Artificial intelligence identifies the musical progression of the Beatles

July 25, 2014

Music fans and critics know that the music of the Beatles underwent a dramatic transformation in just a few years, but until now there hasn’t been a scientific way to measure the progression. That could change now that computer scientists at Lawrence Technological University have developed an artificial intelligence algorithm that can analyze and compare musical styles, enabling research into the musical progression of the Beatles.

Assistant Professor Lior Shamir and graduate student Joe George had previously developed audio analysis technology to study the vocal communication of whales, and they expanded the algorithm to analyze the albums of the Beatles and other well-known bands such as Queen, U2, ABBA and Tears for Fears. The study, published in the August issue of the journal Pattern Recognition Letters, demonstrates scientifically that the structure of the Beatles music changes progressively from one album to the next.

The algorithm works by first converting each song to a spectrogram – a visual representation of the audio content. That turns an audio analysis task into an image analysis problem, which is solved by applying comprehensive algorithms that turn each music spectrogram into a set of almost 3,000 numeric descriptors reflecting visual aspects such as textures, shapes and the statistical distribution of the pixels. Pattern recognition and statistical methods are then used to detect and quantify the similarities between different pieces of music.

In popular music, albums are widely considered milestones in the stylistic development of music artists, and these collections of songs provide a convenient unit for establishing measurements to quantify a band’s progression.

LTU’s study analyzed 11 songs from each of the 13 Beatles studio albums released in Great Britain, and quantified the similarities between each song and all the others in the study. The results for the individual songs were then used to compare the similarities between the albums.

The automatic placement of the albums by the algorithm was in agreement with the chronological order of the recording of each album, starting with the Beatles’ first album, “Please, Please Me,” and followed by the subsequent early albums, “With the Beatles,” “Beatles for Sale” and “A Hard Day’s Night.”

The automatic association of these albums demonstrated that the computer algorithm determined that the songs on the first album, “Please, Please Me,” were most like the group of songs on the second album, “With the Beatles,” and least like the songs on the last album recorded, “Abbey Road.”

The algorithm then placed the albums “Help!,” and “Rubber Soul,” followed by “Revolver,” “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Magical Mystery Tour,” “Yellow Submarine,” and “The Beatles” (The White Album).

“Let It Be” was the last album released by the Beatles, but the algorithm correctly identified those songs as having been recorded earlier than the songs on “Abbey Road.”

“People who are not Beatles fans normally can’t tell that ‘Help!’ was recorded before ‘Rubber Soul,’ but the algorithm can,” Shamir said. “This experiment demonstrates that artificial intelligence can identify the changes and progression in musical styles by ‘listening’ to popular music albums in a completely new way.”

The computer algorithm was able to deduce the chronological order of the albums of the other groups in the study by analyzing the audio data alone – with one notable exception. Strong similarities were identified between two Tears for Fears albums released 15 years apart. That makes sense because “Seeds of Love,” released in 1989, was the last album before the band’s breakup, and “Everybody Loves a Happy Ending,” released in 2004, was recorded after the band reunited. Those two albums had less in common with two solo albums released by Roland Orzabal, the group’s principal songwriter, after the band split up in 1991.

In the case of “Queen,” the computer not only sorted the albums by their chronological order, but also distinguished between albums before and after the album “Hot Space,” which represented a major shift in Queen’s musical style.

In this era of big data, such algorithms can assist in searching, browsing, and organizing large music databases, as well as identifying music that matches an individual listener’s musical preferences.

In the case of the Beatles, Shamir believes this type of research will have historical significance. “The baby boomers loved the music of the Beatles, I love the Beatles, and now my daughters and their friends love the Beatles. Their music will live on for a very long time,” Shamir said. “It is worthwhile to study what makes their music so distinctive, and computer science and big data can help.”

lshamir@ltu.edu
248-204-3512
Lawrence Technological University

Real-life CSI: What can investigators really tell from gunshot residue?

March 26, 2014

The popular TV series “CSI” is fiction, but every day, real-life investigators and forensic scientists collect and analyze evidence to determine what happened at crime scenes. In a study published in the ACS journal Analytical Chemistry, scientists say they have developed a more rapid and accurate method that could allow crime scene investigators to tell what kind of ammunition was shot from a gun based on the residue it left behind.

