shot? Constant drills with your wedge may not help much, but mixing in longer drives will, and a new study shows why.

Previous studies have shown that variable practice improves the brain’s memory of most skills better than practice focused on a single task. Cognitive neuroscientists at USC and UCLA describe the neural basis for this paradox in a new study in Nature Neuroscience.

The researchers split 59 volunteers into six groups: three groups were asked to practice a challenging arm movement, while the other three groups practiced the movement and related tasks in a variable practice structure.

Volunteers in the variable practice group showed better retention of the skill. The process of consolidating memory of the skill engaged a part of the brain - the prefrontal cortex - associated with higher level planning.

The group assigned to constant practice of the arm movement retained the skill to a lesser degree through consolidation that engaged a part of the brain - the primary motor cortex - associated with simple motor learning.

“In the variable practice structure condition, you’re basically solving the motor problem anew each time. If I’m just repeating the same thing over and over again as in the constant practice condition, I don’t have to process it very deeply,” said study senior author Carolee Winstein, professor of biokinesiology and physical therapy at USC College.

“We gravitate toward a simple, rote practice structure because we’re basically lazy, and we don’t want to work hard. But it turns out that memory is enhanced when we engage in practice that is more challenging and requires us to reconstruct the activity,” Winstein said.

Winstein’s team, led by Shailesh Kantak, a graduate student in biokinesiology at the time of the study, verified the neural circuits involved through harmless magnetic interference applied immediately after practice.

Volunteers in the variable practice group who received magnetic stimulation in the prefrontal cortex failed to retain or “consolidate” the arm movement as well as those in the same group who did not receive magnetic stimulation.

This implied that the prefrontal cortex was necessary for consolidating the memory.

Likewise, constant practice volunteers who received magnetic stimulation in the primary motor cortex failed to retain the arm movement as well as volunteers in the same group who did not receive magnetic stimulation.

“While it may be harder during practice to switch between tasks … you end up remembering the tasks better later than you do if you engage in this drill-like practice,” Winstein said.

“In motor skills training they know this, in educational programs where they’re teaching the kids cursive hand writing, they know this.”

Winstein described the study as “the linking of motor neuroscience to behavioral movement science to better understand the neural substrates that mediate motor learning through optimal practice structures. No one had done this before in this way.”

The magnetic interference tests also helped define the time window for the brain to consolidate skills. For volunteers chosen to receive interference four hours after practice, the procedure had no effect on learning. This suggested the brain already had done its consolidation.

(Photo: USC)

The University of Southern California

OLDEST WRITTEN DOCUMENT EVER FOUND IN JERUSALEM DISCOVERED BY HEBREW UNIVERSITY

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A tiny clay fragment – dating from the 14th century B.C.E. – that was found in excavations outside Jerusalem's Old City walls contains the oldest written document ever found in Jerusalem, say researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The find, believed to be part of a tablet from a royal archives, further testifies to the importance of Jerusalem as a major city in the Late Bronze Age, long before its conquest by King David, they say.

The clay fragment was uncovered recently during sifting of fill excavated from beneath a 10th century B.C.E. tower dating from the period of King Solomon in the Ophel area, located between the southern wall of the Old City of Jerusalem and the City of David to its south. Details of the discovery appear in the current issue of the Israel Exploration Journal.

Excavations in the Ophel have been conducted by Dr. Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology. Funding for the project has been provided by Daniel Mintz and Meredith Berkman of New York, who also have provided funds for completion of the excavations and opening of the site to the public by the Israel Antiquities Authority, in cooperation with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Company for the Development of East Jerusalem. The sifting work was led by Dr.Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Zweig at the Emek Zurim wet-sieving facility site.

The fragment that has been found is 2x2.8 centimeters in size and one centimeter thick. Dated to the 14th century B.C.E., it appears to have been part of a tablet and contains cuneiform symbols in ancient Akkadian (the lingua franca of that era).

