Skin Tight

The pair of so-called “necropants” below were made in the 17th century from a dead man’s skin and are supposed to bring good luck. According to legend, sorcerers would strike a deal where one of them would agree to be made into a pair of trousers after they die, and the “necropants” would then be used for magic… no doubt increasing any young warlock’s chances of pulling down at Ye Olde Oak on a Saturday night, to be sure.

The trousers – currently on display at the Strandagaldur Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft in Holmavik – were made by skinning a dead man who had given his permission to be made into pants after his death. In order to make the magical trousers, the living man would have to strip the skin off of the corpse in one piece.

The wearer of the pants then had to steal a coin from a widow and store it in the scrotum of the trousers next to a magical sign called a nábrókarstafur which are symbols credited with effect preserved in various books of spells. According to the museum, the effects credited to most of these were very relevant to the average Icelanders of the time, most of who were farmers dealing with hard conditions.

The coin was a “tool to gather wealth by supernatural means.” The skin of the pants would then stick to the wearer’s own flesh. “They would immediately be stuck with your own flesh and be part of your body,” said a museum spokesman. “People would be able to use them as long as they lived, but they would have to get rid of them before they die. If they would find someone to take them over they could last forever,” the spokesman said.

Source: UPI / Wiki

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Lump Of Fat Has Use!

Men Across World Worried At News!! 😉

Giant Fatberg Found Under London Has Surprising Use
Smelly grease that piles up in sewers can be useful

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Photograph © Thames Water

The name alone was enough to make us want to see for ourselves. Fatbergs, the giant collections of grease, oil, and fat that clog the sewer system under London’s streets, were getting out of hand, the result of decades of people washing things down their drains that they’re not supposed to. It all ends up in the tunnels, along with the other usual things that run through raw sewage tunnels.

When I toured London’s sewers earlier this year with National Geographic video producer Spencer Millsap, what we found was a potent cocktail of smells. Fungus covered every surface of the tunnels. The humidity was so great that our camera’s lens instantly fogged up. Running around our feet was a shallow river colored an earthy, brown hue (exactly why you think).

But the fatbergs were the main attraction, the bobbing piles of gunk that simply refused to be washed downstream and were slowly stopping up the sewer system.

The smells instantly rushed back this week when London’s water authority announced that it had discovered the biggest fatberg yet, a 15-ton mound about the size of a school bus. Thames Water, the public utility that manages the sewers, gave it the historic and oddly momentous title of being “the biggest berg in British history.”

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A 2nd fatberg, this time ABOARD a London Bus…

Unimpressed were dozens of nearby residents, who complained to the sewer authority that they couldn’t flush their toilets—the fat had reduced a pipe nearly two feet (0.6 meter) in diameter to only five percent of its normal capacity. When sewer workers—well-paid ones, as all sewer workers are in London—went to investigate, they found the blockage.

The process of removing the fat, they later realised, would take more than a month.

Despite the disgust, as well as the inconvenience, there’s actually some good news about fatbergs. Made of dense fats and oils, the structures are highly caloric, which makes them helpful for producing energy.

Rob Smith, a man with the enviable title of London’s “chief flusher,” told us that simply removing the fat and burning it in a turbine can produce more than 130 gigawatt-hours of energy each year, or about enough to power 40,000 London homes. The city plans to put the 15-ton berg to the same use, creating some very real cracks in the term clean energy.

While they’re still around, fatbergs have a strange pull on the city’s tourists. The day we took our cameras down under, a couple on the street asked how they could arrange a tour as well. Paris actually offers a tour of its centuries-old sewers, as does Sydney, which raises the question of when an enterprising entrepreneur will market a tour of the world’s dirtiest sewers (walk where Napoleon once relieved himself!).

London’s bigger concern is how to stop fatbergs from forming in the first place. Earlier this year, Thames Water started a campaign using the phrase “bin it, don’t block it” to remind people to capture their fat and grease and avoid washing it down the drain. Restaurants are the biggest producers of grease, and some have now set up fat traps under their sinks to catch congealed substances before they enter the sewers.

Yet having seen a berg up close makes us wonder if simply making people confront what their grease and fat are actually doing in the sewers might change their behavior. And not just seeing it, but smelling it too.

“You never forget your first time in the sewers,” one of the junior sewer sweeps told me. He was right. After fully sensing exactly what happens under our feet to keep our streets clean, we were ready to head back to the street level.