Igor K. Lednev and Justin Bueno point out that when someone fires a gun, burnt particles from the bullet spray out of the weapon onto a shooter’s hand, clothes, furniture and other surfaces nearby. The presence or absence of that residue says whether a gun was discharged and – based on its location on clothing and other surfaces – who and what was near the weapon when it was fired. But current analysis methods can only re-create a crime scene story in hazy detail. The most widely used technique today specializes in detecting the heavy metals that some ammunition contains. Newer bullets, however, aren’t necessarily made with heavy metals, making analyses much more difficult. Also, existing methods require expensive equipment and a lot of time, luxuries law enforcement can’t afford. To bring real-life CSI closer to what’s hyped on TV, Lednev’s team set out to find a new way to trace the ammunition used in a crime.

They developed a novel approach to improve gunshot residue “fingerprinting” that can rapidly detect a wider range of particles than existing methods. “Therefore the ability to detect these chemicals may indicate that a specific ammunition brand was discharged (or was not) during a shooting incident,” the researchers state, adding that their work could also have applications in the fields of homeland security and counter-terrorism.

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The American Chemical Society is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. With more than 161,000 members, ACS is the world’s largest scientific society and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

m_bernstein@acs.org

202-872-6042
American Chemical Society

Gun use in PG-13 movies has more than tripled since 1985

November 11, 2013

The amount of gun violence shown in PG-13 films has more than tripled since 1985, the year the rating was introduced.

In fact, the most popular PG-13 movies of 2011 and 2012 showed significantly more gun violence than R-rated movies of the same time period, a new study reveals.

“It’s shocking how gun use has skyrocketed in movies that are often marketed directly at the teen audience,” said Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University.

“You have to wonder why we are seeing this surge in gun violence in PG-13 movies, when it isn’t appearing in G, PG and R-rated films.”

Bushman conducted the research with Patrick Jamieson, Ilana Weitz and Daniel Romer of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. The study was published online Nov. 11, 2013, in the journal Pediatrics.

Bushman said the results are concerning because other research has revealed the presence of a “weapons effect”: People who simply see a gun, or even a picture of a gun, are more aggressive toward others.

“Based on what researchers have found, it is not good for teens to be viewing this much gun violence in films,” he said.

PG movies suggest that “some material may not be suitable for children,” according to the Motion Picture Association of America, which creates the ratings. PG-13 movies carry a sterner warning: “Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.” The MPAA says a PG-13 movie “may go beyond the PG rating” in violence “but does not reach the restricted R cateogry.”

PG-13 movies are also the most popular among viewers – 13 of the top 25 films in release during 2012 carried that rating, including seven of the top 10, according to the MPAA.

“By the standards of the MPAA, PG-13 movies shouldn’t have as much violence as R-rated movies, but they clearly do. It appears sex scenes are more likely to result in an R rating than scenes of violence,” Bushman said.

The researchers studied a database of 915 films that were drawn from the 30 top-grossing films for each year from 1950 to 2012. Researchers identified violent sequences performed by each character for each five-minute segment of the films.

They also noted whether each violent sequence since 1985 (the first full year after the PG-13 rating was introduced) included the use of a gun.

Overall, findings showed that the rate of violent sequences nearly quadrupled from 1950 to 2010. Since 1985, 94 percent of the movies studied (367 in total) had one or more five-minute segments that included violence. Overall, the films contained 700 segments with gun violence.

Findings showed that R-rated films averaged about 1.54 segments per hour featuring gun violence, and that number didn’t fluctuate much from 1985 to 2010. Movies rated G and PG averaged 0.41 segments of gun violence per hour, which also hasn’t changed since 1985.

The story is much different for films rated PG-13, Bushman said. In 1985, PG-13 movies essentially didn’t have any scenes of gun violence, but the number rose steadily until about 2005, when it began escalating even faster.

By 2010, PG-13 films averaged as many sequences featuring gun violence per hour as R-rated films. In 2011 and 2012, PG-13 movies actually had more gun violence than R-rated movies.

“The trend of increasing gun violence in PG-13 movies is disturbing because of what we know about the weapons effect and because those are the films kids are most attracted to,” Bushman said.

The weapons effect was first shown in 1967, in a study by psychologists that showed participants who were provoked until angry acted more aggressively toward others when there was a gun on a table in front of them.

Since then, more than 50 other studies have replicated the weapons effect, even among people who weren’t angry.

“Seeing these violent gun scenes in movies may be strengthening the weapons effect among young people,” Bushman said.

