Wheat genome

27/08/2010

Updating Magic Universe

The genetic code of wheat

Last night the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council made available online a draft of the largest genetic code of an organism ever tackled – the genome of wheat, which is five times larger than the human genome and more than 30 times larger than that of rice, revealed back in 2002. But well worth the effort, for a crop with virtues that have shaped human history since its domestication more than 10,000 years ago.

Spikelet of Chinese Spring wheat, Triticum aestivum. Photo: E.J.M. Kirby

Chinese Spring wheat is the variety now read. Leading the work is the British team of Neil Hall and Anthony Hall at the University of Liverpool, Keith Edwards and Gary Barker at the University of Bristol. and Mike Bevan at the John Innes Centre. Most of the actual gene-reading was done with a “platform” developed in the USA by a subsidiary of Swiss company Roche.

The implications are big. Although the genome isn’t yet organised into its chromosomes, plant breeders now have access to 95 per cent of all wheat genes. That should shorten by some years the time required to develop viable new varieties of wheat that can thrive in marginal conditions – adapted for example to face drought, salty soil, or disease.

Here’s the most relevant extract from the story in Magic Universe called “Cereals: genetic boosts for the most cosseted inhabitants of the planet.”

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Who blew up Jerusalem?

23/08/2010

Predictions Revisited

Who blew up Jerusalem?

A nightmare from the 1970s persists

US Assures Israel That Iran Threat Is Not Imminent” says a headline on a recent New York Times report, available here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/20/world/middleeast/20policy.html . It seems that US intelligence is saying, “Relax, Iran won’t have a nuclear weapon for a year or more.”

For 30 years since the producer Peter Batty and I explored the possible triggers of nuclear war, in our TV blockbuster Nuclear Nightmares: The Wars That Must Never Happen”, a truly depressing number of people have continued to play with fire, in the proliferation of bomb-making technology. The accompanying book, Nuclear Nightmares, quoted an anonymous American strategist calling proliferation “the least unlikely route to nuclear war”. And because Israel was known (in 1979) to have already made nuclear weapons at a plant in the Negev Desert, we set our story in the Middle East.

Each scenario in the programme culminated with a fictional survivor trying to make sense of what happened. Here’s the relevant extract as broadcast.

PRESENTER (Peter Ustinov) on a vantage point above Jerusalem: The holy city of Christians, Jews and Moslems – the order is strictly alphabetical. It has been the focal point for conflict for thousands of years. Jerusalem is at this time in Israeli hands. But you can look North towards the Soviet Union with its Moslem minorities and affiliations. East towards a patchwork of Moslem states, patient yet unforgiving. South towards Mecca, the power of religion and of oil. And West toward America, Israel’s powerful friend.

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Dark matter’s lens

20/08/2010

Updating Magic Universe

Dark matter’s lens on the cosmic scenery

Since 1996 the efforts of the French astrophysicist Jean-Paul Kneib to exploit natural lenses in the sky, created by the dark matter that surrounds clusters of galaxies, have fascinated me. While other stargazers used the “gravitational lenses”, bending light in the Einsteinian manner, to see galaxies far beyond the range of unaided telescopes, Kneib’s aim was to chart the mysterious dark matter itself. He wanted to see how visible matter and the far weightier dark matter have interacted through cosmic time – to see “the whole history of the Universe from start to finish”, as Kneib remarked to me in 2002.

It’s been taxing work, but now Kneib is one of the team reporting in today’s Science magazine about the dark matter around one the richest known clusters of galaxies. Abell 1689 lies 2.2 billion light-years away in the Virgo constellation, and a couple of years ago its extraordinary lensing power revealed a very distant and early object in the sky, Galaxy A1689-zD1, 12.8 billion light-years away. But that’s by the way

The new report not only gauges the cluster’s dark matter but uses the galaxies beyond it to infer the overall nature of space-time itself, dominated by the even more massive dark energy that drives the accelerating expansion of the Universe.

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superatomic circus

18/08/2010

Pick of the pics and Updating Einstein’s Universe & Magic Universe

Seeing the superatomic circus

When ultra-cold rubidium atoms club together in the superatoms called Bose-Einstein condensates, they usually make untidy crowds, as on the left. But a team led by Stefan Kuhr and Immanuel Bloch at the Max-Planck-Institut für Quantenoptik in Garching, Germany, brings them to order in a neater pattern, as seen in the middle picture. With more rubidium atoms the superatom grows wider (right). Criss-cross laser beams create a lattice-like pattern of pools of light where the atoms like to congregate. When the laser light’s electric field is relatively weak, the atoms jump (by quantum tunnelling) from one pool to another, creating the usual disorder. A stronger field, as in the central and right-hand images, fixes them in the novel state of matter called a Mott insulator. But atoms can be lost from the condensate, which explains the ring-like appearance on the right. Images from MPQ.

