Eye-tracking sensor maker makes play for big time

STOCKHOLMAn accidental breakthrough in a Stockholm laboratory 15 years ago could reap a fortune for the engineers who made it as long as they can win over some of the most demanding consumers: video gamers. Since John Elvesjo noticed a sensor tracki...

Spacecraft carrying Russian, American, Briton docks with space station

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan A Soyuz spacecraft successfully delivered a Russian, an American and a Briton to the International Space Station on Tuesday after blasting off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.The otherwise smooth journey ended with a ...

Panda passion: Study reveals secret of fruitful captive breeding

WASHINGTON In pandas as in people, it appears that passion prevails.

Scientists studying captive breeding of the endangered bamboo-eating bears said on Tuesday pandas are far more likely to mate successfully and produce cubs when they show through a complex series of behaviors a preference for a potential mate.

When giant pandas in captive breeding experiments displayed no such preference, despite being deemed genetically suitable as a pair, their chances of successfully mating dropped to zero.

"Incorporating mate choice into conservation breeding programs could make a huge difference for the success of many endangered species breeding programs, increasing cost-effectiveness and overall success," said conservation biologist Meghan Martin-Wintle of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

The study involved more than 40 pandas at a conservation and research center in China's Sichuan province. Pandas were put in large open-air enclosures where they could choose between two potential mates.

When both a male and a female showed a preference for each other, there was about an 80 percent chance they would produce a cub. When one of the two showed a preference for the other, there was about a 50 percent chance they would produce a cub.

When neither showed a preference for the other, there was a zero percent chance for a cub.

The pandas showed interest in potential mates through behaviors such as vocalizations called "chirps" and "bleats," and "scent-marking" by rubbing glands against a surface or object. Females showed their angiogenital region to males, put their tails in the air and walked backward toward males. Males performed a handstand against a vertical surface and urinated.

"We learned that, just as in humans, breeding signals are complicated," Martin-Wintle said.

Conservation breeding programs act as a fail-safe against extinction, providing animals for reintroduction to the wild to bolster dwindling populations. Pandas, remaining in the wild in only a few Chinese mountain ranges, have proven tricky to breed in captivity.

"Pairs are selected to maximize maintenance of genetic diversity in the panda population. This is essential for maintaining healthy populations, and currently we have no problem with this," said Ronald Swaisgood, the institute's director of applied animal ecology.

"However, there are often several candidate mates that are genetically suitable, and we believe that behavior and mate choice has a role to play for improving the success rate of breeding among genetically suitable partners."

The research was published in the journal Nature Communications.

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Britain’s first astronaut for 24 years hopes to inspire Mars interest

LONDONThe man who will become the first British astronaut to visit the International Space Station said on Friday he hoped his mission would inspire young Britons to one day journey to Mars.

Tim Peake, 43, a former army major, will blast off on a six-month mission for the European Space Agency (ESA) in December, the first Briton to go into space since Helen Sharman traveled on a Soviet spacecraft for eight days in 1991.

"After a gap of 24 years since Helen Sharman flew to the Mir space station, the Union (Jack) flag is going to be flown and worn in space once again," Peake told reporters.

"What that means is that there's nothing to stop the schoolkids in Great Britain today from being amongst the first men and women to set on foot on Mars in the future."

Peake said he would be carrying out a series of scientific experiments, including some medical research where he would be a "human guinea pig".

The Briton, selected as an astronaut in 2009, will launch from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for the mission titled Principia after Isaac Newton’s ground-breaking Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which describes the principal laws of motion and gravity.

Britain originally opted out of the European program for human space flight but decided to reverse its decision in 2012.

The space station is a laboratory in which an international crew of six people live and work while traveling at a speed of five miles per second, orbiting Earth every 90 minutes.

It was launched in 1998 and has been continuously occupied since November 2000. In that time, more than 200 people from 15 countries have visited.

(Reporting by Michael Holden; editing by Stephen Addison)

Arctic advantage: genetic traits help Inuit in harsh conditions

WASHINGTON The Inuit, a group of people who make the Arctic their home, have benefited from a handy set of genetic adaptations that help them survive in some of Earth's harshest conditions.

Scientists on Thursday said a study of the genomes of Inuit from Greenland revealed unique genetic variants related to fat metabolism that ward off cardiovascular disease that otherwise could be caused by a diet traditionally high in fat from blubbery seals and whales.

These genetic mutations, which the researchers said arose perhaps 20,000 years ago, help lower "bad" LDL cholesterol and fasting insulin levels, limit the height of the Inuit, keep down their weight and help them adapt to a cold environment.

