Seven Earth-Sized Worlds Found

Breakthrough In Search For Life As Seven Earth-Sized Worlds Found Orbiting Nearby Star

Astronomers have made a huge discovery in the search for life beyond our Solar System, describing a whopping seven Earth-sized worlds in orbit around a nearby star. At least three of them may be habitable – and we could find out if they are inhabited within a decade.

The system is around a star called TRAPPIST-1, a small ultra-cool dwarf star 40 light-years away that’s about 8 percent the mass of our Sun and 11 percent its radius, similar in size to Jupiter. Last year, it was revealed that three potentially rocky worlds orbited this star, and now this new study has found four more.

A paper describing the incredible findings, led by Michaël Gillon of the University of Liège in Belgium, was published today in Nature. The discovery was made using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and a variety of ground-based telescopes, including TRAPPIST-South in Chile, to observe the transits of the planets relative to us as they passed across their star.

“The star is so small and cold that the planets are temperate, which means that they could have some liquid water and maybe life by extension on the surface,” Gillon said in a press briefing.


In order of their distance from the star, the planets are called TRAPPIST-1b (the innermost), c, d, e, f, g, and h (the planets d, e, f, and g are newly discovered). The researchers were able to work out the mass, radius, and orbital periods of all seven of the planets, save for the outermost, TRAPPIST-1h, of which only one transit was seen.

TRAPPIST-1b orbits just 0.011 AU from its star (1 AU, or astronomical unit, is the Earth-Sun distance). As such, it completes an orbit in just 1.51 days. The next six planets orbit from 2.42 to about 20 days, and all are similar in size to Earth, ranging from 0.76 times our radius to 1.13.

Being such a cool and dim star, its habitable zone is much closer in than our own Solar System. The planets e, f, and g all orbit in this zone, suggesting they could support liquid water oceans on their surface.

The finding is particularly exciting because, being so close to Earth, we will be able to study the planets of this star in detail. And not just in the future, but right now. Follow-up observations are already underway, and it’s possible we could know if life exists on one or more of these planets very soon by studying the molecular composition of their atmospheres.



Smartphone Apps With Benefits

Smartphone apps might seem like little more than fun time-wasters, but new work by scientists at Hunter College (part of the City University of New York) shows that an app they developed can significantly reduce anxiety among individuals with high levels of anxiety. The app is based on a psychological method known as attention-bias modification training (ABMT), in which a person trains their brain to ignore an anxiety-provoking stimulus and instead focus on something more pleasant. In the study, published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, the researchers had 75 individuals who reported high levels of anxiety use the app, which involved following two characters and quickly and accurately tracing their paths around the screen. The study subjects were then asked to give a short speech in front of the authors. The participants who used the ABMT-based app had significantly less anxiety than those who played a similar game. Although the results still have to be validated among individuals with clinical anxiety disorders, the researchers hope that these apps can form a useful adjunct to treatment for anxiety disorders and stress.

Read more:
Journal article: Mental Health on the Go: Effects of a Gamified Attention-Bias Modification Mobile Application in Trait-Anxious Adults. Clinical Psychological Science, 2014. doi: 10.1177/2167702614522228
Image credit: Phil Roeder/Flickr

Mobile App Helps Triple Your Reading Speed

A new app can increase the speed you consume and comprehend text by displaying words in the ORP (Optimal Reading Position) for the human field of view.

This isn’t a new idea. People have been employing similar methods using digital media for years, however I’d never tried this approach until seeing this app at work. I have to say I’m pretty impressed.

Even 250 words per minute would save most of us a lot of time.

See this link for more.


Mini Neural Computer Discovered In The Brain

The branch-like projections at the end of neurons known as dendrites have been thought to be merely passive participants in the processing of information. However, scientists at the University of North Carolina have now found that dendrites play a very active role in information processing, and serve to increase the brain’s processing power.
From prior research, scientists knew that electrical spikes were generated in dendrites with the same molecules that generate them in axons. What remained in question was whether normal brain activity made use of dendritic spikes. Using tiny pipettes attached to dendrites in the brains of mice, the researchers “listened” to electrical activity in the dendrites and noticed and analyzed patterns. The team noted that dendrites spiked even when the axon did not. The results of their work show that dendrites act as “mini-computers” in the brain that assist with information processing.

Exciting News On The Fight Against AIDS

A team of researchers based at Johns Hopkins has decoded a system that makes certain types of immune cells impervious to HIV infection. The system’s two vital components are high levels of a molecule that becomes embedded in viral DNA like a code written in invisible ink, and an enzyme that, when it reads the code, switches from repairing the DNA to chopping it up into unusable pieces. The researchers, who report the find in the Jan. 21 early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, say the discovery points toward a new approach to eradicating HIV from the body.

Biologists Genetically Engineer Algae for Cancer Therapy

Biologists at UC San Diego have succeeded in genetically engineering algae to produce a complex and expensive human therapeutic drug used to treat cancer.

The advance is the culmination of seven years of work to demonstrate that Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, a green alga used widely in biology laboratories as a genetic model organism can produce a wide range of human therapeutic proteins in greater quantity and more cheaply than bacteria or mammalian cells. Bacteria cannot make these drugs since they are incapable of folding the proteins into the complex, three-dimensional shapes needed. Additionally, the drug cannot be made in mammalian cells as the toxin would kill them.

The engineered algae produces a complex, three-dimensional protein with two “domains” — one of which contains the antibody to target cancer cells and another containing a toxin that kills the bound cancer cells. Such “fusion proteins” are presently created by pharmaceutical companies in a complex, two-step process by first developing the antibody domain in a Chinese hamster cell. The antibody is purified, then chemically attached to a toxin outside of the cell after which the final protein is re-purified.

While producing this particular fusion protein in algae was fairly straightforward because it involved fusing two domains, this same method can likely be used in the future to engineer algae to produce more complex proteins with multiple domains. Read more here: