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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Life search in Mars

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Key components of a new approach to discover life on Mars were successfully launched into space Friday as part of a twelve-day, low-Earth orbit experiment to assess their survivability in the space radiation environment -- a prelude future journeys to Mars.

Would you know microbial life if you saw it? What if you were a robot? A newly developed "Life Marker Chip" might give future robotic explorers a tool they can use to know if the rock, sand, water or ice they're examining contains life. This device, as well as a few dozen other experiments recently headed to space aboard the Foton microgravity mission.

The unmanned Soyuz-U launcher blasted off from the Kaikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan on September 14th. 9 minutes after launch, the Foton-M3 spacecraft separated from the rocket's upper stage, and went into an orbit that takes it around the Earth every 90 minutes.

The spacecraft is carrying a payload of 43 experiments designed to test the effects of microgravity and radiation. The experiments include fluid physics, biology, protein crystal growth, meteoritics, radiation dosimetry and exobiology. And one interesting member of the mission is the Life Marker Chip.

The nickname for the Life Marker Chip is the Mars pregnancy test since it works on the same principle. It contains a tray of very specific proteins, each of which acts like a plug. If microbial life is present on Mars, some of its protein molecules will come into contact with the LMC, and then bond, like a very specific puzzle piece. This will allow the robot to not only report on evidence of life, but give very specific information about what kind of life process is being observed.

The trip to space on board the Foton is just a test. Scientists want to see what happens to the experiment when it's exposed to the radiation and microgravity of being in orbit. The experiment, as well as the other 40ish experiments on board the capsule will be recovered when the capsule returns to Earth on September 25th.

If everything works properly, the Life Marker Chip will be installed onto ESA's ExoMars mission; a rover that will blast off for the Red Planet in 2013. Maybe then we'll get the answer we're hoping for: Mars is pregnant… with life.

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Google Moon Gets a Big Update with NASA

This is just in time for all those teams considering building a robot lunar rover to win $20 million in the Google Lunar X Prize.

NASA said Tuesday that it has added new lunar imagery to Google's Moon Web site, a photographic display of the moon with information graphics about the Apollo landings.

The additions are part of an ongoing partnership between NASA and Google, which signed a Space Act agreement in December 2006 to work on Web projects together. NASA, for example, recently added photographs taken from the satellite sensor Landsat into Google Earth.

The updated moon site includes higher resolution lunar maps and additional content from the Apollo missions, including panoramic images, audio and video clips, and descriptions of the astronauts' activities, according to NASA. The site also features detailed charts of different regions of the moon "suitable for use by anyone simulating a lunar mission," the space agency said.

"NASA's objective is for Google Moon to become a more accurate and useful lunar mapping platform that will be a foundation for future web-based moon applications, much like the many applications that have been built on top of Google Maps," Chris Kemp, director of strategic business development at NASA's Ames Research Center, said in a statement.

Google and the nonprofit X Prize Foundation announced earlier this week that they will offer $20 million to the first team that can put a robotic rover on the moon that can travel 500 meters. (It is offering an additional $5 million for second place, and $5 million for bonus feats.)

When Google Moon was released last year, it was a bit of a joke. Google Earth, but for the Moon. Zoom in far enough and the familiar lunar craters were replaced with swiss cheese. The time for silliness is over, Google Moon has gotten an update, and they're making it a serious learning tool this time around. The website incorporates photographs from orbiters and the Apollo missions to let you zoom in and out, exploring the Moon.

Head over to Google Moon, and follow along. You can change the view between Charts, Apollo, Visible and Elevation. All of the Apollo landing sites are marked on the map, so you can click each one to get more information.

Zoom in all the way, and you don't see swiss cheese anymore. Instead you see the most detailed images available from NASA showing high resolution details about the landing sites. Each landing site has more than 10 additional detailed place markers, showing points of interest about the mission.

For example, click on the Apollo 16 mission, and the interface informs you there are 21 additional place markers. Click to zoom in, and you can see all the little markers. Click on any one and you'll see more details, such as interesting rocks, craters, and landing spacecraft. Some of the detailed views are just photographs, but others are panoramas that you can scroll around to see the landscape from the astronauts' point of view. Very cool!

There are also some landmarks with audio clips and video clips. All in all, the site feels like an educational CD-ROM.

