The frog without lungs – but why?

All frogs have lungs, right, because otherwise they couldn’t breathe. Well that’s what we used to think – until now. Scientists have discovered a frog that doesn’t need lungs – instead it breathes through its skin, like fish do.

But wait a minute… since frogs are amphibians and spend a lot of their lives in water, why would they have lungs anyway? In fact, all frogs can breathe through their skin, but most frogs also have lungs so that they can cope with being out of water for long periods of time. That’s what makes this new frog species so unique – it has got rid of its lungs and gone to gills-only, as if it was evolving back into a fish again.

Why would it want to do that? This particular frog lives in fast-flowing, cold waters (on the Indonesian island of Borneo). Fast cool water contains more oxygen than still warm water, so it can get more oxygen directly from the water than most frogs can.

Also, it has a lower metabolic rate than other frogs, meaning it doesn’t need as much oxygen anyway.

Borneo

However, scientists are still puzzled as to why the frog would want to get rid of its lungs entirely. After all, frogs’ noisy mating sounds require lungs, so surely any species that lost its lungs would not be a successful breeder – at least that’s what we used to think until this species was discovered.

Maybe the new species survived fine staying in water all the time, and having lungs was a waste of energy – we really don’t know. One theory is that the loss of lungs enabled the frog to become flatter, and get a bigger surface area. Bigger surface area means more space for air to enter through the skin.

Scientists hope to carry out much more research into this new species, although environmental factors like mining and climate change could make it extinct before we have a chance to discover all its secrets. And what a tragedy it would be to lose this intriguing creature before we even got to know it properly.

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Replica Solar System discovered 5,000 light years away

BBC News

Back in ancient times most people thought that our planet was at the center of the Universe. Then we thought it was the Sun, and not too long after we realized that we’re actually just a tiny part of one of billions of galaxies in a Universe filled with trillions of other stars. Just over a decade ago one of the last things that we thought might be unique about our Solar System was disproved – the first ever planet outside our Solar System (an ‘exoplanet’ for short) was discovered around another Sun.

Wikipedia Now our uniqueness has been eroded away a little bit more – a British team of astronomers has discovered what looks a bit like a replica of our own Solar System, orbiting around a star 5000 light-years away.

OK, it’s not an exact replica, but the resemblance is quite striking. Two giant gassy planets (like Jupiter and Saturn in our own Solar System) have the same mass ratio to their sun as Jupiter and Saturn have to our own Sun. And the size of their orbit is proportionally the same as the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. (The star in the newly discovered system is only about half the size of our Sun, hence the reason why all the figures are given as ratios). The orbital period of the giants is about the same too.

So what about a copy of Earth and the other inner, rocky planets? Well, the scientists didn’t actually discover a new Earth, but they say that the existence of an Earth-like planet is quite likely because there is plenty of empty space in between the gas giants and the star.

Wikipedia Unfortunately there’s not much chance of us discovering any more planets in this system – at least not yet, anyway. Current techniques simply aren’t powerful enough to see such small objects so far away.

But wait a minute… if the system’s so far away, how could we detect that the giant gas planets were there? They’re pretty tiny too, surely, compared to the size of their sun?

They used a clever trick called ‘gravitational lensing’, which involves the effect first predicted by Einstein that if you put a heavy object (like a star) in front of another object (like another star further away), the star in front will bend the light from the star behind because gravity bends light. This enables us to see faraway objects much bigger than we would usually be able to see them. (Click here to read more about gravitational lensing, and how it enabled the Hubble Space Telescope to see a galaxy 13 billion light years away.)

Since we don’t know for definite that there’s a replica Earth in this system, should we really be getting so excited? I think the answer should definitely be yes – in the decade since we first discovered extrasolar planets, 300 planets outside our Solar System have been discovered. The more variation among these planets, the more chance of eventually finding ET. And that would be seriously cool.

Click here for NASA’s excellent exoplanet website: PlanetQuest.

