Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The New Ninth Planet

Could you imagine a planet that could actually be classified as the new ninth planet in our solar system beyond Pluto?  One that completes a revolution around the Sun every 20,000 or so years?  How about a planet that could possibly be 5,000 times the size of Pluto?

Or how about 10 times the size of Earth?

Researchers at Caltech have finally found substantial evidence that a planet exists within a unique orbit in the outer solar system.  Granted, this planet has not been observed directly yet (the picture above is an artist's rendering, R. Hurt at Caltech).  However, researchers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown used mathematical modeling and complex computer models and simulations to determine the identity of the ninth planet.  "Although we were initially quite skeptical that this planet could exist, as we continued to investigate its orbit and what it would mean for the outer solar system, we became increasingly convinced that it is out there," says Batygin. "For the first time in over 150 years, there is solid evidence that the solar system's planetary census is incomplete."

Since the beginning of the debate on whether extreme Kuiper Belt objects existed, the idea of a planet far out in the Kuiper Belt was tossed around.  However, the idea never really took root, for the observation of such a planet was never seen, and data was inconclusive.  Beginning in 2014, the idea based on a paper published by Chad Trujillo and Scott Sheppard arose from the observation on distant objects in the Kuiper Belt and their obscure orbital feature.  Brown brought is thoughts to Batygin, and the two worked for a year and a half on this problem. 

Their efforts on observing the Kuiper belt and the many objects within slowly brought forth fruit.  They initially saw that 6 objects had elliptical orbits that fell within the same direction in physical space, indicating that something was affecting the orbits.  Secondly, they disproved that the simple amount of objects would affect the orbits of the 6 objects, calculating that the Kuiper Belt would require over 100 times the amount of mass it has today.  Finally, after numerous computer simulations, they discovered that a massive planet in an anti-aligned orbit (180 degrees from all other objects and known planets in the solar system) matched the data that they had received.

"Your natural response is 'This orbital geometry can't be right.  This can't be stable over the long term because, after all, this would cause the planet and these objects to meet and eventually collide,'" said Batygin.  However, due ti a mechanism known as mean-motion resonance, the massive planet actually propels the objects away from it as the objects in the Kuiper pass by it due to its unique orbit.

So essentially, the evidence for a ninth planet in deep space in our solar system is overwhelming.  But it has not been observed just yet.  "I would love to find it," says Brown. "But I'd also be perfectly happy if someone else found it.  That is why we're publishing this paper.  We hope that other people are going to get inspired and start searching [...] All those people who are mad that Pluto is no longer a planet can be thrilled to know that there is a real planet out there still to be found.  Now we can go and find this planet and make the solar system have nine planets again."

More on this story can be read here:

http://www.caltech.edu/news/caltech-researchers-find-evidence-real-ninth-planet-49523

http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/01/20/463087037/hints-of-a-hidden-distant-planet-in-our-solar-system
"Your natural response is 'This orbital geometry can't be right. This can't be stable over the long term because, after all, this would cause the planet and these objects to meet and eventually collide,'" says Batygin. - See more at: http://www.caltech.edu/news/caltech-researchers-find-evidence-real-ninth-planet-49523#sthash.1jpSItWM.dpuf
"Although we were initially quite skeptical that this planet could exist, as we continued to investigate its orbit and what it would mean for the outer solar system, we become increasingly convinced that it is out there," says Batygin, an assistant professor of planetary science. "For the first time in over 150 years, there is solid evidence that the solar system's planetary census is incomplete." - See more at: http://www.caltech.edu/news/caltech-researchers-find-evidence-real-ninth-planet-49523#sthash.1jpSItWM.dpuf
mathematical modeling and computer simulations
, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown
, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown
, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown
/R. Hurt (IPAC)
/R. Hurt (IPAC)
/R. Hurt (IPAC)
/R. Hurt (IPAC)

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Re-engineering Ants By Altering Genes in the Brain

Much like humans, ants respond to certain behavioral changes or environmental aspects that they encounter.  When an ant is hungry, it acts accordingly.  When an ant is threatened, again it acts accordingly.  Even within the ant hill, the ant's behavior may be subject to change depending on situations it encounters.  Now these changes in behavior are a result of genes located in the brain, and were observed within carpenter ants that were observed in a study co-authored by NYU Langone researchers and publishers.  With this discovery, focusing on specific genes to target certain behaviors in humans may be possible in the near future.

To further dive into the specifics, the researchers focused on a compound known to block the action of a group of enzymes, histone deacetylases (HDACs), which would activate genes that would cause the carpenter ant worker to behave like another ant without altering the coding for the gene itself.  Therefore, more work is being done to discover what else can be altered without changing or rewriting the genes themselves in ants or even humans.

Furthermore, the researchers conducted a series of tests on a female carpenter ant to regulate whether she became a guard ant (major in size) or a scout ant (minor in size).  To further elaborate on what the study focused on, an excerpt from the news article on EurekaAlert! was taken that describes the components within the ant that the scientists studied:

Specifically, the study found that foraging behavior as a caste-specific trait in the ant C. floridanus is controlled by the interplay between well-known families of enzymes: histone acetyltransferases (HATs), and histone deacetylases (HDACs). As their names suggest, HAT enzymes attach acetyl groups to histones, protein spools that DNA is wrapped around, to turn on genes. HDACs remove the groups from histones to turn off gene expression.

By focusing on the HDACs, the team was able to use HDAC inhibitors to alter the behavior in the guard ants and cause them to scout for food.  Essentially, the major ants were reprogrammed to function like the minor ants.  In addition, it wasn't just one gene that was activated within the major ants.  The experiment found that hundreds of genes in the central ant brain linked to hormone signaling, the sending of signals along nerve pathways, and the building of connections between nerve cells were all altered or activated in a different way than a normal major ant without HDAC inhibitors.  

With this discovery, and the results surrounding the use of HDAC inhibitors in ants, it seems entirely possible to alter behaviors and even which genes are activated in a multitude of organisms, including humans.  Granted, humans and ants do not share the exact same genetic blueprint, but the idea and the science behind it gives us a unique opportunity to possibly alter mental diseases in the brain, behavioral issues, and other problems within humans.  As stated by Danny Reinberg, PhD, the Terry and Mel Karmazin Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at NYU Langone, and a corresponding study author, "While no one is saying that ant behavior extends to humans, we believe, nonetheless, that this work promises to help guide the future use of HDAC inhibitors, which are already being studied as potential treatments for schizophrenia, depression, and neurodegenerative diseases."

More information on this topic can be found here:

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-12/nyu-sb123115.php