"Our study is perhaps the most extreme example to date of a genetic adaptation to a specific diet," said computational biology professor Rasmus Nielsen of the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Copenhagen.

"The mutations we find seem to compensate physiologically for a large intake of animal fat and are largely an adaptation to a lifestyle in which you have a high-caloric intake of fat from marine mammals, and possibly also from other mammals."

The Inuit, formerly called Eskimos, are indigenous people in Greenland and Arctic regions of Canada and Alaska.

The researchers examined genomes of 191 Inuit, 60 Europeans and 44 Han Chinese. The genetic variants found almost universally in the Inuit were much rarer in the Europeans (2 percent) and Chinese (15 percent).

The research, published in the journal Science, is the latest to illustrate human genetic adaptation to environmental conditions.

"One of the best examples is the Tibetans' adaptation to high altitude," said University of Copenhagen computational biology professor Anders Albrechtsen, referring to a study showing that many Tibetans possess a rare variant of a gene involved in carrying oxygen in the blood, helping them in high-altitude, low-oxygen conditions.

The Inuit findings may shed light on the value of diet supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids and fish oils. Nielsen noted such supplementation was originally motivated by observations that Inuit people had a high intake of fat but low cardiovascular disease incidence, so the particular form of fat they got in their diet might be healthier than other kinds.

"Our study shows that lessons from the Inuit cannot be extrapolated to other populations. The Inuit have special genetic variants that might allow them to function better on a diet rich in omega-3s than other populations," Nielsen said.

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Eric Walsh)

Spacecraft carrying Russian, American, Briton docks with space station

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan A Soyuz spacecraft successfully delivered a Russian, an American and a Briton to the International Space Station on Tuesday after blasting off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.The otherwise smooth journey ended with a ...

Boeing rejects Aerojet Rocketdyne bid for ULA launch venture

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. Boeing Co (BA.N) on Wednesday said it had rejected an unsolicited bid from Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc (AJRD.N) for United Launch Alliance, a 50-50 rocket launch venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N)."The unsoli...

NASA could have cut costs after botched Orbital launch: watchdog

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. NASA missed opportunities to save millions of dollars following Orbital ATK’s failed cargo run to the International Space Station last year, the agency’s top watchdog said on Thursday.

The NASA Office of Inspector General also questioned Orbital’s plan to resume deliveries to the space station, a permanently staffed, $100 billion research laboratory that flies about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth. 

Orbital is buying rides for its next two Cygnus cargo capsules from United Launch Alliance (ULA), a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Orbital’s first mission using ULA’s Atlas rocket is slated for December, with the second to follow in early 2016.

Orbital also is outfitting its troubled Antares rocket, which exploded seconds after liftoff from Virginia on Oct. 28, 2014 with new engines. The revamped booster will then be used for two more station resupply missions in 2016, a schedule that the does not include a test flight and has limited opportunities for ground testing and certification, the Inspector General report said.

Orbital’s plan to return to flight “contains technical and operational risks and may be difficult to execute as designed and on the timetable proposed,” the report said.

Orbital declined to comment.

Auditors also pointed out that the U.S. space agency could have saved up to $84 million by taking advantage of provisions in its $1.9 billion contract with Orbital.

For example, NASA could have saved $21 million after Orbital launch delays resulted in multiple missions flying in 2014. Instead, NASA accepted concessions worth about $2 million, investigators said.

Orbital successfully flew two of its planned eight missions before the accident.

The company now plans to fulfill its contract requirements in seven flights by using the heftier Atlas and revamped Antares launchers. However, on a price-per-pound basis, as stated in the original contract, NASA is paying an extra $65 million for those missions, the report showed.

In a written response to the Inspector General, NASA said it had made use of available contract provisions in its negotiations with Orbital.

The oversight agency is conducting a similar review of NASA's relationship with privately owned SpaceX, which operates a second cargo line to the space station. SpaceX, owned and operated by technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, is recovering from a June 28 accident of its Falcon 9 rocket, which destroyed another station resupply ship.

(The story was refiled to correct the time element in the lead paragraph to "last year" instead of "two years ago")

(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Tom Brown)

Studies on kissing, the word ‘huh?’ among Ig Nobel award winners

BOSTON Researchers who studied the consequences of intense kissing, the global use of the word "huh?" and how badly bee stings hurt on different parts of the body were among the winners of this year's Ig Nobel prizes for comical scientific achieveme...

Studies on kissing, the word ‘huh?’ among Ig Nobel award winners

BOSTON Researchers who studied the consequences of intense kissing, the global use of the word "huh?" and how badly bee stings hurt on different parts of the body were among the winners of this year's Ig Nobel prizes for comical scientific achieveme...

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