Listening to classical music modulates genes

A Finnish study group has investigated how listening to classical music affected the gene expression profiles of both musically experienced and inexperienced participants. All the participants listened to W.A. Mozart's violin concert Nr 3, G-major, K.216 that lasts 20 minutes. Credit: © rubchikova / Fotolia
A Finnish study group has investigated how listening to classical music affected the gene expression profiles of both musically experienced and inexperienced participants. All the participants listened to W.A. Mozart’s violin concert Nr 3, G-major, K.216 that lasts 20 minutes.
Credit: © rubchikova / Fotolia

Although listening to music is common in all societies, the biological determinants of listening to music are largely unknown. According to a new study, listening to classical music enhanced the activity of genes involved in dopamine secretion and transport, synaptic neurotransmission, learning and memory, and down-regulated the genes mediating neurodegeneration. Several of the up-regulated genes were known to be responsible for song learning and singing in songbirds, suggesting a common evolutionary background of sound perception across species.

Listening to music represents a complex cognitive function of the human brain, which is known to induce several neuronal and physiological changes. However, the molecular background underlying the effects of listening to music is largely unknown. A Finnish study group has investigated how listening to classical music affected the gene expression profiles of both musically experienced and inexperienced participants. All the participants listened to W.A. Mozart’s violin concert Nr 3, G-major, K.216 that lasts 20 minutes.

Listening to music enhanced the activity of genes involved in dopamine secretion and transport, synaptic function, learning and memory. One of the most up-regulated genes, synuclein-alpha (SNCA) is a known risk gene for Parkinson’s disease that is located in the strongest linkage region of musical aptitude. SNCA is also known to contribute to song learning in songbirds.

“The up-regulation of several genes that are known to be responsible for song learning and singing in songbirds suggest a shared evolutionary background of sound perception between vocalizing birds and humans,” says Dr. Irma Järvelä, the leader of the study.

In contrast, listening to music down-regulated genes that are associated with neurodegeneration, referring to a neuroprotective role of music.

“The effect was only detectable in musically experienced participants, suggesting the importance of familiarity and experience in mediating music-induced effects,” researchers remark.

The findings give new information about the molecular genetic background of music perception and evolution, and may give further insights about the molecular mechanisms underlying music therapy.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Helsingin yliopisto (University of Helsinki). Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Chakravarthi Kanduri, Pirre Raijas, Minna Ahvenainen, Anju K. Philips, Liisa Ukkola-Vuoti, Harri Lähdesmäki, Irma Järvelä. The effect of listening to music on human transcriptome. PeerJ, 2015; 3: e830 DOI: 

Fast-moving unbound star has broken the galactic speed record

Pictorial representation of a fast-moving unbound star.  Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA
Pictorial representation of a fast-moving unbound star.
Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA

A fast-moving unbound star discovered by astronomers at Queen’s University Belfast has broken the galactic speed record.

The unbound star, named US708, is traveling at 1,200 kilometers per second — the fastest speed ever recorded for such an object in our galaxy — meaning it is not held back by gravity and will eventually leave the Milky Way.

US708 is believed to have once been part of a double-star solar system, which also included a massive white dwarf star. The white dwarf is thought to have turned into a ‘thermonuclear supernovae’ and exploded, kicking US708 and sending it hurtling across space.

The discovery of US708 sheds light on the mysterious double-star systems that give rise to thermonuclear explosions. Thermonuclear, or ‘type Ia’, supernovae have long been used to calculate the distances to faraway galaxies — a measurement which helps to determine how the universe is changing and expanding.

Dr Rubina Kotak and Ken Smith, from the Astrophysics Centre at Queen’s University, were part of a team of scientists from countries across the world who made the ground-breaking discovery using data gathered by the Pan-STARRS1 telescope on Mount Haleakala on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Using a range of data gathered over the last 59 years the team were able to determine the full 3-D motion of the star and measure how quickly it is moving across the plane of the sky.