“You’ll never be so grateful for fresh air,” the same guy told us. The smell of the bustling city street above us was indeed like perfume.

Source: NatGeo

The Map Of… Everything!*

This “Histomap,” created by John B. Sparks, was first printed by Rand McNally in 1931. It is now housed by The David Rumsey Map Collection and they, thankfully, host a fully zoomable version here online.

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This giant, ambitious chart fit neatly with a trend in nonfiction book publishing of the 1920s and 1930s: the “outline,” in which large subjects were distilled into a form comprehensible to the most uneducated layman.

The 5-foot-long Histomap was sold for $1 and folded into a green cover, which featured endorsements from historians and reviewers.

* “World” being highly subjective. History being “4,000 years”.

Crop The Wild Relatives*

* It’s not illegal!

Kew’s growth strategy: hybrid crops without the genetic modification
Plan to crossbreed crops with their wild cousins to help boost resistance to climate change

British researchers are leading an unprecedented global project to track down and store wild relatives of common crops – to help breed hybrids with higher yields that could be resistant to the effects of climate change.

Crossing staple crops such as wheat, potatoes and rice with their wild cousins offers a natural, safe alternative to the genetic modification of plants in the lab, according to experts at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, which is behind the scheme.

A report by researchers at Kew found that so-called “crop wild relatives” offer a badly neglected “treasure trove” of genetic information that, if harnessed properly, could boost agricultural production and be worth up to £128bn to the global economy.

But global stocks of crop wild relatives are woefully low and many species are close to extinction, with aubergine, potato, apple, sunflower and carrot varieties most at risk, the report found.

More than half the 455 known crop wild relatives of the world’s 29 most-consumed food plants have either not been collected at all, or are badly under-represented, making it essential to build stocks as soon as possible, warns Jonas Mueller, of the Kew Millennium Seed Bank.

“Now that we have identified the gaps the next step is to collect them and make them accessible for agricultural research. We know the climate will change but we don’t know how. So we don’t yet know how it will affect the crops that have been bred in the past specifically for the climate of today,” said Dr Mueller. “It can take 15 to 20 years to breed a new crop variety, so every year we delay has a knock-on effect. It is a matter of urgency,” he added.

Locating and storing the crops will begin this summer in Italy, Cyprus and Portugal. It is a huge task that in many cases is easier said than done. Many crops lie in conflict-ridden regions such as Pakistan and Sudan, where wars can put both the species and the collectors at risk.

Some wild relatives of the faba bean – better known in this country as the broad bean – are found only in war-torn Syria and are a particular cause for concern. Bolivia, China, Ecuador, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Mexico, Mozambique, Australia and the US also have large numbers of priority crop wild relatives that need to be collected and stored.

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The Seed Bank, yesterday. Or not. It might have been Friday. Or not.

Britain could benefit tremendously from an injection of wild genes as its widely grown crops of conventional wheat, potatoes, barley, carrots, sugar cane and apples face an increasingly unpredictable climate.

A new generation of wild-domesticated crop hybrids could be more resistant to floods, droughts and extreme temperatures, using a technology which many scientists say is better understood and more effective than genetic modification. Ruth Eastwood, of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, said the procedure could potentially be safer than GM because their similar genetic backgrounds meant there was a “lower likelihood of unexpected interactions between genes”. “It certainly is another option that has proved to be effective already,” she said.

Andy Jarvis, of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia, also involved in the project, said: “Crop wild relatives are a potential treasure trove of useful characteristics that scientists can put to good use for making agriculture more resilient and improving the livelihoods of millions of people.”

Kew’s global 10-year programme with Germany’s Global Diversity Trust to identify and plug gaps in wild relative stocks is unprecedented.

Britain is also playing a leading role in the science. In May, the National Institute of Agricultural Botany in Cambridge claimed to have developed a new type of wheat that could increase its productivity by 30 per cent. It did this by recreating the original rare cross between an ancient wheat and wild grass species that happened in the Middle East 10,000 years ago, to form a “synthetic” wheat that can be crossed with modern UK varieties.

Advocates of plant breeding with crop wild relatives, which has been going on for decades, say it is a much safer and more effective way of improving plant yields than the fledgling process of genetic modification, which the Government is promoting in the face of an effective ban in Europe.

