Scientists find darknet drug markets have little influence on global trafficking

The darknet, cyberspace’s filthy flea-market for forbidden goods, isn’t the global drug network it’s been made out to be. According to Oxford’s new darknet drug map it’s more like your local pusher’s Etsy page than Amazon’s marketplace. The researchers used darknet web crawlers to scrape the marketplaces of several top underground markets including Alphabay, Hansa, Traderoute, and Valhalla. Data gleaned from the search was then organized geographically to provide insights into what effect darknet markets have on the global illicit drug-trade. According to their white paper, the team tracked and classified data pertaining to nearly 1.5 million trades occurring on…

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Scientists Coax Human Stem Cells Into Becoming Touch Neurons

Sense of Touch

Sensory interneurons, the cells that give us our sense of touch, allow us to experience the world through tactile experiences that can become lost to us in the case of paralysis. This unique sense not only shapes our life experiences but helps keep us safe. It’s what allows us to perceive the potential danger of something like a hot stove or a sharp edge. A new study exploring these cells hopes to find a way to restore sensation to those suffering from paralysis. The study from UCLA, published in the journal Stem Cell Reports, resulted in a remarkable first: researchers successfully coaxed human stem cells to become sensory interneurons.

Led by Samantha Butler, a UCLA associate professor of neurobiology who is also a part of the Broad Stem Cell Research Center, the study built on previous work published by Butler and her colleagues in September. In the previous study, Butler and her team explored how certain proteins contribute to the development of sensory interneurons in chicken embryos. Their latest research took the principles and information gleaned from the previous study and applied them to human stem cells.

The team added proteins, which establish the structure bone with a signaling molecule, to human embryonic stem cells. This mixture created two separate types of sensory interneurons: dI1 sensory interneurons, which help us determine where our body is in relation to what’s around us in our environment and dI3 sensory interneurons, which give us the ability to feel pressure.

Human embryonic stem cell-derived neurons (green) showing nuclei in blue. Each side shows a different mixture to try to create sensory interneurons. Image Credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center/Stem Cell Reports
Human embryonic stem cell-derived neurons (green) showing nuclei in blue. Each side shows a different mixture to try to create sensory interneurons. Image Credit: UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center/Stem Cell Reports

Restoring Feeling

The team also found that they could create the same sensory interneurons mixture by adding signaling molecules to induced pluripotent stem cells. Induced pluripotent stem cells are created from the patient’s own cells, which are then “reprogrammed. This could give researchers the ability to better explore restorative treatments that work with the patients’ body and reduce or eliminate the potential for rejection.

While this area of research is often focused on helping paralyzed patients walk again, Butler’s team is interested in restoring the broader experience of touch. In a press release from the UCLA Newsroom, she said “The field has for a long time focused on making people walk again. Making people feel again doesn’t have quite the same ring. But to walk, you need to be able to feel and to sense your body in space; the two processes really go hand in glove.”

That said, the team does hope their research could prove helpful in developing restorative therapies for patients with paralysis. As Butler put it, “This is a long path. We haven’t solved how to restore touch but we’ve made a major first step by working out some of these protocols to create sensory interneurons.”

While the research marks a major first, there is still a lot of additional research to be done. Butler and her team hope that additional studies will help them exactify mixtures that would allow them to coax stem cells into a variety of different sensory interneurons.

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Scientists Grow First-Ever Working Human Muscle From Stem Cells

Working Muscle

In a world first, biomedical engineers from Duke University have created the first functioning human skeletal muscle from pluripotent stem cells, which are capable of producing any form of body cell or tissue. Published January 9 in Nature Communications, this work builds upon work by researchers at Duke in 2015, in which they were able to grow working human muscle tissue from cells extracted in muscle biopsies.

This most recent progress, where muscle is grown from non-muscle, could open the door to much more advanced applications like cell therapies, drug discovery, and the ability to grow larger amounts of muscle, as well as expanding our own understanding of human biology.