Dr Rubina Kotak, from the Astrophysics Centre at Queen’s University Belfast, said: “It is very exciting to have contributed to this important discovery which is a great example of Queen’s commitment to achieving excellence and advancing knowledge for the benefit of society. It brings us a step closer to solving the type Ia puzzle.”

European Southern Observatory fellow, Stephan Geier, who led the study, said: “Several types of stars have been suspected of causing the explosion of a white dwarf as supernova of type Ia. Until now, none of them could be confirmed. Now we have found a delinquent on the run bearing traces from the crime scene.”

Queen’s University Belfast is a full member of the PS1 science consortium, which carried out this research involving astronomers from ten other institutes dotted across the world. The research was led by Dr Stephan Geier, European Southern Observatory fellow, and comprised contributions from scientists from a number of countries including Germany, USA, the Netherlands, China and the UK.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Queen’s University, Belfast.Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. S. Geier, F. Furst, E. Ziegerer, T. Kupfer, U. Heber, A. Irrgang, B. Wang, Z. Liu, Z. Han, B. Sesar, D. Levitan, R. Kotak, E. Magnier, K. Smith, W. S. Burgett, K. Chambers, H. Flewelling, N. Kaiser, R. Wainscoat, C. Waters. The fastest unbound star in our Galaxy ejected by a thermonuclear supernova. Science, 2015; 347 (6226): 1126 DOI: 10.1126/science.1259063

How Should I Prepare for Lightning Storms?

Lightning storms, severe storm systems that produce frequent cloud-to-ground lightning strikes, can cause serious damage to structures, trees, power lines and consumer electronics. They may trigger fires or damage tree limbs, which in turn can cause even more structural damage. When local weather stations warn of impending lightning storms, there are a number of actions a person should take in order to protect his or her life and property. People and animals should be moved inside, if possible, away from windows. Electronics should be unplugged so there is no chance of them being damaged by power surges.

People and pets should go inside homes and buildings during lightning storms to the avoid risk of getting struck.


One important step to take before lightning storms arrive is to move all living things indoors. Pets, livestock, and family members all need to be under enough shelter to remain dry, warm, and protected from the elements. Standing under the tallest object in an open area, such as a tree at a golf course, is never a good idea, however. Lightning tends to strike the highest point that will lead the electrical charge to the ground. A covered picnic pavilion or the inside of a car would be much safer during lightning storms than a tree or open field.

The same precautions a person should take for any severe weather event apply to lightning storms. A weather radio with a battery back-up should be turned on for regular updates on the storm’s location and intensity. Candles or battery-powered lamps should be readily available in case of a power failure. Family members should remain in lower levels of the home and stay away from windows. Strong lightning storms often put down significant numbers of lightning strikes and loud thunder, so younger children and pets may need extra attention until the storm subsides.

Many people who own consumer electronic devices such as home computers, stereo systems, DVD players and so on should already have those devices plugged into a power strip featuring surge protection, but there are those who don’t. During lightning storms, a direct lightning strike on a nearby power line can cause a temporary surge in electrical power entering the home’s outlets. A surge protector should automatically detect and filter this extra energy, but appliances plugged directly into unprotected sockets can suffer damage. Before a lightning storm arrives, a person should completely unplug all unnecessary electrical appliances and electronic equipment not protected by a surge protector.

It's best to stay away from standing water, such as an ocean or lake, during lightning storms.
It’s best to stay away from standing water, such as an ocean or lake, during lightning storms.


Some home owners invest in lightning grounding systems in order to protect their property during a lightning storm. If a lightning bolt does strike the house, a grounding wire will draw the electrical energy away and into a remote part of the property. The installation of a properly grounded lightning rod can also discourage lightning from striking the roof or a nearby tree.

Fortunately, most lightning storms leave distinctive images on modern weather radar systems, so meteorologists can generally warn viewers of a dangerous storm’s predicted path and intensity. Some radar systems can even detect individual lightning strikes within a storm systems and warn specific areas of the potential for danger. The time to take precautions is long before the actual arrival of the storm, however. Once lightning begins to hit an area, it may be too late to save electronic equipment from receiving damage.

