Archive for November, 2008

Scientists cloning endangered Amami rabbit

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008

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The Amami rabbit — a threatened species found only in the Ryūkyū Islands — may become Japan’s first endangered animal clone. Scientists at Osaka’s Kinki University have cloned an embryo of the endangered rabbit and are awaiting its birth next month, it was announced earlier this week.

The Amami rabbit (Pentalagus furnessi) is a nocturnal, forest-dwelling “primitive” rabbit with dark fur, short legs, large curved claws and small ears. Found only on the islands of Amami-Ōshima and Toku-no-Shima, it is sometimes called a “living fossil” for its resemblance to ancient rabbits that once inhabited the Asian mainland. The Amami rabbit’s dwindling population — now estimated at between 2,000 and 5,000 — has earned it a spot on Japan’s endangered species list.

To produce the clone, researchers took a cell from the ear of a dead Amami rabbit and injected it into the unfertilized egg of an ordinary lab rabbit. After the egg developed into the cloned embryo, researchers inserted it into the oviduct of a lab rabbit surrogate. The clone will be born in the coming weeks if the pregnancy comes to term. The chances of success are slim, though, as cloning pregnancies typically have a high failure rate. However, the scientists are prepared to repeat the process until a clone is born.

Although some people see cloning as a promising tool for restoring endangered populations when natural breeding is not possible, others argue it is more important to address the actual causes of the population decline. Deforestation and road accidents are major reason for the Amami rabbit’s decline, as is the predatory mongoose, which humans released on the islands to control the snake population.

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Pet dogs and cats also pose a danger to the species. In June, motion-sensitive cameras set up to monitor Amami rabbit activity on the island of Amami-Ōshima captured the image of a feral domestic cat dragging a freshly killed carcass through the forest.

If the experiment succeeds, the Amami rabbit will join a growing list of endangered animals that have been cloned. Previous examples include the Asian gaur (a rare ox native to India and Burma), which died two days after it was born in the US in 2001, as well as the European mouflon (a Mediterranean wild sheep) and the Junqueira cow (Brazil).

Regardless of the outcome, the researchers suggest a degree of caution. Although cloning may potentially be used to preserve rare species, little is known about the long-term environmental impact, they said.

Source | Pink Tentacle

Mice cloned after 16-yr freeze — Mammoths next? 04 Nov 2008

Sunday, November 16th, 2008

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Is the second coming of the woolly mammoth near? Possibly, say researchers at Japan’s Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN), who have successfully cloned mice from carcasses that spent years in a deep freezer.

A RIKEN research team led by genetic scientist Teruhiko Wakayama successfully demonstrated a promising new cloning technique by replicating frozen laboratory mice whose cells were severely damaged after 16 years in permafrost-like conditions (-20 degrees Celsius). The technique might one day be used to resurrect mammoths and other extinct species, according to the researchers.

Here’s some video from ANN News:








Scientists have long discussed the possibility of resurrecting extinct animal species by cloning carcasses preserved in ice, but existing techniques do not work with dead, freeze-damaged cell tissue. However, the RIKEN researchers were able to extract nuclei from the ruptured brain cells of the frozen mice after breaking down the tissue in a culture solution. Then, using the conventional nuclear transfer technique (which involves inserting cellular material from the frozen mice into the egg cells of healthy mice), the researchers created embryonic clones from the extracted brain cell nuclei. After that, the researchers established embryonic stem cell lines from the cloned embryos, which they used to produce four cloned mice.

When the clones reached maturity, they mated with other mice to produce healthy offspring.

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The ability of clones to reproduce is a promising development for those interested in resurrecting extinct species.

Mammoths top the list of extinct animals that scientists will try to clone, primarily because many preserved specimens have been found buried in ice. In July 2007, a well-preserved frozen baby mammoth discovered in the Siberian Arctic was shipped to researchers in Japan.

“There are many technical challenges involved in resurrecting a mammoth,” says Wakayama. “But we have shown that the nuclear transfer method can be used to create healthy clones, even when the animal’s cells have been damaged by permafrost-like conditions.”