The words the symbols form are not significant in themselves, but what is significant is that the script is of a very high level, testifying to the fact that it was written by a highly skilled scribe that in all likelihood prepared tablets for the royal household of the time, said Prof. Wayne Horowitz, a scholar of Assyriology at the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology. Horowitz deciphered the script along with his former graduate student Dr. Takayoshi Oshima, now of the University of Leipzig, Germany.

Tablets with diplomatic messages were routinely exchanged between kings in the ancient Near East, Horowitz said, and there is a great likelihood, because of its fine script and the fact it was discovered adjacent to in the acropolis area of the ancient city, that the fragment was part of such a "royal missive." Horowitz has interpreted the symbols on the fragment to include the words "you," "you were," "later," "to do" and "them."

The most ancient known written record previously found in Jerusalem was the tablet found in the Shiloah water tunnel in the City of David area during the 8th century B.C.E. reign of King Hezekiah. That tablet, celebrating the completion of the tunnel, is in a museum in Istanbul. This latest find predates the Hezekiah tablet by about 600 years.

The fragment found at the Ophel is believed to be contemporary with the some 380 tablets discovered in the 19th century at Amarna in Egypt in the archives of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten), who lived in the 14th century B.C.E. The archives include tablets sent to Akhenaten by the kings who were subservient to him in Canaan and Syria and include details about the complex relationships between them, covering many facets of governance and society. Among these tablets are six that are addressed from Abdi-Heba, the Canaanite ruler of Jerusalem. The tablet fragment in Jerusalem is most likely part of a message that would have been sent from the king of Jerusalem, possibly Abdi-Heba, back to Egypt, said Mazar.

Examination of the material of the fragment by Prof. Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University, shows that it is from the soil of the Jerusalem area and not similar to materials from other areas, further testifying to the likelihood that it was part of a tablet from a royal archive in Jerusalem containing copies of tablets sent by the king of Jerusalem to Pharaoh Akhenaten in Egypt.

Mazar says this new discovery, providing solid evidence of the importance of Jerusalem during the Late Bronze Age (the second half of the second century B.C.E.), acts as a counterpoint to some who have used the lack of substantial archeological findings from that period until now to argue that Jerusalem was not a major center during that period. It also lends weight to the importance that accrued to the city in later times, leading up to its conquest by King David in the 10th century B.C.E., she said.

(Photo: Hebrew University / Sasson Tiram)

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

PLANT 'BREATHING' MECHANISM DISCOVERED

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A tiny, little-understood plant pore has enormous implications for weather forecasting, climate change, agriculture, hydrology, and more. A study by scientists at the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology, with colleagues from the Research Center Jülich in Germany, has now overturned the conventional belief about how these important structures called stomata regulate water vapor loss from the leaf–a process called transpiration. They found that radiation is the driving force of physical processes deep within the leaf.

The research is published the week of July 12, 2010, in the on-line early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Stomata are lip-shaped pores surrounded by a pair of guard cells that control the size of the opening. The size of the pores regulates the inflow of carbon dioxide (CO2) needed for photosynthesis and the outflow of water vapor to the atmosphere—transpiration.

Transpiration cools and humidifies the atmosphere over vegetation, moderating the climate and increasing precipitation. Stomata influence the rate at which plants can absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, which affects the productivity of plants and the concentration of atmospheric CO2. Understanding stoma is important for climate change research.

Current climate change models use descriptions of stomatal response based on statistical analysis of studies conducted with a few plant species. This approach is not based on a solid understanding of the mechanism of stomatal regulation and provides a poor basis for extrapolating to environmental conditions.

"Scientists have been studying stomata for at least 300 years. It's amazing that we have not had good grasp about the regulatory mechanisms that control how much stomata open or close in response to a constantly changing environment," remarked co-author Joseph Berry of Carnegie.