Success stories include a nutritionally enhanced variety of broccoli which contains higher levels of glucoraphanin, thought to slow down the progress of skin cancer.

An analysis of Kew’s research by the financial consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that commercial crops that have already benefited from the input of crop wild relatives will generate a total of £44bn in their lifetimes. This would rise to £128bn if the technique boosted the yield, disease resistance, and tolerance to temperature, drought and flooding of the world’s 32 most-consumed crops.

Ms Eastwood said: “Adapting agriculture to climate change is one of the most urgent challenges of our time. Crop wild relatives are already being used to improve our food crops right now and are extremely valuable economically as well. But they are underutilitised.”

The project team first identified all known wild relatives of the world’s most important crops. It then spent two years scouring gene banks, dried plant collections and museums to determine stock levels and gather data on sightings in the wild. From the data, the team identified species that are a high priority for collection.

The report comes a week after the UK Government announced plans to invest £160m setting up centres for innovation in sustainable farming and bringing new agricultural technologies to market.

The 29 crops: What’s involved?

The 29 crops covered in the project are: African rice, alfalfa, apple, eggplant (aubergine), bambara groundnut, banana, barley, wheat, lima bean (butter bean), carrot, chickpea, common bean, cowpea, faba bean (broad bean), finger millet, grasspea, lentil, oat, pea, pearl millet, pigeon pea, plantain, potato, rice, rye, sorghum, sunflower, sweet potato and vetch.

Early winners: potatoes and wheat

The breeding of staples with their “crop wild relatives” (CWRs) has already proved beneficial.

Late blight is one of the most damaging diseases for potatoes: its negative economic impact is thought to be $3.5bn per year in developed countries alone. Resistance to the condition in current European potato varieties has been exclusively derived from CWRs. Varieties of potato with CWR-derived late-blight resistance, such as the C88 potato, are also being introduced into China. In one study, it was estimated that CWR-derived resistance was responsible for preventing the loss of approximately 30 per cent of the annual yield, where conditions for blight were prevalent.

Wheat varieties such as Veery have benefited from the introduction of genes from rye, a relative of wheat. The beneficial traits inherited include tolerance to extremes of temperature and drought conditions, as well as resistance to a variety of diseases such as wheat rust. These wheat varieties have had a significant impact in the developing world, as well as in developed-world markets such as the USA.

Source: The Independent

Pissing Teeth

New teeth grown from urine

Scientists have grown rudimentary teeth out of the most unlikely of sources, human urine. The results, published in Cell Regeneration Journal, showed that urine could be used as a source of stem cells that in turn could be grown into tiny tooth-like structures. The team from China hopes the technique could be developed into a way of replacing lost teeth.

Other stem cell researchers caution that that goal faces many challenges. [No, really?!] Teams of researchers around the world are looking for ways of growing new teeth to replace those lost with age and poor dental hygiene. [*]

The group at the Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health used urine as the starting point. Cells which are normally passed from the body, such as those from the lining of the body’s waterworks, are harvested in the laboratory. These collected cells are then coaxed into becoming stem cells. A mix of these cells and other material from a mouse was implanted into the animals.

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It’ll mean a whole new routine in the morning…

The researchers said that after three weeks the bundle of cells started to resemble a tooth: “The tooth-like structure contained dental pulp, dentin, enamel space and enamel organ.” However, the “teeth” were not as hard as natural teeth.

This piece of research is not immediately going to lead to new options for the dentist, but the researchers say it could lead to further studies towards “the final dream of total regeneration of human teeth for clinical therapy”.

Prof. Chris Mason, a stem cell scientist at University College London, said urine was a poor starting point. “It is probably one of the worst sources, there are very few cells in the first place and the efficiency of turning them into stem cells is very low. You just wouldn’t do it in this way.” He also warned that the risk of contamination, such as through bacteria, was much higher than with other sources of cells. Prof. Mason added: “The big challenge here is the teeth have got a pulp with nerve and blood vessels which have to make sure they integrate to get permanent teeth.”

Source: BBC News

[*] Or, as someone who takes immunosuppressants which destroy teeth, this could be useful for people who take immunosuppressants…

Mouse: “I Don’t Like Cheese!” Confusion

False memory planted in mouse’s brain
The feat will help to reveal how more complex false memories, such as of sexual abuse or alien abduction, can arise in people

Scientists have implanted a false memory in the brains of mice in an experiment that they hope will shed light on the well-documented phenomenon whereby people “remember” events or experiences that have never happened.