“In addition, these movies essentially provide young people scripts for how to use guns in real life, as we have seen in copycat killings. It is a bad situation.”

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Data from the study were collected as part of The Coding of Media and Health Project at the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Funding for this study came from the APPC and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Contact: Brad Bushman, (614) 688-8779; Bushman.20@osu.edu

Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu

Ohio State University

 

Well-connected hemispheres of Einstein’s brain may have sparked his brilliance

October 5, 2013

The left and right hemispheres of Albert Einstein’s brain were unusually well connected to each other and may have contributed to his brilliance, according to a new study conducted in part by Florida State University evolutionary anthropologist Dean Falk.

“This study, more than any other to date, really gets at the ‘inside’ of Einstein’s brain,” Falk said. “It provides new information that helps make sense of what is known about the surface of Einstein’s brain.”

The study, “The Corpus Callosum of Albert Einstein’s Brain: Another Clue to His High Intelligence,” was published in the journal Brain. Lead author Weiwei Men of East China Normal University’s Department of Physics developed a new technique to conduct the study, which is the first to detail Einstein’s corpus callosum, the brain’s largest bundle of fibers that connects the two cerebral hemispheres and facilitates interhemispheric communication.

“This technique should be of interest to other researchers who study the brain’s all-important internal connectivity,” Falk said.

Men’s technique measures and color-codes the varying thicknesses of subdivisions of the corpus callosum along its length, where nerves cross from one side of the brain to the other. These thicknesses indicate the number of nerves that cross and therefore how “connected” the two sides of the brain are in particular regions, which facilitate different functions depending on where the fibers cross along the length. For example, movement of the hands is represented toward the front and mental arithmetic along the back.

In particular, this new technique permitted registration and comparison of Einstein’s measurements with those of two samples – one of 15 elderly men and one of 52 men Einstein’s age in 1905. During his so-called “miracle year” at 26 years old, Einstein published four articles that contributed substantially to the foundation of modern physics and changed the world’s views about space, time, mass and energy.

The research team’s findings show that Einstein had more extensive connections between certain parts of his cerebral hemispheres compared to both younger and older control groups.

The research of Einstein’s corpus callosum was initiated by Men, who requested the high-resolution photographs that Falk and other researchers published in 2012 of the inside surfaces of the two halves of Einstein’s brain. In addition to Men, the current research team included Falk, who served as second author; Tao Sun of the Washington University School of Medicine; and, from East China Normal University’s Department of Physics, Weibo Chen, Jianqi Li, Dazhi Yin, Lili Zang and Mingxia Fan.

Contact: Dean Falk
dfalk@fsu.edu
850-339-4455
Florida State University

Niacin, the fountain of youth

September 30, 2013

Who would not want to live a long and healthy life? A freely available food supplement could help in this respect, scientists from ETH Zurich have demonstrated in roundworms. Vitamin B3 – also known as niacin – and its metabolite nicotinamide in the worms’ diet caused them to live for about one tenth longer than usual.

As an international team of researchers headed by Michael Ristow, a professor of energy metabolism, has now experimentally demonstrated, niacin and nicotinamide take effect by promoting formation of so-called free radicals. “In roundworms, these reactive oxygen species prolong life,” says Ristow.

“No scientific evidence for usefulness of antioxidants”

This might seem surprising as reactive oxygen species are generally considered to be unhealthy. Ristow’s view also contradicts the textbook opinion championed by many other scientists. Reactive oxygen species are known to damage somatic cells, a condition referred to as oxidative stress. Particular substances, so-called antioxidants, which are also found in fruit, vegetables and certain vegetable oils, are capable of neutralising these free radicals. Many scientists believe that antioxidants are beneficial to health.

“The claim that intake of antioxidants, especially in tablet form, promotes any aspect of human health lacks scientific support,” says Ristow. He does not dispute that fruit and vegetables are healthy. However, this may rather be caused by other compounds contained therein, such as so-called polyphenols. “Fruit and vegetables are healthy, despite the fact that they contain antioxidants,” says the ETH-Zurich professor. Based on the current and many previous findings he is convinced that small amounts of reactive oxygen species and the oxidative stress they trigger have a health-promoting impact. “Cells can cope well with oxidative stress and neutralise it,” says Ristow.