“Starting with pluripotent stem cells that are not muscle cells, but can become all existing cells in our body, allows us to grow an unlimited number of myogenic progenitor cells,” said Nenad Bursac, professor of biomedical engineering at Duke University, in a press release. “These progenitor cells resemble adult muscle stem cells called ‘satellite cells’ that can theoretically grow an entire muscle starting from a single cell.”

In their study, the research team was able to create muscle fibers that reacted to stimuli, such as an electric shock or chemicals similar to neuronal signals, just like natural muscle tissue. When the stem cell-grown tissue was implanted into adult mice, the team found that it survived and functioned for at least three weeks, all while integrating into the animals’ native tissue.

Stem Cell Origins

To create this functioning muscle tissue, researchers began with human pluripotent stem cells taken from adult non-muscle tissues like skin or blood. These cells were then “reprogrammed” so that they were much simpler and undefined. These stem cells were then overwhelmed with the molecule Pax7, which signaled them to start becoming muscle as they grew.

“It’s taken years of trial and error, making educated guesses and taking baby steps to finally produce functioning human muscle from pluripotent stem cells,” said Lingjun Rao, a postdoctoral researcher in Bursac’s laboratory and first author of the study, in the press release. “What made the difference are our unique cell culture conditions and 3-D matrix, which allowed cells to grow and develop much faster and longer than the 2-D culture approaches that are more typically used.”

This successful development could have staggering medical applications in terms of research, furthering understanding through models of rare diseases, and treatment options for muscle damage.

However, there’s still work to be done; though the stem cell-derived muscle tissue contained more of the “satellite-like cells” needed to repair damage, it’s not as strong as native muscle or muscle grown from biopsies. In the future, the researchers hope they might be able to use the stem cell-derived tissue for regenerative therapies or in combination with genetic therapy, which could fix malfunctions in a patient’s stem cells and then grow new patches of completely healthy muscle.

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Enough Is Enough. We Need to Elect More Scientists to Congress.

A Rocky Relationship

Ever since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, the United States government’s relationship with science has been strained. Over the course of the past year, his administration has called for significant cuts to scientific research budgets, left vacant dozens of top science-based government positions, and even removed mentions of “science” from government websites.

In response to the Trump administration’s seemingly anti-science stance, an estimated one million scientists and their supporters convened in Washington, D.C. and 600 other cities across the globe on April 20, 2017, for the March for Science, a day dedicated to defending science’s place in politics.

Geologist Jess Phoenix was one of the scientists to speak at the Los Angeles March for Science rally, but her ambitions to influence political policy extend far beyond a single speech on a single day. In November, she hopes to be elected to represent the people of the 25th Congressional District in California.

Phoenix recently spoke with Futurism about why we need more scientists in politics, how Trump’s science policies could impact the U.S., and what else Americans can do to repair the nation’s relationship with science.

This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Futurism: You say there is a “war on science”? Can you explain what this war is and who is behind it?

Jess Phoenix: The war on science is one of the most troubling developments of the 21st century. It’s part of a movement pushed by Trump and many of his associates, such as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Senator James Inhofe, and Representative Steve Knight, that aims to discredit scientists, the scientific method, and the work of scientists around the world and across fields of research.

Science drives the current economy and the American way of life, and these attacks on science itself mean the foundation of our country is jeopardized. Along with cutting funding for scientific research on climate change, diseases, technology, and other areas, Trump and his cronies are denying basic scientific facts and trying to sell the American people a steady diet of lies.

Without elected officials who acknowledge both the validity and importance of science in every aspect of our lives, the United States is heading for disaster of epic proportions.

F: Why would scientists be better elected officials than those currently in power?

JP: Scientists would be wonderful legislators for a number of reasons.

All scientists are, by definition, trained in the scientific method. That’s the process of using data gained through observations to remove uncertainties around a hypothesis in an effort to ascertain the truth. In other words, we use facts to understand our world.

In addition, I’m a field scientist. My work is done in the most extreme, dangerous conditions on the planet: active volcanoes, remote mountains, and scorching deserts. I lead expeditions of people who’ve never even camped before. It’s my job to keep them safe and do good science.