For the first time, these researchers looked at how the exchange of energy and water vapor at the outer surface of the leaf are linked to processes inside the leaf. They found that the energy from radiation absorbed by pigments and water inside the leaf influences how the stomata control water levels.

"In this study we illuminated a sunflower leaf with an incandescent light that was filtered to include or exclude near infrared light (NIR >700 nm)," remarked Berry. "When the near infrared light was applied, the stomata responded by opening and indirectly stimulated photosynthesis. Light of different colors gave similar stomata opening at equal energy inputs—more evidence that heat is the driver."

The scientists replicated the experiment with five other plant species and over a range of carbon dioxide levels and temperatures. The researchers also developed a model based on energy balance of the leaf system to simulate responses. Results from the model mimicked the results from the lab.

It has been assumed that the guard cells forming the pore have sophisticated sensory and information processing systems making use of light and other environmental cues to adjust the pores. The breakthrough of this research is that it is the first to demonstrate that regulation of the rate of water loss by stomata is linked to physical processes that occur deep within the leaf.

"This means that the current model for what drives stomata to change their size has to change," remarked co-author Roland Pieruschka, a Marie Curie Fellow from the European Union at the Carnegie Institution (currently at the Research Center Jülich in Germany). "For a long time researchers have thought that heat from the sun, which is absorbed by pigments, moves from cell to cell until it gets to the cavities beneath the stomata where evaporation has been thought to take place. This probably happens to some degree, but the results presented here are more consistent with our hypothesis that much of this heat is transferred through air spaces inside the leaf that are saturated with water vapor. This key difference is pivotal for understanding how Otto Lange's seminal work in the 1970s, on responses of stomata to humidity, can be fit into a leaf-scale concept of stomatal regulation."

Carnegie Institution

STEM CELLS FROM FAT MAY HELP HEAL BONE

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Wounded soldiers may one day be treated with stem cells from their own fat using a method under development at UC Davis.

Kent Leach, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, has already used the treatment in three racehorses. Now, with a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Army, he will begin testing it in rats.

The method employs a gel-like material to encourage stem cells from fat to regenerate damaged bone.

The stem cells have been shown to stimulate the growth of small blood vessels in developing bone, encouraging healing. The gel keeps the stem cells at the injury site; as the bone heals, the gel breaks down.

"Straight injection of stem cells has a limited effect," Leach said. "If we can localize the cells at the treatment site, the treatments should be more effective."

With Larry Galuppo, professor of veterinary medicine at UC Davis, Leach has already tested the technique in racehorses undergoing treatment for bone cysts at the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. Galuppo and his colleagues are treating most of the horses by injecting them with stem cells alone, but in three horses to date, they have used Leach's gel method. Results from those equine patients are still being assessed. The technique has not yet been tested in humans.

Using stem cells from a patient's own fat has two main advantages, Leach said. The stem cells have a better chance of succeeding and not being rejected by the body; and the main alternative, extraction from bone marrow, can be painful, requires several days of recovery time, and is not feasible for severely injured or weakened patients.

"Stem cells from adipose tissue are an exciting alternative to stem cells from bone marrow or other tissues because we can isolate a large number, no matter what the patient’s condition is," Leach said.

Leach envisions that eventually, surgeons could extract fat from a patient, separate out the stem cells, mix them into the gel and inject the mixture directly into a fracture.

The team will test several compositions in rats to find one that yields the most rapid growth of new blood vessels and resulting bone formation, using noninvasive imaging technologies.

University of California, Davis

ARCHAEOLOGICAL MYSTERY SOLVED

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A 3,200-year-old round bronze tablet with a carved face of a woman, found at the El-ahwat excavation site near Katzir in central Israel, is part of a linchpin that held the wheel of a battle chariot in place. This was revealed by scientist Oren Cohen of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa.