Substance mimics endurance sport

In earlier studies on humans, Ristow demonstrated that the health-enhancing effect of endurance sports is mediated via an increased formation of reactive oxygen species – and that antioxidants abolish this effect. Based on the present study, he concludes that niacin brings about a similar metabolic condition to exercise. “Niacin tricks the body into believing that it is exercising – even when this is not the case,” says Ristow. Such compounds are known as “exercise mimetics”.

The researchers conducted their experiments on the model organism Caenorhabditis elegans. This worm, which is merely one millimetre in length, can be easily maintained and has a lifespan of only a month, making it the ideal model organism for ageing research.

Also relevant for humans

The results of the study may also be of relevance for humans, says Ristow. After all, the metabolic pathway initiated by niacin is very similar in roundworms and higher organisms. Whether niacin has similar effects on the life expectancy of mice is the subject of Ristow’s current research. Previous studies also suggest a health-enhancing effect of niacin in humans with elevated blood cholesterol levels.

Niacin and nicotinamide have been approved as dietary supplements for decades. Ristow could easily envisage the substances being used broadly for therapeutic purposes in the future. A whole series of foods naturally contain niacin, including meat, liver, fish, peanuts, mushrooms, rice and wheat bran. Whether nutritional uptake is sufficient for a health-enhancing or lifespan-extending effect, however, remains to be demonstrated, says Ristow.

Contact: Michael Ristow
michael-ristow@ethz.ch
41-446-557-446
ETH Zurich

Study finds true fame isn’t fleeting

March 28, 2013

True fame isn’t fleeting. That’s what a team of researchers led by McGill University’s Eran Shor and Stony Brook University’s Arnout van de Rijt conclude in a new study that appears in the April issue of the American Sociological Review.

The researchers studied the names mentioned in English-language newspapers over a period of several decades. What they found was that, contrary to popular belief, the people who become truly famous, stay famous for decades, and that this is the case whatever field they’re in, including sports, politics, and other domains.

This is even true of entertainment, where it might appear that fame is likely to be most ephemeral. For example, in a random sample of 100,000 names that appeared in the entertainment sections of more than 2,000 newspapers between 2004-2009, the 10 names that showed up most frequently were Jamie Foxx, Bill Murray, Natalie Portman, Tommy Lee Jones, Naomi Watts, Howard Hughes, Phil Spector, John Malkovich, Adrien Brody, and Steve Buscemi. All have been celebrated for at least a decade and all are still much talked about today.

The finding that true fame isn’t fleeting goes against most of the scholarly research until now. “There is almost a consensus among scholars in the field of the sociology of fame, that most fame is ephemeral,” said Shor, an assistant professor in McGill’s department of sociology. “What we’ve shown here that is truly revolutionary is that the people who you and I would consider famous, even the Kim Kardashians of this world, stay famous for a long time. It doesn’t come and go.”

Indeed, the annual turnover in the group of famous names is very low. Ninety-six percent of those whose names were mentioned over 100 times in the newspapers in a given year were already in the news at least three years before. The authors point out that this can be explained by the fact that both media and audiences are trapped in a self-reinforcing equilibrium where they must continue to devote attention, airtime, and newspaper space to the same old characters because everyone else does so as well. Talent, resources, or chance events may propel an individual into the spotlight. But, once someone becomes truly famous, they tend to stay that way. Temporary celebrity is highly unusual and is to be found primarily in the bottom tiers of the fame hierarchy, such as when people like whistle blowers become famous for a limited time for participating in particular events.

In general, big names follow career-type patterns of growth, sustenance, and gradual decay over the course of decades. “As with all sociological regularities, our claim is not absolute,” said Van de Rijt, an assistant professor in Stony Brook’s department of sociology. “We can all think of examples of both types, fleeting and long-term fame. Leonard Cohen is still well known today, over 40 years after he first became famous. But, Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who received instant fame after safely landing a disabled plane on the Hudson, is a name that will likely be forgotten pretty quickly. What we have shown is that Leonard Cohen is the rule and Chesley Sullenberger the exception.”

The researchers, who also include Charles Ward, a software engineer at Google, and Steven Skiena, a distinguished teaching professor of computer science at Stony Brook, acknowledge that there is further work to be done with data from blogs, television, and video sharing sites like YouTube to see whether the same patterns hold true there.

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About the American Sociological Association and the American Sociological Review

The American Sociological Association (http://www.asanet.org), founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society. TheAmerican Sociological Review is the ASA’s flagship journal.