Discovered on Mars: Salt that could pinpoint location of life

NASA / Wikipedia Whenever I’m putting salt on my food I don’t usually start me thinking about life on Mars. To be honest, I’d be a bit worried if anyone started thinking about extraterrestrial life instead of enjoying their nice meal (especially if it was while having a romantic dinner out).

 Hmm… what’s this got to do with science? A NASA probe (Mars Odyssey) has just discovered an area of salt deposits on the Red Planet. Although NASA / Wikipediasalt isn’t usually something you’d associate with life, it is in fact a huge clue as to where ancient Martian life may once have lived.

It’s all down to the fact that whenever water flows over rocks, it erodes them, absorbing some of the minerals contained in the rocks. Among these minerals is sodium chloride – or common salt – and its discovery on Mars could be pivotal in deciding where we go next to look for life on Mars.

In all the places where there are salt deposits we can be pretty sure that water once flowed there. Add to water the warmer temperatures that Mars had when the newly discovered salt deposits were found (they formed 3.5 to 3.9 billion years ago) and you get conditions quite favorable to life. Whether life actually existed or not remains to be seen, but knowing where liquid water once flowed makes the task of searching for life much easier.

CNN / NASAWhile I’m writing about Mars, here’s some disturbing news: NASA has just announced it is cutting funding to the amazing Spirit and Opportunity probes by 20%. As you can see by clicking here and here, these two rovers have been among the best ever sent to Mars, so it’s worrying that NASA isn’t willing to pay enough for them. It’s a shame that George Bush doesn’t realize that when he says he wants a man on Mars by 2030, he doesn’t realize that it won’t be free.

Check out the biggest volcano in the Solar System (on Mars) in 3D here, and read about the water-formed gullies recently discovered on the Red Planet here.

Oceans discovered on Saturn’s moon Titan

NASA As if it’s not already cool enough with its methane lakes, Grand Canyon-like geological features and status as the only moon in the Solar System with a thick atmosphere, Saturn’s moon Titan may now have yet another thing to show off about: NASA thinks that lying underneath its surface is a huge ocean of water and methane.

OK, it may be 63 miles below the surface, but the possibility of an ocean on Titan really is exciting, especially as it is thought to contain H2O – water. As we all know, water equals life and although Titan probably isn’t home to ET, the fact that another body in our Solar System has liquid water brings us increasingly closer to discovering life outside Earth.

ESA / NASA / Wikipedia But wait a minute… if the ocean is underground, and above the ground there is a dense, opaque atmosphere, how can we tell that there is an underground ocean? After all, as it’s 63 miles below ground you could hardly drill down into it.

Basically, it all began when a strange discovery started puzzling scientists: they were using radar on the Cassini probe to track the locations of various landmarks on Titan’s surface, but they found that the landmarks were moving between each flyby of Cassini. It could have been down to winds, but they would have had to be incredibly strong since some of the landmarks moved an amazing 20 miles.

The only plausible theory seems to be that the whole surface of Titan is floating on one massive ocean, and as currents in the ocean move the overlying land along, the landmarks move.

Wikipedia I’ve said many times before how amazing the Cassini mission to Saturn and its moons has been – take the recent flyby through the icy geysers of Saturn’s moon Enceladus for example. The great news is that NASA has decided to extend Cassini’s mission beyond its original scheduled finish this summer, meaning we’ll be discovering a whole load more weird and wonderful things about the ringed planet and its companions in the years to come. Go Cassini!

Click here for an excellent Titan interactive from NASA

Here’s an interesting post on CNN’s Sci-Tech blog.

Melting snow made water flow on Mars

National Geographic

In the search for life, Mars has been a bit of a let-down so far. A few decades ago everyone thought there were canals there built by little green men. It turned out that Mars’s surface features had just been misinterpreted. Then there was that famous rock half-way through the last decade that was thought to contain bacteria – it was actually a weird-shaped mineral. Then a few months ago we were told water had been seen flowing on Mars… only to discover that it was dust, not water. Oops.