If a driver cannot find suitable shelter or drive out of a dangerous storm system, remaining in the car would not be a bad idea. A car will act as a Faraday cage during a lightning strike, meaning the electrical energy would be directed around the car’s exterior, but occupants would remain safe and insulated. The main goal during a strong lightning storm is not to be the tallest target in the area and to stay away from natural conductors such as standing water or metal fences.

Hail can accompany lightning storms.
Hail can accompany lightning storms.
Faraday cage with bolt of electricity.
Faraday cage with bolt of electricity.
An especially heavy layer of cirrus can indicate an incoming storm system.
An especially heavy layer of cirrus can indicate an incoming storm system.
A lightning rod can help protect a building from lightning strikes.
A lightning rod can help protect a building from lightning strikes.

Functioning brain tissue grown in 3-D structure

[dropcap]R[/dropcap]esearchers at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan have succeeded in inducing human embryonic stem cells to self-organize into a three-dimensional structure similar to the cerebellum, providing tantalizing clues in the quest to recreate neural structures in the laboratory. One of the primary goals of stem-cell research is to be able to replace damaged body parts with tissues grown from undifferentiated stem cells. For the nervous system, this is a particular challenge because not only do specific neurons need to be generated, but they must also be coaxed into connecting to each other in very specific ways.

RIKEN researchers have taken up this challenge, and the work published in Cell Reports details how sequentially applying several signaling molecules to three-dimensional cultures of human embryotic stem cells prompts the cells to differentiate into functioning cerebellar neurons that self-organize to form the proper dorsal/ventral patterning and multi-layer structure found in the natural developing cerebellum.

Expanding from their previous studies with mice, the researchers first established that under specific conditions, culturing human embryonic stem cells with fibroblast growth factor 2 (FGF2) leads to neural differentiation particular to the midbrain/hindbrain region — the location of the cerebellum — within three weeks, and the expression of markers for the cerebellar plate neuroepithelium — the part of the developing nervous system specific for the cerebellum — within five. These cells also showed early markers that are specific to developing Purkinje cells, granule cells, or deep cerebellar projection neurons — all types of neurons only found in the cerebellum.

The researchers then looked for mature cerebellar neurons. They found that cells treated with FGF2 expressed late Purkinje-cell markers and developed structures characteristic of those cells. Electrophysiological recordings of these cells after culture for about 15 weeks revealed proper responses to currents and to inhibition of receptors needed for normal cerebellar signaling, indicating that function had developed along with structure. Some FGF2-treated cells also expressed markers for the rhombic lip — the structure from which granule cells develop and migrate, and a marker specific to migrating granule precursors by week seven. Moreover, cells were seen to migrate and extend fibers that bent to form the T-shape characteristic of granule cell parallel fibers.

Where these neurons form and how they locate in relation to each other is critical in the developing brain. Early in cerebellar development, particular cell types come to be distributed unevenly from top to bottom, creating a dorsal-ventral separation. Researchers tested several factors, and found that adding FGF19 around day 14 to the FGF2-treated cells caused several flat oval neuroepithelium to form by day 35, expressing dorsal-specific markers on the outside and ventral-specific markers on the inside. By adding stromal cell-derived factor 1 (SDF1) between days 28-35, they were able to generate a continuous neuroepithelial structure with dorsal-ventral polarity.

SDF1 also induced two other important structural changes. The dorsal region spontaneously developed three layers along the dorsal-ventral axis: the ventricular zone, a Purkinje-cell precursor zone, and a rhombic lip zone. At one end of the neuroepithelium, a region developed that was positive for markers of progenitors of granule and deep cerebellar nuclei projection neurons and negative for Purkinje-cell markers, and whose origins could be traced to the rhombic lip zone of the cerebellar plate.

Lead author Keiko Muguruma says that, “the principles of self-organization that we have demonstrated here are important for the future of developmental biology.” She added that, “attempts to generate the cerebellum from human iPS cells have already met with some success, and these patient-derived cerebellar neurons and tissues will be useful for modeling cerebellar diseases such as spinocerebellar ataxia.”