The research article described above is available by request for members of the media. For a copy of the full study, contact Daniel Fowler, ASA’s Media Relations and Public Affairs Officer, at (202) 527-7885 or pubinfo@asanet.org.

For more information about the study, members of the media can also contact Katherine Gombay, McGill University, at (514) 398-2189 or katherine.gombay@mcgill.ca.

Scientists advance the art of magic with a study of Penn and Teller’s ‘cups and balls’ illusion

February 12, 2013

Cognitive brain researchers have studied a magic trick filmed in magician duo Penn & Teller’s theater in Las Vegas, to illuminate the neuroscience of illusion. Their results advance our understanding of how observers can be misdirected and will aid magicians as they work to improve their art.

The research team was led by Dr. Stephen Macknik, Director of the Laboratory of Behavioral Neurophysiology at Barrow Neurological Institute, in collaboration with fellow Barrow researchers Hector Rieiro and Dr. Susana Martinez-Conde, Director of the Laboratory of Visual Neuroscience. The study, titled “Perceptual elements in Penn and Teller’s “Cups and Balls” magic trick” was published today, Feb 12th 2013, as part of the launch of PeerJ, a new peer reviewed open access journal in which all articles are freely available to everyone. “Cups and Balls,” a magic illusion in which balls appear and disappear under the cover of cups, is one of the oldest magic tricks in history, with documented descriptions going back to Roman conjurors in 3 B.C. “But we still don’t know how it really works in the brain,” says Macknik, “because this is the first, long overdue, neuroscientific study of the trick.”

The discovery concerns the way magicians manipulate human cognition and perception. The “Cups and Balls” trick has many variations, but the most common one uses three balls and three cups. The magician makes the balls pass through the bottom of cups, jump from cup to cup, disappear from a cup and turn up elsewhere, turn into other objects, and so on. The cups are usually opaque and the balls brightly colored. Penn & Teller’s variant is performed with three opaque and then with three transparent cups. “The transparent cups mean that visual information about the loading of the balls is readily available to the brain, yet still the spectators cannot see how the trick is done!” said Martinez-Conde.

Magicians have performed and systematically developed the art and theory of this illusion for thousands of years, but each new generation of conjurers offers new insights and hypotheses about how and why it works for the audience. Here the scientists turned the power of the scientific method to the illusion. The experiments tracked when and where observers looked during video clips portraying specific element of the performance, filmed by a NOVA scienceNOW TV crew. By quantifying how well observers tracked the loading and unloading of balls with and without transparent cups, the scientists determined that some aspects of the illusion were even more powerful at controlling attention than aspects originally predicted by the magician.

The end result is that cognitive scientists now have an improved understanding of how (and by how much) observers can be misdirected. In addition, this knowledge can help magicians further hone their art.

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This article is being published as part of the launch of PeerJ (a new Open Access journal). There is a separate Press Release for the PeerJ launch, at: http://bit.ly/PeerJPR02052013

Competing Interests Statement (from the article): “Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik are academic editors for PeerJ.”

Funding Statement (from the article): “This work was funded by awards from the Barrow Neurological Foundation to SLM and SM-C, and from the National Science Foundation to SLM and SM-C. HR was a fellow of Fundacion Ibercaja. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. The following grant information was disclosed by the authors: National Science Foundation, 0726113, 0852636, 1153786.”

Ethical Approval (from the article): “The study was approved by Barrow Neurological Institute’s Internal Review Board. Protocol 04BN039.”

Handling Academic Editor (conducted the peer review and approved the publication): David Reser, Department of Physiology, Monash University, Australia.

PeerJ encourages authors to publish the peer reviews, and author rebuttals, for their article. For the purposes of due diligence by the Press, we provide these materials as a PDF at the following link (this link will NOT work after the embargo lifts – after that time the review comments will be accessible via the live article URL noted above): http://bit.ly/RieiroPeerJReview

Citation to the article: Rieiro et al. (2013), Perceptual elements in Penn and Teller’s “Cups and Balls” magic trick. PeerJ 1:e19; DOI 10.7717/peerj.19

About PeerJ

PeerJ is an Open Access publisher of scholarly scientific content, which offers researchers a lifetime membership, for a single low price, giving them the ability to openly publish all future articles for free. The launch of PeerJ occurred on February 12th, 2013 with the publication of 30 articles. PeerJis based in San Francisco, CA and London, UK and can be accessed at https://peerj.com/.