False memories are a major problem with witness statements in courts of law. Defendants have often been convicted of offences based on eyewitness testimony, only to have their convictions later overturned when DNA or some other corroborating evidence is brought to bear.

In order to study how these false memories might form in the human brain, Susumu Tonegawa, a neuroscientist at the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics, and his team encoded memories in the brains of mice by manipulating individual neurons. He described the results of the study in the latest edition of the journal Science.

Memories of experiences we have had are made from several elements including records of objects, space and time. These records, called engrams, are encoded in physical and chemical changes in brain cells and the connections between them. According to Tonegawa, both false and genuine memories seem to rely on the same brain mechanisms.

In their work, Tonegawa’s team used a technique known as optogenetics, which allows the fine control of individual brain cells. They engineered brain cells in the mouse hippocampus, a part of the brain known to be involved in forming memories, to express the gene for a protein called channelrhodopsin. When cells that contain channelrhodopsin are exposed to blue light, they become activated. The researchers also modified the hippocampus cells so that the channelrhodopsin protein would be produced in whichever brain cells the mouse was using to encode its memory engrams.

In the experiment, Tonegawa’s team placed the mice in a chamber and allowed them to explore it. As they did so, relevant memory-encoding brain cells were producing the channelrhodopsin protein. The next day, the same mice were placed in a second chamber and given a small electric shock, to encode a fear response. At the same time, the researchers shone light into the mouse brains to activate their memories of the first chamber. That way, the mice learned to associate fear of the electric shock with the memory of the first chamber.

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In the final part of the experiment, the team placed the mice back in the first chamber. The mice froze, demonstrating a typical fear response, even though they had never been shocked while there. “We call this ‘incepting’ or implanting false memories in a mouse brain,” Tonegawa told Science. A similar process may occur when powerful false memories are created in humans.

“Humans are very imaginative animals,” said Tonegawa. “Independent of what is happening around you in the outside world, humans constantly have internal activity in the brain. So, just like our mouse, it is quite possible we can associate what we happen to have in our mind with bad or good high-variance ongoing events. In other words, there could be a false association of what you have in your mind rather than what is happening to you.”

He added: “Our study showed that the false memory and the genuine memory are based on very similar, almost identical, brain mechanisms. It is difficult for the false memory bearer to distinguish between them. We hope our future findings along this line will further alert legislatures and legal experts how unreliable memory can be.”

Chris French, head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, is a leading researcher in false memories in people. He said that the latest results were an important first step in understanding their neural basis.

“Memory researchers have always recognised that memory does not, as is often assumed, work like a video camera, faithfully recording all of the details of anything we experience. Instead, it is a reconstructive process which involves building a specific memory from fragments of real memory traces of the original event but also possibly including information from other sources.”

He cautioned that the false memories created in the mice in the experiments were far simpler than the complex false memories that have generated controversy within psychology and psychiatry, for example false memories of childhood sexual abuse, or even memories for bizarre ritualised satanic abuse, abduction by aliens, or “past lives”.

“Such rich false memories will clearly involve many brain systems and we are still a long way from understanding the processes involved in their formation at the neuronal level,” said Prof French.

Mark Stokes, a neuroscientist at Oxford University, said the experiments were a “tour de force” but that it was important to put them into perspective. “Although the results seem to imply that new memories were formed by the artificial stimulation (rather than the actual environment), this kind of phenomenon is still a long way from most people’s idea of memory,” he said. Rather, he said, it was equivalent to implanting an association that perhaps someone cannot place, but makes them wary of a specific environment for no apparent reason.

“It is unlikely that this kind of pairing could lead to the rich set of associations related to normal memories, although it is possible that over time such pairing could be integrated with other memories to construct a more elaborate false narrative.”

The mouse models created by the MIT team will help scientists ask ever more complex questions about memories in people. “Now that we can reactivate and change the contents of memories in the brain, we can begin asking questions that were once the realm of philosophy,” said Steve Ramirez, a colleague of Tonegawa’s at MIT.

“Are there multiple conditions that lead to the formation of false memories? Can false memories for both pleasurable and aversive events be artificially created? What about false memories for more than just contexts – false memories for objects, food or other mice? These are the once seemingly sci-fi questions that can now be experimentally tackled in the lab.”