[You're recommended to click on the images for a better view]

Single atoms are located at the sites indicated by circles. Fig. 3 in Nature paper, Sherson et al. see ref.

What’s new here, in an advance online publication in Nature,  is not the creation of these kinds of  superatoms but the German team’s success in imaging them, with a specially developed microscope that picks up fluorescence from the atoms caused by the cooling process. In the image on the right individual atoms are pinpointed.

It’s exciting stuff, because we’re probably seeing the dawn of a new technology – after electronics comes “atomics”. If individual atoms in a superatom can be manipulated, they might be used to carry “addressable” information in an atomic computer.

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Guided hurricanes

17/08/2010

Predictions revisited and Climate Change: News and Comments

Guided hurricanes

When speculating four decades ago about the military uses of geophysics, Gordon J.F. MacDonald of UCLA contemplated the triggering of earthquakes or tsunamis, or melting polar ice with nuclear weapons. And he didn’t overlook the idea of steering hurricanes to ravage the enemy’s coasts. Reminding me of that prediction is a report now in press in Geophysical Research Letters, about how natural variations in the colour of the sea help to guide cyclones in the Pacific. A cyclone, remember, is a loosely used generic term that includes the major storms called hurricanes (Atlantic), typhoons (Pacific) or tropical cyclones (Indian Ocean and Australia).

Contributing to Unless Peace Comes, (1968), in a chapter entitled “How to Wreck the Environment”, MacDonald wrote:

… preliminary experiments have been carried out on the seeding of hurricanes. The dynamics of hurricanes and the mechanism by which energy is transferred from the ocean into the atmosphere supporting the hurricane are poorly understood. Yet various schemes for both dissipation and steering can be imagined. Although hurricanes originate in tropical regions, they can travel into temperate latitudes, as the residents of New England know only too well. A controlled hurricane could be used as a weapon to terrorize opponents over substantial parts of the populated world.

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Misleading meteor photo

14/08/2010

Pick of the pics

Misleading use of a meteor photo

British newspapers today print a Reuters photo of Stonehenge that includes a single meteor from Thursday night’s Perseid shower. Some papers convey the impression that every streak in the photo is a meteor, when in fact all bar one near-vertical streak are just stars inching across the sky as the Earth turns during a long exposure of the camera.

As the photo is copyrighted I’ll not post it here, but you can see a typical offender at http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/weird-world/2010/08/14/stone-me-what-a-weird-shower-115875-22486527/

The Guardian has it correctly captioned at http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/gallery/2010/aug/13/perseid-meteor-shower#/?picture=365714247&index=5

A big meteor shower is well worth watching, and it’s nice to know you’re flying through the dust trail of a comet – Comet Swift-Tuttle in the case of the Perseids. The best I saw was from a small boat at sea — again the Perseids, which come conveniently in the summer sailing season. But you’re lucky if you spot one or two shooting stars every few minutes. Journalistic hyperbole can leave non-astronomers feeling disappointed.


Mother tongue

10/08/2010

Updating Magic Universe

It really is your mother tongue

Amid all the politically correct attempts to minimize the differences between the sexes, and ignore their contrasting roles in child rearing, how refreshing to see knock-down evidence pointing the other way! In results released today, researchers in Japan proclaim the special role of mothers in evolution’s most distinctive task for Homo sapiens – encouraging babies to chat.

The tale is quickly told because the RIKEN Brain Science Institute (located near Tokyo) has provided helpful diagrams. I’ve re-written the captions.

Special brain activity in mothers with babies at the babbling, pre-verbal stage appears in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) when they hear maternal baby-talk, technically known as infant-directed speech (IDS). The highest activity, denoted in red, is in the key language areas of the left hemisphere, Broca’s and Wernicke’s. Other women show a slightly raised response, but men don’t, whether they are fathers or not.

The fact that the special maternal brain activity switches on when it’s needed, and off again when it isn’t, reveals an astonishing evolutionary program.

The most amusing technical detail is that the investigators wanted to image the brains of mothers actually interacting with their babies, but they couldn’t. It was impossible for the mothers to keep their heads still. Listening passively to playbacks of baby-talk had to do instead. The experimental subjects were 35 first-time parents with pre-verbal infants, 30 men and women without any parenting experience, 16 mothers with toddlers who spoke two-word utterances and 18 mothers with children in elementary school.

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