Meanwhile, Kinki University biology professor Akira Iritani is pleased with the development. Iritani, a leading member of the Mammoth Creation Project — a Japanese organization that aims to resurrect the woolly mammoth by cloning frozen specimens — estimates as many as 10,000 frozen mammoth specimens lie buried in ice around the world, waiting to be cloned.

Iritani also coordinates the “Pleistocene Park” project, which aims to set up a Jurassic Park-like sanctuary in northern Siberia populated with resurrected mammoths and other creatures that roamed the Earth 20,000 years ago. The envisioned park would cover an area twice the size of Japan and include woolly rhinos, Siberian tigers, steppe lions, giant deer, ancient foxes, and ancestors of the Siberian horse.

Source | Pink Tentacle

Robot ticketer welcomes cashless thrillseekers

Sunday, November 16th, 2008

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As the use of e-money gains popularity in Japan, versatile FeliCa RFID readers that support multiple forms of electronic currency are popping up in convenience stores and vending machines, making it easier for users to pay with the swipe of a phone. Electronics giant NEC is jumping in on the action with a FeliCa payment terminal modeled after a life-sized android.

The robot — a prototype that NEC demonstrated at the recent iEXPO 2008 trade show in Tokyo — incorporates existing technology, which means a finished version can be produced and deployed at short notice. NEC hopes to land it a job at an amusement park selling entrance tickets to visitors with FeliCa-enabled wallet phones, also known as osaifu keitai.

To pay the robot, users simply select the appropriate e-money icon on the robot’s chest-mounted touch screen panel and then swipe their phone over the reader/writer embedded in the left hand. The robot can also be programmed to transfer electronic coupons and other data to the user’s phone when payment is made.

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Other features include a camera system that can work with face recognition technology to identify and profile park visitors. If asked to do so, the robot can recommend specific attractions based on the person’s apparent age and gender.

It is unclear whether any theme parks have expressed interest in hiring the robot. If not, NEC could easily equip it with fingerprint scanners and put it to work at immigration counters to gather biometric data on foreigners in Japan. Tourists would love it.

Source | IT Media

Ultrasound shown to exert remote control of brain circuits

Sunday, November 2nd, 2008

In a twist on nontraditional uses of ultrasound, a group of neuroscientists at Arizona State University has developed pulsed ultrasound techniques that can remotely stimulate brain circuit activity. Their findings, published in the Oct. 29 issue of the journal Public Library of Science (PLoS) One, provide insights into how low-power ultrasound can be harnessed for the noninvasive neurostimulation of brain circuits and offers the potential for new treatments of brain disorders and disease.

While it might be hard to imagine the day where doctors could treat post traumatic stress disorders, traumatic brain injury and even Alzheimer’s disease with the flip of a switch, most of us have in fact experienced some of ultrasound’s numerous applications in our daily lives. For example, ultrasound has been used in fetal and other diagnostic medical imaging, ultrasonic teeth cleaning, physiotherapies, or surgical ablation. Ultrasound also provides a multitude of other non-medical uses, including pharmaceutical manufacturing, food processing, nondestructive materials testing, sonar, communications, oceanography and acoustic mapping.

“Studies of ultrasound and its interactions with biological tissues have a rich history dating back to the late 1920s,” lead investigator William “Jamie” Tyler points out. “Several research groups have, for more than a half-century, demonstrated that ultrasound can produce changes in excitable tissues, such as nerve and/or muscle, but detailed studies in neurons at the cellular level have been lacking.”

“We were able to unravel how ultrasound can stimulate the electrical activity of neurons by optically monitoring the activity of neuronal circuits, while we simultaneously propagated low-intensity, low-frequency ultrasound through brain tissues,” says Tyler, assistant professor of neurobiology and bioimaging in the School of Life Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Led by Tyler, the ASU research group discovered that remotely delivered low intensity, low frequency ultrasound (LILFU) increased the activity of voltage-gated sodium and calcium channels in a manner sufficient to trigger action potentials and the release of neurotransmitter from synapses. Since these processes are fundamental to the transfer of information among neurons, the authors pose that this type of ultrasound provides a powerful new tool for modulating the activity of neural circuits.