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by RIKEN. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Keiko Muguruma, Ayaka Nishiyama, Hideshi Kawakami, Kouichi Hashimoto, Yoshiki Sasai. Self-organization of polarized cerebellar tissue in 3D culture of human pluripotent stem cells. Cell Reports, 2015 DOI:10.1016/j.celrep.2014.12.051

Tales from a Martian rock: Clues to planet’s history of habitability

The surface of Mars was once wet, but no water flows there now. UC San Diego chemists and others took a close look at meteorite that may have been blasted from this huge rift across the planet’s surface. The image is a composite of hundreds of photos taken by NASA’s Viking missions in the 1970s. Credit: USGS, NASA

[dropcap]A[/dropcap] new analysis of a Martian rock that meteorite hunters plucked from an Antarctic ice field 30 years ago this month reveals a record of the planet’s climate billions of years ago, back when water likely washed across its surface and any life that ever formed there might have emerged.

Scientists from the University of California, San Diego, NASA and the Smithsonian Institution report detailed measurements of minerals within the meteorite in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last December.

“Minerals within the meteorite hold a snapshot of the planet’s ancient chemistry, of interactions between water and atmosphere,” said Robina Shaheen, a project scientist at UC San Diego and the lead author of the report.

The unlovely stone, which fell to Earth 13 thousand years ago, looked a lot like a potato and has quite a history. Designated ALH84001, it is the oldest meteorite we have from Mars, a chunk of solidified magma from a volcano that erupted four billion years ago. Since then something liquid, probably water, seeped through pores in the rock and deposited globules of carbonates and other minerals.

The carbonates vary subtly depending on the sources of their carbon and oxygen atoms. Both carbon and oxygen occur in heavier and lighter versions, or isotopes. The relative abundances of isotopes forms a chemical signature that careful analysis and sensitive measurements can uncover.

Mars’s atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide but contains some ozone. The balance of oxygen isotopes within ozone are strikingly weird with enrichment of heavy isotopes through a physical chemical phenomenon first described by co-author Mark Thiemens, a professor of chemistry at UC San Diego, and colleagues 25 years ago.

“When ozone reacts with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it transfers its isotopic weirdness to the new molecule,” said Shaheen, who investigated this process of oxygen isotope exchange as a graduate student at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. When carbon dioxide reacts with water to make carbonates, the isotopic signature continues to be preserved.

The degree of isotopic weirdness in the carbonates reflects how much water and ozone was present when they formed. It’s a record of climate 3.9 billion years ago, locked in a stable mineral. The more water, the smaller the weird ozone signal.

This team measured a pronounced ozone signal in the carbonates within the meteorite, suggesting that although Mars had water back then, vast oceans were unlikely. Instead, the early Martian landscape probably held smaller seas.

“What’s also new is our simultaneous measurements of carbon isotopes on the same samples. The mix of carbon isotopes suggest that the different minerals within the meteorite had separate origins,” Shaheen said. “They tell us the story of the chemical and isotopic compositions of the atmospheric carbon dioxide.”

ALH84001 held tiny tubes of carbonate that some scientists saw as potential evidence of microbial life, though a biological origin for the structures has been discarded. On December 16, NASA announced another potential whiff of Martian life in the form of methane sniffed by the rover Curiosity.

Carbonates can be deposited by living things that scavenge the minerals to build their skeletons, but that is not the case for the minerals measured by this team. “The carbonate we see is not from living things,” Shaheen said. “It has anomalous oxygen isotopes that tell us this carbonate is abiotic.”

By measuring the isotopes in multiple ways, the chemists found carbonates depleted in carbon-13 and enriched in oxygen-18. That is, Mars’s atmosphere in this era, a period of great bombardment, had much less carbon-13 than it does today.

The change in relative abundances of carbon and oxygen isotopes may have occurred through extensive loss of Martian atmosphere. A thicker atmosphere would likely have been required for liquid water to flow on the planet’s chilly surface.