All works published in PeerJ are Open Access and published using a Creative Commons license (CC-BY 3.0). Everything is immediately available – to read, download, redistribute, include in databases and otherwise use – without cost to anyone, anywhere, subject only to the condition that the original authors and source are properly attributed.

PeerJ Media Resources (including logos) can be found at: https://peerj.com/about/press/

About Barrow Neurological Institute

Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, is internationally recognized as a leader in neurological research and patient care and is consistently voted among the top hospitals for neurology and neurosurgery in the United States. Barrow surgeons perform more neurosurgeries annually than any hospital in the nation. Barrow treats patients with a wide range of neurological conditions, including brain and spinal tumors, cerebrovascular conditions, and neuromuscular disorders. Barrow is home of the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center.

Media Contacts:
For the authors:
Stephen Macknik
macknik@neuralcorrelate.com
+1.602.406.8091

For PeerJ:
Peter Binfield
press@peerj.com
+1 415 413 4596 (PST)

Abstract (from the article):

Magic illusions provide the perceptual and cognitive scientist with a toolbox of experimental manipulations and testable hypotheses about the building blocks of conscious experience. Here we studied several sleight-of-hand manipulations in the performance of the classic “Cups and Balls” magic trick (where balls appear and disappear inside upside-down opaque cups).We examined a version inspired by the entertainment duo Penn & Teller, conducted with three opaque and subsequently with three transparent cups. Magician Teller used his right hand to load (i.e. introduce surreptitiously) a small ball inside each of two upside-down cups, one at a time, while using his left hand to remove a different ball from the upside-down bottom of the cup. The sleight at the third cup involved one of six manipulations: (a) standard maneuver, (b) standard maneuver without a third ball, (c) ball placed on the table, (d) ball lifted, (e) ball dropped to the floor, and (f) ball stuck to the cup. Seven subjects watched the videos of the performances while reporting, via button press, whenever balls were removed from the cups/table (button “1″) or placed inside the cups/on the table (button “2″). Subjects’ perception was more accurate with transparent than with opaque cups. Perceptual performance was worse for the conditions where the ball was placed on the table, or stuck to the cup, than for the standard maneuver. The condition in which the ball was lifted displaced the subjects’ gaze position the most, whereas the condition in which there was no ball caused the smallest gaze displacement. Training improved the subjects’ perceptual performance. Occlusion of the magician’s face did not affect the subjects’ perception, suggesting that gaze misdirection does not play a strong role in the Cups and Balls illusion. Our results have implications for how to optimize the performance of this classic magic trick, and for the types of hand and object motion that maximize magic misdirection.

Discovery in synthetic biology takes us a step closer to new ‘industrial revolution’

February 1, 2013

The scientists, from Imperial College London, say their research brings them another step closer to a new kind of industrial revolution, where parts for these biological factories could be mass-produced. These factories have a wealth of applications including better drug delivery treatments for patients, enhancements in the way that minerals are mined from deep underground and advances in the production of biofuels.

Professor Paul Freemont, Co- Director of the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial College London and principle co-investigator of the study, which is published today in the journal Nucleic Acids Research, says:

“Before the industrial revolution most items were made by hand, which meant that they were slower to manufacture, more expensive to produce and limited in number. We are at a similar juncture in synthetic biology, having to test and build each part from scratch, which is a long and slow process. We demonstrate in our study a new method that could help to rapidly scale up the production and testing of biological parts.”

Parts made up of DNA are re-engineered by scientists and put into cells to make biological factories. However, a major bottleneck in synthetic biology is the lack of parts from which to build new types of factories. To build parts using the current time-consuming method, scientists have to re-engineer DNA in a cell and observe how it works. If it functions according to their specifications, then the scientists store the part specifications in a catalogue.

Now, scientists from Imperial College London have devised a much quicker method that does away with the need for them to re-engineer a cell every time they want to make a new part. The team say their work could lead to vast new libraries of off-the-shelf components that could be used to build more sophisticated biological factories.

James Chappell, co-author of the study from the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial College London, says:

“One of the major goals in synthetic biology is to find a way to industrialise our processes so that we can mass produce these biological factories much in the same way that industries such as car manufacturers mass produce vehicles in a factory line. This could unlock the potential of this field of science and enable us to develop much more sophisticated devices that could be used to improve many facets of society. Excitingly, our research takes us one step closer to this reality, providing a rapid way of developing new parts.”