“Many of the stimulation methods used by neuroscientists require the use and implantation of stimulating electrodes, requiring direct contact with nervous tissue or the introduction of exogenous proteins, such as those used for the light-activation of neurons,” Tyler explains.

The search for new types of noninvasive neurostimulation methods led them to revisit ultrasound.

“We were quite surprised to find that ultrasound at power levels lower than those typically used in routine diagnostic medical imaging procedures could produce an increase in the activity of neurons while higher power levels produced very little effect on their activity,” Tyler says.

Other neuroscientists and engineers have also been rapidly developing new neurostimulation methods for controlling nervous system activity and several approaches show promise for the treatment of a wide variety of nervous system disorders. For example, Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) and Vagal Nerve Stimulation (VNS) have been shown to be effective in the management of psychiatric disorders such as depression, bipolar disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and drug addition, as well as for therapies of neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Tourette Syndrome, epilepsy, dystonia, stuttering, tinnitus, recovery of cognitive and motor function following stroke, and chronic pain. Up until now, these two techniques have captured the attention of physicians and scientists; however, these therapies still pose risks to patients because they require the surgical implantation of stimulating electrodes. Thus, these types of therapies are often only available to patients presenting the worst of prognoses.

One prior stumbling block to using ultrasound noninvasively in the brain has been the skull. However, the acoustic frequencies utilized by Tyler and his colleagues to construct their pulsed ultrasound waveforms, overlap with a frequency range where optimal energy gains are achieved between transcranial transmission and brain absorption of ultrasound – which allows the ultrasound to penetrate bone and yet prevent damage to the soft tissues. Their findings are supported by other studies examining the potential of high-intensity focused ultrasound for ablating brain tissues, where it was shown that low-frequency ultrasound could be focused through human skulls.

When asked about the potential of using his groups’ methods to remotely control brain activity, Tyler says: “One might be able to envision potential applications ranging from medical interventions to use in video gaming or the creation of artificial memories along the lines of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in ‘Total Recall.’ Imagine taking a vacation without actually going anywhere?

“Obviously, we need to conduct further research and development, but one of the most exhilarating prospects is that low intensity, low frequency ultrasound permit deep-brain stimulation procedures without requiring exogenous proteins or surgically implanted medical devices,” he adds.

Tyler and the other ASU researchers will now focus on further characterization of the influence of ultrasound on intact brain circuits and translational research, taking low intensity ultrasound from the lab into pre-clinical trials and treatment of neurological diseases.
Source | Physorg.com

Mummy, that robot is making faces at me Movie Camera

Sunday, November 2nd, 2008
  • 10:42 29 October 2008
  • NewScientist.com news service
  • Flora Graham

Robotics engineers at the University of Bristol, UK, have been grimacing a lot recently, thanks to their copycat robotic head, Jules, which can mimic the facial expressions and lip movements of a human being.

Jules is an animatronic head produced by US roboticist David Hanson, who builds uniquely expressive, disembodied heads with flexible rubber skin that is moved by 34 servo motors.

Human face movements are picked up by a video camera and mapped onto the tiny electronic motors in Jules’ skin.

The Bristol team developed its own software to transfer expressions recorded by the video camera into commands to make those servos produce similarly realistic facial movements.

However, because the robot’s motors are not identical to human facial muscles, some artistic licence was required. After filming an actor making a variety of expressions indicating, say, “happiness”, an expert animator selected 10 frames showing different variations of the expression and manually set the servos in Jules’s face to match.

‘Uncanny valley’

That training was used to create software that can translate what it sees on video into equivalent settings of Jules’s facial motors. The robot can now do this in real time, at 25 frames per second.