As the technology develops, said French, scientists need to think about its uses carefully. “Whatever means are used to implant false memories, we need to be very aware of the ethical issues raised by such procedures – the potential for abuse of such techniques cannot be overstated.”

Source: Guardian

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“I can access your cheese through your dreams. I know how to find cheese from your mind, I know all the tricks! You’ll be trapped in limbo ’til your brains turn to scrambled cheese. And I will lead them on a merry cheese.”

Pandora’s… Pox!*

Giant viruses open Pandora’s box
Genome of largest viruses yet discovered hints at ‘fourth domain’ of life
By Ed Yong

* Well somebody had to say it!

The organism was initially called NLF, for “new life form”. Jean-Michel Claverie and Chantal Abergel, evolutionary biologists at Aix-Marseille University in France, found it in a water sample collected off the coast of Chile, where it seemed to be infecting and killing amoebae. Under a microscope, it appeared as a large, dark spot, about the size of a small bacterial cell.

Later, after the researchers discovered a similar organism in a pond in Australia, they realized that both are viruses — the largest yet found. Each is around 1 micrometre long and 0.5 micrometres across, and their respective genomes top out at 1.9 million and 2.5 million bases — making the viruses larger than many bacteria and even some eukaryotic cells.

But these viruses, described today in Science [1] are more than mere record-breakers — they also hint at unknown parts of the tree of life. Just 7% of their genes match those in existing databases.

“What the hell is going on with the other genes?” asks Claverie. “This opens a Pandora’s box. What kinds of discoveries are going to come from studying the contents?” The researchers call these giants Pandoraviruses.

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“This is a major discovery that substantially expands the complexity of the giant viruses and confirms that viral diversity is still largely underexplored,” says Christelle Desnues, a virologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Marseilles, who was not involved in the study.

Claverie and Abergel have helped to discover other giant viruses — including the first [2] called Mimivirus, in 2003, and Megavirus chilensis, until now the largest virus known [3] in 2011. Pandoravirus salinus came from the same Chilean water sample as M. chilensis. Claverie picked up the second Pandoravirus, P. dulcis, from a pond near Melbourne, where he was attending a conference.

The viruses’ presence on separate continents helped to establish that they were not artefacts of known cells. It also suggests that the Pandoraviruses are widespread, Claverie says.

Indeed, other scientists had previously mistaken them for parasitic or symbiotic bacteria. Rolf Michel, a parasitologist from the Central Institute of the Bundeswehr Medical Service in Koblenz, Germany, found one in 2008, in an amoeba living in the contact lens of a woman with keratitis4. “Reading this stunning article, I recognized that both P. salinus and P. dulcis are almost identical to what we described a few years ago,” he says. “We had no idea that those giant organisms could be viruses at all!”

The researchers showed that Pandoraviruses lack many of the hallmarks of cellular organisms such as bacteria. They do not make their own proteins, produce energy via ATP or reproduce by dividing.

They do, however, contain some of the core genes that are common to giant viruses, and they have a viral life cycle. Under an electron microscope, the researchers saw the viruses being taken up by amoeba hosts, emptying their proteins and DNA into the host cells, commandeering the host-cell nuclei, producing hundreds of new viral particles and, finally, splitting the host cells open.

The researchers are now trying to determine the viruses’ origins by characterizing the unknown genes and the proteins they encode. They have long suspected that giant viruses evolved from cells; if they are right, the ancestors of Pandoraviruses must have been very different from the bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes we have today. “We think that at some point, the dynasty on Earth was much bigger than those three domains,” says Abergel. Some cells gave rise to modern life, and others survived by parasitizing them and evolving into viruses.

The discovery suggests that scientists’ may revise their concept of what a virus looks like. “After reading the article, many people may wonder if they have something on their shelves that might be a giant virus,” says Abergel. “We still have more crazy things in store that we expect to be able to publish next year.”

Source: Nature doi:10.1038/nature.2013.13410
References:
1 Philippe, N. et al. Science 341, 281–286 (2013).
La Scola, B. et al. Science 299, 2033 (2003).
2 Arslan, D., Legendre, M., Seltzer, V., Abergel, C. & Claverie, J.-M. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 108, 17486–17491 (2011).
3 Scheid, P., Hauröder, B. & Michel, R. Parasitol. Res. 106, 1371–1377 (2010).