“We now have a much deeper and specific insight into the earliest oxygen-water system in the solar system,” Thiemens said. “The question that remains is when did planets, Earth and Mars, get water, and in the case of Mars, where did it go? We’ve made great progress, but still deep mysteries remain.”

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of California – San Diego. The original article was written by Susan Brown. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Robina Shaheen, Paul B. Niles, Kenneth Chong, Catherine M. Corrigan, and Mark H. Thiemens. Carbonate formation events in ALH 84001 trace the evolution of the Martian atmosphere. PNAS, December 22, 2014 DOI:10.1073/pnas.1315615112

Optimistic people have healthier hearts, study finds

[dropcap]P[/dropcap]eople who have upbeat outlooks on life have significantly better cardiovascular health, suggests a new study that examined associations between optimism and heart health in more than 5,100 adults.

“Individuals with the highest levels of optimism have twice the odds of being in ideal cardiovascular health compared to their more pessimistic counterparts,” said lead author Rosalba Hernandez, a professor of social work at the University of Illinois. “This association remains significant, even after adjusting for socio-demographic characteristics and poor mental health.”

Participants’ cardiovascular health was assessed using seven metrics: blood pressure, body mass index, fasting plasma glucose and serum cholesterol levels, dietary intake, physical activity and tobacco use — the same metrics used by the American Heart Association to define heart health and being targeted by the AHA in its Life’s Simple 7 public awareness campaign.

In accordance with AHA’s heart-health criteria, the researchers allocated 0, 1 or 2 points — representing poor, intermediate and ideal scores, respectively — to participants on each of the seven health metrics, which were then summed to arrive at a total cardiovascular health score. Participants’ total health scores ranged from 0 to 14, with a higher total score indicative of better health.

The participants, who ranged in age from 45-84, also completed surveys that assessed their mental health, levels of optimism, and physical health, based upon self-reported extant medical diagnoses of arthritis, liver and kidney disease.

Individuals’ total health scores increased in tandem with their levels of optimism. People who were the most optimistic were 50 and 76 percent more likely to have total health scores in the intermediate or ideal ranges, respectively.

The association between optimism and cardiovascular health was even stronger when socio-demographic characteristics such as age, race and ethnicity, income and education status were factored in. People who were the most optimistic were twice as likely to have ideal cardiovascular health, and 55 percent more likely to have a total health score in the intermediate range, the researchers found.

Optimists had significantly better blood sugar and total cholesterol levels than their counterparts. They also were more physically active, had healthier body mass indexes and were less likely to smoke, according to a paper on the research that appears in the January/February 2015 issue of Health Behavior and Policy Review.

The findings may be of clinical significance, given that a 2013 study indicated that a one-point increase in an individual’s total-health score on the LS7 was associated with an 8 percent reduction in their risk of stroke, Hernandez said.

“At the population level, even this moderate difference in cardiovascular health translates into a significant reduction in death rates,” Hernandez said. “This evidence, which is hypothesized to occur through a biobehavioral mechanism, suggests that prevention strategies that target modification of psychological well-being — e.g., optimism — may be a potential avenue for AHA to reach its goal of improving Americans’ cardiovascular health by 20 percent before 2020.”

Believed to be the first study to examine the association of optimism and cardiovascular health in a large, ethnically and racially diverse population, the sample for the current study was 38 percent white, 28 percent African-American, 22 percent Hispanic/Latino and 12 percent Chinese.

Data for the study were derived from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, an ongoing examination of subclinical cardiovascular disease that includes 6,000 people from six U.S. regions, including Baltimore, Chicago, Forsyth County in North Carolina, and Los Angeles County.

Begun in July 2000, MESA followed participants for 11 years, collecting data every 18 months to two years. Hernandez, who is an affiliated investigator on MESA, is leading a team in conducting prospective analyses on the associations found between optimism and heart health.

“We now have available data to examine optimism at baseline and cardiovascular health a decade later,” said Hernandez, who expects to have an abstract completed in 2015.