And that's part of its problem - it's not really an atlas of the Moon, and more of a presentation of the Apollo missions. Many of those lunar craters have names. There are plenty more interesting features on the Moon than just the Apollo landing sites. I'd love to see some of that information incorporated as well. They could also bring in images from other spacecraft, like ESA's SMART-1 to provide better coverage in some areas.

My other concern is that it doesn't really work if you zoom all the way out. Instead of seeing a nice view of the whole Moon, there's a confusing set of repeating images showing the same portions of the Moon over and over again. Google Maps does the same thing with the Earth, but still, it should look like you're zooming into the Moon.

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IBM undertakes big server consolidation project

IBM undertakes big server consolidation project

IBM is undertaking the biggest server consolidation project in the history of IT. The tech giant has set an ambitious goal of doubling its server and storage capacity for operations and outsourced customers within the next three years, without increasing its energy consumption, fiscal footprint or carbon emissions.

IBM vice president of IT optimization, Rich Lechner, said IBM stands to save more than A$400 million (US$333 million) in total operational costs within five years, including investments in new equipment and migration costs.

"We evaluated over 10,000 Intel and Unix servers across our data centers to see which ones made sense to consolidate onto Linux on the mainframe and we identified 3900," Lechner said.

"We are migrating applications from the old architecture to Linux on the mainframe, and are consolidating them.

"Over the last 15 years, we have reduced our carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent at a corporate level, through more efficient manufacturing techniques, data centers and work-at-home [staff]." He said the company will drop its emissions by a further 12 percent over the next five years.

Lechner said the project is "the largest sever consolidation project ever undertaken in the industry" and will save some $25 million in energy costs over the same five year period, equating to 5 billion kilowatt-hours over three years, or the equivalent power consumed by Paris in one year or 320,000 United States homes in Winter.

Unix and Linux was chosen over a Wintel platform because of higher utilization rates using server virtualization.

"X86 utilization of servers is about 5 to 10 percent, [but while] it can rise to 20 to 25 percent with server virtualization using Xen, VMware or Microsoft Virtual Server, it can be as high as as 60 to 80 percent on midrange mainframes," he said.

IBM will invest more than $1 billion a year in research and development and will appoint a "green army" of 850 IT architects and sales staff to educate customers on how to turn green using consolidation and virtualization at a system and data center level.

Lechner said business can reduce power consumption and carbon emissions in the data center by 40 percent by redesigning building architectures to be more efficient, and using virtualization and consolidation. He said the best servers to consolidate can be identified by examining service level agreements and work flows.

"Only 45 percent of power directed into data centers ends up with IT equipment, the rest going into lighting, chillers, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) units and UPS (uninterruptible power supply) units," he said.

"The average utilization of storage is about 25 percent, [however] customers using storage virtualization can increase their utilization by 40 points, such as from 20 to 60 percent."

The cost of data center power and cooling will rise 250 percent in five years, according to Lechner, who claimed data centers consume two percent of the world's energy and are responsible for about two percent of total global carbon emissions, the equivalent output of every aircraft in commission.

He said while power and cooling expense costs about $0.40 for every $1 on IT equipment, it will rise to $0.70 within three years, and will equal the hardware spend by 2012.

Lechner blames the costs in part on a 30 percent compound annual growth rate in server sprawl, common across most data centers.

This consumption is heightened in the 80 percent of data centers, according to research firm IDC, which are hosting more data in power hungry servers in data centers buildings more than eight years old.

"The energy consumption of data centers is 15 times intensive than a typical office building, and in some cases it is up to 100 times as exhaustive. CEOs and CFOs are grappling with energy bills that are 10 to 15 times as expensive of what they expect," Lechner said.

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SAP to unveil Web-delivered business software

SAP to unveil Web-delivered business software

"A1S takes SAP much closer to a more purist model of software as a service than it has previously attempted, and is likely to become a very significant part of the SAP portfolio in the years ahead," Ovum researcher David Mitchell wrote in a recent note.

He said SAP, Oracle and Microsoft had previously taken a wider approach to on-demand software, mixing programs that sit on personal computers with programs residing on Web servers.

SAP is the world's top maker of business software, which helps companies manage accounting, inventory control, shipping, sales and marketing. It earns the bulk of revenue from licenses on software installed on its customers' premises.

SAP is now taking a page out of the playbooks of Salesforce and NetSuite, a company majority owned by Oracle Chief Executive Larry Ellison that filed in July to go public.