When a cell is re-engineered, the re-programmed DNA in the cell encodes a message that is conveyed by molecules called messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) to the cell’s production factories called ribosomes. The ribosomes translate the genetic information into a command that instructs the cell to perform functions. For example, scientists can already re-engineer a cell into an infection detector factory, which produces a protein that detects chemical signals from human pathogenic bacteria and changes colour to indicate their presence.

In the study, the Imperial researchers demonstrate for the first time that the same method can be achieved in a test tube outside of a cell. This involves extracting from cells the machinery that produces mRNA and proteins and providing the energy and building blocks to help them survive in test tubes. The team then add their re-programmed DNA to the solution and observe how it functions.

The advantage of this method is that scientists can develop litres of this cell-like environment so that multiple re-programmed DNA can be tested simultaneously, which speeds up the production process of parts.

The next stage of the research is to expand the types of parts and devices that can be developed using this method. They also are aiming to develop a method using robots to speed up and make the whole process automated. Professor Richard Kitney, co- Director of the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial College London says: “Synthetic biology is seen by the British Government as having the potential to create new industries and jobs for the benefit of the UK economy. This work is part of a wider, major research programme within the Centre to develop technology that can be used across a range of industrial applications.”

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For further information please contact:

Colin Smith
Senior Research Media Officer
Imperial College London
Out of hours duty press officer: 44-0-7803-886-248

Notes to editors:

1. “Validation of an entirely in vitro approach for rapid prototyping of DNA regulatory elements for synthetic biology” Nucleic Acids Research journal, published online Thursday 31 January 2013 James Chappell [1], Kirsten Jensen [1] and Paul S. Freemont [1]
[1] Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation, Division of Molecular Bioscience, Imperial College London, South Kensington Campus, London, SW7 2AZ, UK

A copy of the paper at manuscript stage:https://fileexchange.imperial.ac.uk/files/5ee2d5bf026/NAR%20MS.pdf

2. About Imperial College London

Consistently rated amongst the world’s best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 14,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality. Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment – underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.

Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial’s contributions to society have included the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics. This commitment to the application of research for the benefit of all continues today, with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to improve global health, tackle climate change, develop sustainable sources of energy and address security challenges.

In 2007, Imperial College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust formed the UK’s first Academic Health Science Centre. This unique partnership aims to improve the quality of life of patients and populations by taking new discoveries and translating them into new therapies as quickly as possible.

Contact: Colin Smith
cd.smith@imperial.ac.uk
44-020-759-46712
Imperial College London

Moving pictures: Optical entertainments and the advent of cinema

December 14, 2012

Primary sources publisher, Adam Matthew, has announced the release of the fourth section of its highly renowned Victorian Popular Culture Portal. “Moving Pictures, Optical Entertainments and the Advent of Cinema” explores the cultural history of optical entertainments from the late 18th century to the early 20th century, bringing to life the rich cultural and scientific history from which cinema was born.

From shadow puppets to dioramas, and from zoetropes to Hollywood, the long and varied evolution of visual entertainments is represented through objects, ephemera and printed works. This new digital collection also features remarkable video clips of original footage from the renowned BFI National Archive as well as 360-degree object views, image gallery, and an exhibition that features demonstrations of optical delights.

Subjects covered include:

  • Optical Illusions, including kaleidoscopes, metamorphic images and anamorphosis.
  • Panoramas and Dioramas, with programs, souvenirs, toy panoramas and protean views.
  • Magic Lantern Shows and Lectures, including projectors, slides, handbills and posters for performances, and lecture notes.
  • Moving Picture toys and techniques, such as the phenakistoscope, the zoetrope, flick books, and the work of early pioneers such as Eadweard Muybridge.
  • Peep Shows and Stereoscopes, including material on street entertainers and Raree Shows, peep eggs, parlour entertainments, and telescopic views.
  • Early Cinema, covering pioneers such as Edison and the Lumieré Brothers; early presentations in fairgrounds and music halls; the establishment of picturehouses and the emergence of film industries in Hollywood, Britain and Europe; the early stars of the ‘silver screen’, and the studios that made them.

All printed material is full-text searchable and visual or manuscript material has been keyword indexed.

Other Victorian Popular Culture sections:

  • Spiritualism, Sensation and Magic
  • Circuses, Sideshows and Freaks
  • Music Hall, Theatre and Popular Entertainment
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Further information and access to a free trial can be found here. For all pricing details please contact Adam Matthew.