Co-authors of the current study were Kiarri N. Kershaw of Northwestern University; Juned Siddique, Honghan Ning and Donald M. Lloyd-Jones, all of Northwestern University; Julia K. Boehm of Chapman University; Laura D. Kubzansky of Harvard University; and Ana Diez-Roux of Drexel University.

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the National Center for Research Resources funded the research.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Rosalba Hernandez, Kiarri N. Kershaw, Juned Siddique, Julia K. Boehm, Laura D. Kubzansky, Ana Diez-Roux, Hongyan Ning, Donald M. Lloyd-Jones. Optimism and Cardiovascular Health: Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA).Health Behavior and Policy Review, 2015; 2 (1): 62 DOI: 10.14485/HBPR.2.1.6

Large Asteroid to Fly (Safely) Through Earth’s Backyard

On Jan. 26, astronomers will be keeping their eyes peeled for a large space rock that is due to make a fast dash past the Earth-moon system. But never fear, the half-kilometer-wide asteroid 2004 BL86 will sail past safely, well beyond the orbit of our moon.

The asteroid may not be an immediate danger to life on Earth, but it is notable nonetheless. This will be the closest approach of a significantly-sized asteroid until 1999 AN10 (an asteroid that could be as wide as 1.8 kilometers, or 1.1 miles) makes its flyby in the year 2027.

“Monday, Jan. 26 will be the closest asteroid 2004 BL86 will get to Earth for at least the next 200 years,” said Don Yeomans, outgoing manager of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “And while it poses no threat to Earth for the foreseeable future, it’s a relatively close approach by a relatively large asteroid, so it provides us a unique opportunity to observe and learn more.”

2004 BL86 won’t come any closer than 3 Earth-moon distances, or roughly 1.2 million kilometers (745,000 miles), from our planet’s surface, but it will be close enough for us to zoom-in on the object and take precise measurements of its trajectory and its composition.

NASA is planning a microwave observation campaign using the Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, Calif., and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. All going well, radar images of 2004 BL86′s surface will be acquired. As previous radar imagery of other asteroids have shown, tiny features, down to boulders strewn across the low-gravity asteroid surface and even small craters, may be resolved.

But that’s not all, assuming you have clear skies, a powerful pair of binoculars should be enough to pinpoint the asteroid during flyby.

“I may grab my favorite binoculars and give it a shot myself,” said Yeomans. “Asteroids are something special. Not only did asteroids provide Earth with the building blocks of life and much of its water, but in the future, they will become valuable resources for mineral ores and other vital natural resources. They will also become the fueling stops for humanity as we continue to explore our solar system. There is something about asteroids that makes me want to look up.” Yeomans is retiring after heading the Near Earth Object Program Office since its formation 17 years ago. Team member Paul Chodas has been tapped to step into Yeoman’s role.

“When we get our radar data back the day after the flyby, we will have the first detailed images,” said Lance Benner, a radar astronomer at JPL and principal investigator for Goldstone radar observations of 2004 BL86.

“At present, we know almost nothing about the asteroid, so there are bound to be surprises.”

A radar image of asteroid 2010 JL33, generated from data taken by NASA’s Goldstone Radar on Dec. 11 and 12, 2010. NASA is planning to carry out a similar campaign on Jan. 26 when 2004 BL86 dashes past Earth.
A radar image of asteroid 2010 JL33, generated from data taken by NASA’s Goldstone Radar on Dec. 11 and 12, 2010. NASA is planning to carry out a similar campaign on Jan. 26 when 2004 BL86 dashes past Earth.

Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech and

Mars, too, has macro-weather: But trickier than on Earth


[dropcap]W[/dropcap]eather, which changes day-to-day due to constant fluctuations in the atmosphere, and climate, which varies over decades, are familiar. More recently, a third regime, called “macroweather,” has been used to describe the relatively stable regime between weather and climate.

A new study by researchers at McGill University and UCL finds that this same three-part pattern applies to atmospheric conditions on Mars. The results, published in Geophysical Research Letters, also show that the sun plays a major role in determining macroweather.