But now a new discovery has raised the possibility of life existing on Mars, even if it died out long ago. Scientists have concluded that several gullies created millions of years ago were almost certainly formed by flowing water. Where did the water come from? Probably from melting snow, which started to thaw as the Martian spring began.

National GeographicLike any planet, the angle of Mars’s axis of rotation varies gradually over long periods of time. In fact, it may have reached as much as 45 degrees or more several million years ago, double its current angle of around 23 degrees. This would mean that it had more extreme seasons, which could have contributed to the thawing of the ice. Another intriguing possibility is that water somehow burst out from underground springs.

It’s all very well saying water was flowing millions of years ago, but how do we know? Basically, scientists saw that the gullies all tended to point in the same direction, which would tie in with the idea that the gullies were something to do with the Sun melting ice. The Sun would be at the same angle each spring, causing snow to melt in the same locations, carving out these gullies.

Does this latest discovery have any big implications for the hunt for life? It does raise the chances that there was once life on Mars, although it was already quite well known that Mars used to be a wetter planet. Nevertheless, every step forward in the search for life is important, and I’m hoping that this discovery will be able to pinpoint scientists to the locations where life was most likely to have existed.

Scientists advance technology capable of seeing your dreams

Imagine being able to watch someone else’s dream, or see what they’re daydreaming about. Surely this is only possible in science fiction? Well actually, it is (probably) possible in real life too, and the technology needed to do it may be around in just a few decades.

Scientists at Stanford University have published new Human eye | Image: Wikipediaresearch in which they could ‘see’ what someone else was seeing. OK, the scientists didn’t physically ‘see’ an image of what the participant was viewing, but they could work out what sort of picture the participant was looking at.

It’s basically like giving someone a book with a few hundred pictures in, then telling them to open to a random page, and being able to work out which image the person is looking at. Very cool.

MRI scan of a human brain | Image: National Geographic How? I wondered that too, and it’s a lot less complicated than you might think.

The scientists started by showing a series of images to the participants, and tracking the different oxygen levels in the brain associated with each image – different pictures will trigger different amounts of oxygen in different parts of the brain. They repeated this several hundred times, putting the results into a computer program that could ‘learn’ which oxygen levels were associated with each type of picture.

Then, when an unknown image was shown to the participant, the computer program would look at the person’s brain oxygen level and figure out what sort of image they are looking at.

So what about seeing dreams? It’s certainly a long way off yet, but I think this new research is a vital first step to a massive number of possible applications. Of course, it also raises the issue of whether people want to have their brains read… I’d be interested to hear your thoughts – post a comment below.

Japan: Where robots have emotions

Is this what we'll be living with in 15 years? | Image: Wikipedia Imagine a robot that doesn’t just respond to human emotions, but actually has its own emotions. In just a few years time we may not have to imagine any longer, thanks to the astonishing recent rate of progress in robotics in Japan.

Already robots are being programmed to respond to human emotions – they might smile when they hear people laughing, or ‘cry’ when they hear about murders. And in Japan, 15% or the entire workforce is expected to be robot by as soon as 2025 – that’s just a little over 15 years.

I must admit that I had no idea that robot development is so far ahead in Japan – some hospitals have walking, talking humanoid robots that greet patients while cleaning the floors. Humanoid robots are actually expected to become a key part in care for the elderly as Japan realizes that it has far more old people to look after than young people to work, thanks to the post-war baby boom.

Map image

I think robots have really great potential, and hopefully over the next few years the rest of the world will start following Japan’s example. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: we really are living in an exciting time for exploration, discovery and research – it’ll be interesting reading this post 10 years to see how much progress we’ve made.

Or maybe I’ll get my robot to read it for me.

Check out an excellent article from MSNBC on Japan’s robotic future here