Adam Matthew is an award winning publisher of digital primary source collections for the humanities and social sciences. Sourced from leading libraries and archives around the world, their unique research and teaching collections cover a wide range of subject areas from medieval family life to 20th century history, literature and culture.

Contact: Jonathan Mansfield
jon@amdigital.co.uk
44-016-725-18308
SAGE Publications

Asteroid belts of just the right size are friendly to life

November 2, 2012

Solar systems with life-bearing planets may be rare if they are dependent on the presence of asteroid belts of just the right mass, according to a study by Rebecca Martin, a NASA Sagan Fellow from the University of Colorado in Boulder, and astronomer Mario Livio of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md.

They suggest that the size and location of an asteroid belt, shaped by the evolution of the sun’s protoplanetary disk and by the gravitational influence of a nearby giant Jupiter-like planet, may determine whether complex life will evolve on an Earth-like planet.

This might sound surprising because asteroids are considered a nuisance due to their potential to impact Earth and trigger mass extinctions. But an emerging view proposes that asteroid collisions with planets may provide a boost to the birth and evolution of complex life.

Asteroids may have delivered water and organic compounds to the early Earth. According to the theory of punctuated equilibrium, occasional asteroid impacts might accelerate the rate of biological evolution by disrupting a planet’s environment to the point where species must try new adaptation strategies.

The astronomers based their conclusion on an analysis of theoretical models and archival observations of extrasolar Jupiter-sized planets and debris disks around young stars. “Our study shows that only a tiny fraction of planetary systems observed to date seem to have giant planets in the right location to produce an asteroid belt of the appropriate size, offering the potential for life on a nearby rocky planet,” said Martin, the study’s lead author. “Our study suggests that our solar system may be rather special.”

The findings will appear today in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Martin and Livio suggest that the location of an asteroid belt relative to a Jupiter-like planet is not an accident. The asteroid belt in our solar system, located between Mars and Jupiter, is a region of millions of space rocks that sits near the “snow line,” which marks the border of a cold region where volatile material such as water ice are far enough from the sun to remain intact. At the time when the giant planets in our solar system were forming, the region just beyond the snow line contained a dense mix of ices, rock and metals that provided enough material to build giant planets like Jupiter.

When Jupiter formed just beyond the snow line, its powerful gravity prevented nearby material inside its orbit from coalescing and building planets. Instead, Jupiter’s influence caused the material to collide and break apart. These fragmented rocks settled into an asteroid belt around the sun.

“To have such ideal conditions you need a giant planet like Jupiter that is just outside the asteroid belt [and] that migrated a little bit, but not through the belt,” Livio explained. “If a large planet like Jupiter migrates through the belt, it would scatter the material. If, on the other hand, a large planet did not migrate at all, that, too, is not good because the asteroid belt would be too massive. There would be so much bombardment from asteroids that life may never evolve.”

In fact, during the solar system’s infancy, the asteroid belt probably had enough material to make another Earth, but Jupiter’s presence and its small migration towards the sun caused some of the material to scatter. Today, the asteroid belt contains less than one percent of its original mass. Using our solar system as a model, Martin and Livio proposed that asteroid belts in other solar systems would always be located approximately at the snow line. To test their proposal, Martin and Livio created models of protoplanetary disks around young stars and calculated the location of the snow line in those disks based on the mass of the central star.

They then looked at all the existing space-based infrared observations from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope of 90 stars having warm dust, which could indicate the presence of an asteroid belt-like structure. The temperature of the warm dust was consistent with that of the snow line. “The warm dust falls right onto our calculated snow lines, so the observations are consistent with our predictions,” Martin said.

The duo then studied observations of the 520 giant planets found outside our solar system. Only 19 of them reside outside the snow line, suggesting that most of the giant planets that may have formed outside the snow line have migrated too far inward to preserve the kind of slightly-dispersed asteroid belt needed to foster enhanced evolution of life on an Earth-like planet near the belt. Apparently, less than four percent of the observed systems may actually harbor such a compact asteroid belt.

“Based on our scenario, we should concentrate our efforts to look for complex life in systems that have a giant planet outside of the snow line,” Livio said.

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The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md., conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington, D.C.

Contact: Lynn Chandler
lynn.chandler-1@nasa.gov
301-286-2806
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

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