The research promises to advance scientists’ understanding of the dynamics of Earth’s own atmosphere — and could provide insights into the weather of Venus, Saturn’s moon Titan, and possibly the gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

The scientists chose to study Mars for its wealth of data with which to test their theory that a transitional “macroweather” regime exists on other planets. They used information collected from Viking — a Mars lander mission during the 1970s and 1980s — and more recent data from a satellite orbiting Mars.

By taking into account how the sun heats Mars, as well as the thickness of the planet’s atmosphere, the scientists predicted that Martian temperature and wind would fluctuate similarly to Earth’s — but that the transition from weather to macroweather would take place over 1.8 Martian days (about two Earth days), compared with a week to 10 days on Earth.

“Our analysis of the data from Mars confirmed this prediction quite accurately,” said Shaun Lovejoy, a physics professor at McGill University in Montreal and lead author of the paper. “This adds to evidence, from studies of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, that the sun plays a central role in shaping the transition from short-term weather fluctuations to macroweather.” The findings also indicate that weather on Mars can be predicted with some skill up to only two days in advance, compared to Earth’s 10 days.

Co-author Professor Jan-Peter Muller from the UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory, said: “We’re going to have a very hard time predicting the weather on Mars beyond two days given what we have found in weather records there, which could prove tricky for the European lander and rover!”

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by McGill University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Shaun Lovejoy, J.-P. Muller, J. P. Boisvert. On Mars too expect macroweather.Geophysical Research Letters, 2014; DOI: 10.1002/2014GL061861

Secrets of Mars’ birth revealed from unique meteorite


[dropcap]A[/dropcap] Florida State University scientist has uncovered what may be the first recognized example of ancient Martian crust.

The work of Munir Humayun — a professor in FSU’s Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science and a researcher at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory (MagLab) — is based on an analysis of a 4.4 billion-year-old Martian meteorite that was unearthed by Bedouin tribesmen in the Sahara desert. The rock (NWA 7533) may be the first recognized sample of ancient Martian crust and holds a wealth of information about the origin and age of the Red Planet’s crust.

Humayun’s groundbreaking discoveries about the crust and what it reveals about the Red Planet’s origins will be published in the journal Nature.

In order to detect minute amounts of chemicals in this meteorite, Humayun and his collaborators performed complex analysis on the meteorite using an array of highly sophisticated mass spectrometers in the MagLab’s geochemistry department. High concentrations of trace metals such as iridium, an element that indicates meteoritic bombardment, showed that this meteorite came from the elusive cratered area of Mars’ southern highlands.

“This cratered terrain has been long thought to hold the keys to Mars’ birth and early childhood,” Humayun said.

While craters cover more than half of Mars, this is the first meteoric sample to come from this area and the first time researchers are able to understand Mars’ early crustal growth.

Using the chemical information found in pieces of soil contained in the meteorite, the researchers were able to calculate the thickness of Mars’ crust. Their calculation aligned with estimates from independent spacecraft measurements and confirms that Mars did not experience a giant impact that melted the entire planet in its early history.

Using a powerful microprobe at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, the team dated special crystals within the meteorite — called zircons — at an astounding 4.4 billion years old.

“This date is about 100 million years after the first dust condensed in the solar system,” Humayun said. “We now know that Mars had a crust within the first 100 million years of the start of planet building, and that Mars’ crust formed concurrently with the oldest crusts on Earth and the Moon.”

Humayun and his collaborators hypothesize that these trailblazing discoveries are just the tip of the iceberg of what continued research on this unique meteorite will uncover. Further studies may reveal more clues about the impact history of Mars, the nature of Martian zircons and the makeup of the earliest sediments on the Red Planet.