It will also be competing with software from Workday Inc, a privately held company started in March 2005 by PeopleSoft founder Dave Duffield that offers Web-based accounting and human-resources software. Oracle acquired PeopleSoft in January 2005 for $10 billion.

Fewer than 100 companies have tried the new SAP product as part of the early testing process. SAP has said it would spend about $500 million on A1S through the end of next year.

"There's a pretty good chance they can execute well here," said Forrester Research analyst Paul Hamerman.

People familiar with the matter said the software would be rolled out gradually in the United States, Germany, Britain and France. It should be widely available in those countries in the first quarter of 2008 and SAP hopes to have "thousands" of customers by early 2009, they said.

"This isn't for everyone, but I think there is a market for it," Hamerman said.

SAP has been surprised by leaps in the capabilities of Web-delivered services evidenced by the likes of Google Inc (GOOG.O: Quote, Profile, Research), analysts said.

Google provides e-mail, word processing, spreadsheets and presentation software through a growing portfolio of products that it calls Google Apps. SAP felt it had little choice but to enter the market in earnest, analysts said.

SAP, with some 42,000 customers, has traditionally sold its software to companies with at least 500 employees. It is now looking to build its base to 100,000 customers by 2010, using A1S to attract companies with between 100 and 500 employees.

In doing so it will meet a previously stated goal of boosting the size of the market for business applications that it can address to $70 billion by 2010 from $30 billion.

An initial challenge for SAP will be marketing to smaller businesses, which is generally done through independent consultants, or resellers, who advise businesses on which software to buy, then help install it.

Ron Hinchcliffe, vice president of Synergy Plus Solutions Inc, a reseller with operations in Livonia, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario, said he was skeptical of SAP's new offering.

"It's a version one. We generally try to look at those a little more tentatively," Hinchcliffe said. "If we recommend it right out of the gate, we could be risking our reputation."


SAP's products focus on Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), which it helped to pioneer. The company's main product is SAP ERP. The name of its predecessor, SAP R/3 gives a clue to its functionality: the "R" stands for realtime, the number 3 relates to a 3 tier client-server architecture (database layer-application layer-presentation layer) 3-tier architecture: database, application server and client (SAPgui). R/2, which ran on a Mainframe architecture, was the first SAP version.

Other major product offerings include Advanced Planner and Optimizer (APO), Business Information Warehouse (BW), Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Supply Chain Management (SCM), Supplier Relationship Management (SRM), Human Resource Management Systems (HRMS), Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), Exchange Infrastructure (XI), Enterprise Portal (EP) and SAP Knowledge Warehouse (KW).

The APO name has been retired and rolled into SCM. The BW name (Business Warehousing) has now been rolled into the SAP NetWeaver BI (Business Intelligence) suite and functions as the reporting module.

The company also offers a new technology platform, named SAP NetWeaver which replaces SAP Business Connector for Integration/middleware capabilities [8] and offers a systematic approach to Enterprise SOA solutions with a collection of products. While its original products are typically used by Fortune 500 companies, SAP is now also actively targeting small and medium sized enterprises (SME) with its SAP Business One and SAP All-in-One.

SAP officials say there are over 100,600 SAP installations serving more than 41,200 companies in more than 25 industries in more than 120 countries.[9]

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Stem cells show potential to repair lungs in mice

Stem cells show potential to repair lungs in mice

British researchers have successfully implanted lung cells grown from embryonic stem cells into the lungs of mice in a move that may one day provide treatments for humans with severe breathing problems.

Until now, stem cells have been seen as a promising avenue for conditions like diabetes and Parkinson's disease, but respiratory ailments have not featured because of the highly complex nature of lung tissue.

Sile Lane of Imperial College, London, said the new research was a significant advance, although it would be many years before the technology was ready for testing on people.

"Our study shows that embryonic stem cells really do have the capacity to recolonize damaged lungs," she said.

Lane told the European Respiratory Society annual congress in Stockholm that cells injected into the tail veins of mice successfully migrated to the lungs within two days, with no sign of spread to other organs.

If a similar technique works using human embryonic stem cells, it might eventually offer an alternative to difficult and costly lung transplants, as well as helping patients with serious lung damage caused by disease or accident.

Scientists will not be rushing into the clinic, however.

"Stem cells are controversial and they haven't yet been proved safe, so we don't yet know what might happen if we put them into people," Lane said in a telephone interview

"And lung tissue is complicated architecturally and cellularly. We're going to need all kinds of scaffolds to replicate the 3-D structure."