Copycat robot heads have been created before, but not with realistic human-looking faces. For example, the Kismet robot developed at MIT in the United States has complex facial expressions, but a mechanical metal face that looks like a Muppet version of the Terminator robot.

Jules’ human appearance makes getting the expressions perfect even more critical, to avoid the notorious “uncanny valley“. This describes the way that human-like robots or animations that are not quite true-to-life are perceived as unnerving, while less realistic versions, perhaps looking very mechanical, are less alarming.

“We are really attuned to how a face moves, and if it’s slightly wrong, it gives us a feeling that the head is somehow creepy,” explains Neill Campbell, who led the research.

Fake friends

“Research has shown that if you have a robot that has many human-like features, then people might actually react negatively towards it,” agrees Kerstin Dautenhahn, a robotics researcher at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK, who calls Jules’ copycat routine “very impressive”.

But reaching the other side of the uncanny valley – achieving such realism that people react to robots as they do to humans – would have significant benefits, says Campbell.

Human communication relies heavily on facial expressions, so robots that can mimic them well should find much wider application. He anticipates that this would make them useful in healthcare settings, such as nursing homes.

However Dautenhahn questions the ethical implications of using very human-like robots for more than entertainment.

“If you expose vulnerable people, like children or elderly people, to something that they might mistake for human, then you would automatically encourage a social relationship,” she told New Scientist. “They might easily be fooled to think that this robot not only looks like a human and behaves like a human, but that it can also feel like a human… and that’s not true.”








Source | NewScientist

‘Atomic pen’ writes with individual atoms

Sunday, November 2nd, 2008

atom_pen.jpgAn Osaka University research team has demonstrated an “atomic pen” that can inscribe nano-sized text on metal by manipulating individual atoms on the surface.According to the researchers, whose results appear in the October 17 edition of Science magazine, the atomic pen is built on a previous discovery that silicon atoms at the tip of an atomic force microscope probe will interchange with the tin atoms in the surface of a semiconductor sample when in close proximity. Using this atom-interchange phenomenon, the researchers were able to arrange individual silicon atoms one by one on a semiconductor surface to spell out the letters “Si.” The writing process, which took about an hour and a half to complete, was conducted at room temperature.

The completed text measures 2 x 2 nanometers, which is roughly 40,000 times smaller than the width of the average human hair.

“It’s not possible to write any smaller than this,” said Masayuki Abe, a researcher involved in the project.

The ability to incorporate individual atoms into a surface could lead to a variety of advances in atomic scale technology, the researchers suggest. If used in chip manufacturing, for example, this technology could help build powerful computers the size of a wristwatch.

Source | Asahi via Pink Tentacle

Electronic sleep mask for worry-free train naps

Sunday, November 2nd, 2008

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For drowsy train commuters afraid of sleeping past their stop, inventor and manga artist Pyocotan has developed “Noriko-san,” a sleep mask with an electronic scrolling display that communicates the wearer’s destination to fellow passengers.

Noriko-san is designed to give sleepyheads greater peace of mind (and thus a deeper level of sleep) by increasing the odds that a stranger will wake them in time. In theory, other passengers feel compelled to act either out of courtesy or simply so they can sit in the empty seat left behind. Here’s a video of Pyocotan testing a prototype on Tokyo’s Yamanote line.








The video shows Pyocotan board the Yamanote line at Nishi-Nippori station. When a seat becomes available, he sits down, slips on the mask and goes to sleep. The mask’s scrolling message reads: “I will get off at Mejiro station.” Unfortunately, nobody wakes him up when he arrives. The test fails.Pyocotan admits that Noriko-san is not 100% effective, perhaps because the unusual appearance makes other passengers feel uncomfortable and prevents them from acting. But the device will likely grow more effective as it becomes more widespread, he suggests. Until then, the fact that the mask might encourage others to act makes it a little easier for the user to relax and sleep more soundly.

Noriko-san cost about 20,000 yen ($200) to develop.

Source | INTER News