Humayun’s international team of collaborators include curator of meteorites Brigitte Zanda with the National Museum of Natural History (the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle) in Paris; A. Nemchin, M. Grange and A. Kennedy with Curtin University’s Department of Applied Geology in Perth, Australia; and scientists R.H. Hewins, J.P. Lorand, C. Göpel, C. Fieni, S. Pont and D. Deldicque.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Florida State University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. M. Humayun, A. Nemchin, B. Zanda, R. H. Hewins, M. Grange, A. Kennedy, J.-P. Lorand, C. Göpel, C. Fieni, S. Pont, D. Deldicque. Origin and age of the earliest Martian crust from meteorite NWA 7533. Nature, 2013; DOI:10.1038/nature12764

Out of India: Finding the origins of horses, rhinos


An artist’s depiction of Cambaytherium thewissi. Credit: Elaine Kasmer
An artist’s depiction of Cambaytherium thewissi.
Credit: Elaine Kasmer

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]orking at the edge of a coal mine in India, a team of Johns Hopkins researchers and colleagues have filled in a major gap in science’s understanding of the evolution of a group of animals that includes horses and rhinos. That group likely originated on the subcontinent when it was still an island headed swiftly for collision with Asia, the researchers report Nov. 20 in the online journal Nature Communications.

Modern horses, rhinos and tapirs belong to a biological group, or order, called Perissodactyla. Also known as “odd-toed ungulates,” animals in the order have, as their name implies, an uneven number of toes on their hind feet and a distinctive digestive system. Though paleontologists had found remains of Perissodactyla from as far back as the beginnings of the Eocene epoch, about 56 million years ago, their earlier evolution remained a mystery, says Ken Rose, Ph.D., a professor of functional anatomy and evolution at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Rose and his research team have for years been excavating mammal fossils in the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming, but in 2001 he and Indian colleagues began exploring Eocene sediments in Western India because it had been proposed that perissodactyls and some other mammal groups might have originated there. In an open-pit coal mine northeast of Mumbai, they uncovered a rich vein of ancient bones. Rose says he and his collaborators obtained funding from the National Geographic Society to send a research team to the mine site at Gujarat in the far Western part of India for two weeks at a time once every year or two over the last decade.

The mine yielded what Rose says was a treasure trove of teeth and bones for the researchers to comb through back in their home laboratories. Of these, more than 200 fossils turned out to belong to an animal dubbed Cambaytherium thewissi, about which little had been known. The researchers dated the fossils to about 54.5 million years old, making them slightly younger than the oldest known Perissodactyla remains, but, Rose says, it provides a window into what a common ancestor of all Perissodactyla would have looked like. “Many of Cambaytherium’s features, like the teeth, the number of sacral vertebrae, and the bones of the hands and feet, are intermediate between Perissodactyla and more primitive animals,” Rose says. “This is the closest thing we’ve found to a common ancestor of the Perissodactyla order.”

Cambaytherium and other finds from the Gujarat coal mine also provide tantalizing clues about India’s separation from Madagascar, lonely migration, and eventual collision with the continent of Asia as Earth’s plates shifted, Rose says. In 1990, two researchers, David Krause and Mary Maas of Stony Brook University, published a paper suggesting that several groups of mammals that appear at the beginning of the Eocene, including primates and odd- and even-toed ungulates, might have evolved in India while it was isolated. Cambaytherium is the first concrete evidence to support that idea, Rose says. But, he adds, “It’s not a simple story.”

“Around Cambaytherium’s time, we think India was an island, but it also had primates and a rodent similar to those living in Europe at the time,” he says. “One possible explanation is that India passed close by the Arabian Peninsula or the Horn of Africa, and there was a land bridge that allowed the animals to migrate. But Cambaytherium is unique and suggests that India was indeed isolated for a while.”

Rose said his team was “very fortunate that we discovered the site and that the mining company allowed us to work there,” although he added, “it was frustrating to knowing that countless fossils were being chewed up by heavy mining equipment.” When coal extraction was finished, the miners covered the site, he says. His team has now found other mines in the area to continue digging.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Johns Hopkins Medicine. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Kenneth D. Rose, Luke T. Holbrook, Rajendra S. Rana, Kishor Kumar, Katrina E. Jones, Heather E. Ahrens, Pieter Missiaen, Ashok Sahni, Thierry Smith. Early Eocene fossils suggest that the mammalian order Perissodactyla originated in India. Nature Communications, 2014; 5: 5570 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms6570