Stem cells are the body's master cell, acting as a source for the various cells and tissues in the body. Those taken from days-old embryos, called embryonic stem cells, are the most malleable and can produce all of the cell types.

Their use is controversial because some people oppose the destruction of a human embryo. Because they are so immature, it is also difficult to control what kinds of cells they produce, leading to fears they might cause serious damage or cancer.

Lane said it was possible that stem cells could have an important role to play in lung disease even if they were not implanted into the body.

One option would be to incorporate them into gas exchangers, machines which oxygenate the blood outside the body while patients are awaiting surgery, she said.


Stem Cells Show Potential for Treatment of Some Lung Diseases

Stem Cells Show Potential for Treatment of Some Lung Diseases

Researchers in Korea have transplanted mesenchymal stem cells from umbilical cord blood into the respiratory system of animals whose lungs were damaged. They found that the cells started to repair part of the damaged lungs. They were assimilated into the organ and differentiated into lung tissue. The story is reported in the Korea Times. No significant further details, and one of the researchers "cautioned that it was too early to say whether the animal tests are conclusive or if human tests would have the same results."

This is obviously promising, but still a long way from human therapies. I presume that some kinds of lung injury/disease would be more amenable to this kind of treatment than others.

Skin Cells Difficult to Grow from Embryonic Stem Cells

Skin Cells Difficult to Grow from Embryonic Stem Cells

According to an article in Scientific American, researchers at Harvard have had several struggles in attempts to get embryonic stem cells to differentiate into skin cells (keratinocytes) in culture. Most cells did not differentiate, and those that did grew poorly. When the researchers added genetic material from the human papillomavirus (the virus responsible for cervical cancer), the stem cells grew well but still did not differentiate in the way that normal skin cells do.

The article suggests that embryonic stem cell research is still highly challenging. After having read some of the other recent studies that have come out, though, I find myself curious about the culture mediums that were used and what the application of the right growth factors would do. It's starting to seem like a lot of factors influence stem cell differentiation, and a failure in one place does not mean a failure in all. The only way to find out will be to keep trying.

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Apple to nearly double iPhone production: report

Apple to nearly double iPhone production: report

Apple Inc (AAPL.O: Quote, Profile, Research) has prepared plans to nearly double its iPhone production in the fourth quarter, financial news Web site reported, citing people familiar with the company.

The plan calls for making 2.7 million iPhones next quarter, up from the 1.54 million originally targeted, the report said. Apple's plans now call for 4.8 million iPhones to be produced this year, up from the 3.6 million previously targeted, the report said.

Earlier this month, Apple said it sold its one-millionth iPhone a few weeks ahead of schedule.

Apple officials were not immediately


Apple's IPhone Sells for Double Costs, ISuppli Says (Update5)

July 3 (Bloomberg) -- Apple Inc. sells the new iPhone at more than double production costs, suggesting the new handset may be more profitable than rivals from Motorola Inc. and Nokia Oyj. The shares rose the most in six months to a record.

The most-expensive $599 model has component and manufacturing costs of $265.83, which translates into margins of more than 55 percent, according to iSuppli Corp. The research firm tore open an iPhone to identify the components in the device. Jill Tan, a spokeswoman for Apple in Hong Kong, declined to comment on the iSuppli report.

The iPhone sold out at most stores less than a week after its debut in a market led by Nokia and Motorola, the two largest handset makers. The $599 version, which costs three times as much as Motorola's Q did upon its debut, may have helped the device earn as much as $186.1 million in its opening weekend, based on estimates from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and iSuppli.

``It had a very good start,'' said Bill Choi, an analyst with Jefferies & Co. in New York. ``They're selling it for a lot of money. On a gross margin basis, it is very profitable.''

Shares of Cupertino, California-based Apple rose $5.91, or 4.9 percent, to $127.17 at 1 p.m. New York time in Nasdaq Stock Market trading. They have jumped 50 percent this year. U.S. stock markets ended trading at 1 p.m. New York time today, and are closed tomorrow for the Independence Day holiday.

While the 55 percent figure is higher than the gross margin of some of Apple's competitors, that alone doesn't determine how profitable a product is, Choi said. Companies also have costs from marketing and research and development, and Apple still needs to sell a ``critical mass'' of iPhones to cover development costs, he said.