“Such an identification reinforces the claim that a high-ranking Egyptian or local ruler was based at this location, and is likely to support the theory that the site is Harosheth Haggoyim, the home town of Sisera, as mentioned in Judges 4-5,” says Prof. Zertal.

The El-ahwat site, near Nahal ‘Iron, was exposed by a cooperative delegation excavating there during 1993-2000 from the Universities of Haifa and Cagliari (Sardinia), headed by Prof. Zertal. The excavated city has been dated back to the end of the Bronze Age and early Iron Age (13th-12th centuries B.C.E.). The city’s uniqueness - its fortifications, passageways in the walls, and rounded huts - made it foreign amidst the Canaanite landscape. Prof. Zertal has proposed that based on these unusual features, the site may have been home to the Shardana tribe of the Sea-Peoples, who, according to some researchers, lived in Harosheth Haggoyim, Sisera’s capital city. The city is mentioned in the Bible’s narratives as Sisera’s capital, and it was from there that the army of chariots set out to fight the Israelites, who were being led by Deborah the prophetess and Barak, son of Avinoam. The full excavation and its conclusions have been summarized in Prof. Zertal’s book “Sisera’s Secret, A Journey following the Sea-Peoples and the Song of Deborah” (Dvir, Tel Aviv, 2010 [Hebrew]).

One of the objects uncovered at the site remained masked in mystery. The round, bronze tablet, about 2 cm. in diameter and 5 mm. thick, was found in a structure identified as the “Governor’s House”. The object features a carved face of a woman wearing a cap and earrings shaped as chariot wheels. When uncovered in 1997, it was already clear that the tablet was the broken end of an elongated object, but Mr. Cohen, who included the tablet in the final report of the excavations, did not manage to find its parallel in any other archaeological discoveries.

Now, 13 years later, the mystery has been solved. When carrying out a scrutinizing study of ancient Egyptian reliefs depicting chariot battles, Mr. Cohen discerned a unique decoration: the bronze linchpins fastening the chariot wheels were decorated with people’s faces - of captives, foreigners and enemies of Egypt. He also noticed that these decorations characterized those chariots that were used by royalty and distinguished people.

“This identification enhances the historical and archaeological value of the site and proves that chariots belonging to high-ranking individuals were found there. It provides support for the possibility, which has not yet been definitively established, that this was Sisera’s city of residence and that it was from there that the chariots set out on their way to the battle against the Israelite tribes, located between the ancient sites of Taanach and Megiddo,” Prof. Zertal concludes.

(Photo: U. Haifa)

University of Haifa

STUDY SHOWS STABILITY AND UTILITY OF FLOATING WIND TURBINES

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Wind turbines may be one of the best renewable energy solutions, but as turbines get larger they also get noisier, become more of an eyesore, and require increasingly larger expanses of land. One solution: ocean-based wind turbines. While offshore turbines already have been constructed, they've traditionally been situated in shallow waters, where the tower extends directly into the seabed. That restricts the turbines to near-shore waters with depths no greater than 50 meters -- and precludes their use in deeper waters, where winds generally gust at higher speeds.

An alternative is placing turbines on floating platforms, says naval architect Dominique Roddier of Berkeley, California-based Marine Innovation & Technology. He and his and colleagues have published a feasibility study of one platform design -- dubbed "WindFloat" -- in the latest issue of the Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy, which is published by the American Institute of Physics (AIP).

By testing a 1:65 scale model in a wave tank, the researchers show that the three-legged floating platform, which is based on existing gas and oil offshore platform designs, is stable enough to support a 5-megawatt wind turbine, the largest turbine that currently exists. These mammoth turbines are 70 meters tall and have rotors the size of a football field. Just one, Roddier says, produces enough energy "to support a small town."

The next step, says Roddier, is building a prototype to understand the life-cycle cost of such projects and to refine the economics models. The prototype, which is being built in collaboration with electricity operator Energias de Portugal, "should be in the water by the end of summer 2012," he says.

American Institute of Physics (AIP)

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