Margin Comparisons

Goldman Sachs said shoppers bought as many as 700,000 iPhones in the weekend after the June 29 debut in the U.S., double the brokerage's earlier projections. Piper Jaffray & Co.'s Gene Munster pegged sales at about 500,000, more than twice his original 200,000 estimate.

Research In Motion Ltd., maker of the BlackBerry, reported a gross margin of 51.8 percent in the most recent quarter. Palm Inc., maker of the Treo, had a gross margin of 38.2 percent. Motorola's mobile phones have a gross margin of less than 30 percent, Choi said.

``The margins for the iPhone are much higher than the typical handset that we've been looking at,'' iSuppli analyst Eric Pratt said in an interview today.

Apple ran out of iPhones, a combination iPod and mobile phone that offers Web and e-mail, at more than half its 164 stores yesterday. AT&T Inc., which is offering wireless service for the device, sold out of the phone in almost all its 1,800 stores, with ``just a handful'' of locations keeping the handset in stock, spokesman Mark Siegel said in an interview today.

Big Winner

ISuppli's estimate excludes costs for logistics and royalties, the El Segundo, California-based researcher said. That differs from gross margin, which is the percentage of sales minus production costs such as labor.

South Korea's Samsung Electronics Co. is the biggest supplier, accounting for 30.5 percent of component costs, by making the memory chips and processors, according to iSuppli. Infineon Technologies AG, Wolfson Microelectronics Plc, Balda AG and National Semiconductor Corp. also make parts, iSuppli said.

Apple will probably sell 4.5 million iPhones this year and more than 30 million units by 2011, according to iSuppli. Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs said in January that the company will sell 10 million iPhones in 2008, capturing 1 percent of total handset sales worldwide.

By comparison, Nokia, the world's largest mobile-phone maker, said in April it shipped 91.1 million units in the first quarter.

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Brain's messengers could be regulated, MIT researchers find

Potential for better understanding of schizophreniaResearchers at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory have found that tiny, spontaneous releases of the brain's primary chemical messengers can be regulated, potentially giving scientists unprecedented control over how the brain is wired.

The work, reported in the Sept. 16 early online edition of Nature Neuroscience, could lead to a better understanding of neurological diseases like schizophrenia.

Sputtering electrical activity--like a firecracker's leftover sparks after a big bang--was long considered inconsequential background noise compared with the main cell-to-cell interactions underlying thought and memory.

But lead author J. Troy Littleton, Fred and Carole Middleton Associate Professor of Biology at MIT, and colleagues found that the miniscule events that follow a burst of electrical and chemical activity among neurons are far more important that previously thought. A breakdown in this molecular mechanism could be the culprit in schizophrenia and other neurological diseases, the authors reported.

Neurons communicate with one another through chemical junctions called synapses. Key to the system are complexins. These small proteins play a role in the release of the brain's chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters, during synaptic cell-to-cell signaling.

To figure out exactly how complexins work, Littleton created the first genetically engineered mutant--in this case, a fruit fly--that produces no complexins at all.

There are two sides to synaptic transmission--pre-synaptic and post-synaptic. When an electrical nerve impulse zaps the pre-synaptic side, it triggers lightning-fast events that release neurotransmitters. This activates the post-synaptic cell. Mission accomplished: The foundation of a memory is formed.

The neurotransmitters are like racehorses. They champ at the bit until they get the signal to dash toward the finish line. On the pre-synaptic side, small compartments, or vesicles, containing neurotransmitters are the starting block, and complexins are the gatekeepers that prevent the neurotransmitters from releasing prematurely.

After a big burst of electrical activity sends out a flood of neurotransmitters, a few vesicles still produce some neurotransmitter. The MIT work explains the molecular machinery behind these "minis," which can occur for a few minutes after the big event. Without complexin as a gatekeeper, minis occur unchecked, leading to massive rewiring and synaptic growth.

"This spontaneous release in the brain is not only important for signaling, it can trigger synaptic growth," Littleton said. "What's really exciting is that complexin's activity may be regulated. If we can regulate this machinery, we may be able to promote synaptic growth and potentially allow targeted rewiring in areas of the brain affected in various neurological diseases."

Littleton also holds an appointment in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

Biology graduate student Sarah N. Huntwork coauthored the Nature Neuroscience paper.

This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the Packard Foundation for Science and Engineering.

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