Creative problem solving is the key to field research. I’ve fixed a blown tire sidewall with bubblegum, a ballpoint pen, and duct tape. Other scientists deal with similar problems every single day.

We need scientists to help lead the way as we tackle the challenges of the 21st century.

As a group, scientists are adaptable, creative, and logical. We are trained to look at all available facts to work toward eliminating uncertainties. It’s our job, and it’s the job of a field scientist to find information that will save lives. That seems like a perfect skill set for Congress to me!

Trump and his cronies have proposed harsh cuts to critical scientific programs, including the earthquake early warning system, the tsunami warning system, the hurricane warning system, and NASA’s climate research programs.

The amount of money they’ll make available to organizations like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) is not enough to fund critical research that will help us cure diseases or solve big problems, such as climate change. We need scientists to help lead the way as we tackle the challenges of the 21st century.

F: What is 314 Action and how did you get involved with the group?

JP: 314 Action is a nonprofit 501(c)4 that is dedicated to encouraging scientists to run for office. I approached them for support when I decided to run for Congress, and they provided assistance in the early stages of my campaign.

F: Why might scientists be reluctant to run for government office? What unique challenges do they face while campaigning and serving?

JP: Scientists have been afraid to speak out politically since Robert Oppenheimer, one of the physicists who spoke out against nuclear proliferation during the era of McCarthyism, was persecuted by government officials. In order to protect their research funding, many scientists learned to keep quiet about anything that could be viewed as political.

With the current administration’s war on science, however, more scientists than ever are engaging politically.

The biggest obstacle we face as scientists running for office is raising money. Most scientists do not have a network of wealthy potential campaign donors, which is how lawyers and businesspeople are able to raise the vast amounts of money needed to campaign successfully under our current system.

Electing leaders who will push to overturn Citizens United and pass campaign finance reform will help more people from all professional backgrounds, including scientists, run for office.

F: Beyond electing more scientists to government offices, what can be done to repair society’s relationship with science?

JP: It is essential that we continue to educate our children about good, sound science. That means we need an educational system that supports and encourages scientific inquiry and discovery and doesn’t shy away from talking about important topics, such as evolution and sexual education.

An educated generation is a generation that can accomplish great things, and our first duty must be to protect our children’s education, since they are so impressionable. The very fate of our country depends on our ability to embrace the contributions that science makes to society and our planet.

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Scientists Are Rethinking the Very Nature of Space and Time

The Nature of Space and Time

A pair of researchers have uncovered a potential bridge between general relativity and quantum mechanics — the two preeminent physics theories — and it could force physicists to rethink the very nature of space and time.

Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity describes gravity as a geometric property of space and time. The more massive an object, the greater its distortion of spacetime, and that distortion is felt as gravity.

In the 1970s, physicists Stephen Hawking and Jacob Bekenstein noted a link between the surface area of black holes and their microscopic quantum structure, which determines their entropy. This marked the first realization that a connection existed between Einstein’s theory of general relativity and quantum mechanics.

Less than three decades later, theoretical physicist Juan Maldacena observed another link between between gravity and the quantum world. That connection led to the creation of a model that proposes that spacetime can be created or destroyed by changing the amount of entanglement between different surface regions of an object.

In other words, this implies that spacetime itself, at least as it is defined in models, is a product of the entanglement between objects.

To further explore this line of thinking, ChunJun Cao and Sean Carroll of the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) set out to see if they could actually derive the dynamical properties of gravity (as familiar from general relativity) using the framework in which spacetime arises out of quantum entanglement. Their research was recently published in arXiv.

Using an abstract mathematical concept called Hilbert space, Cao and Carroll were able to find similarities between the equations that govern quantum entanglement and Einstein’s equations of general relativity. This supports the idea that spacetime and gravity do emerge from entanglement.

Carroll told Futurism the next step in the research is to determine the accuracy of the assumptions they made for this study.

“One of the most obvious ones is to check whether the symmetries of relativity are recovered in this framework, in particular, the idea that the laws of physics don’t depend on how fast you are moving through space,” he said.

A Theory of Everything

Today, almost everything we know about the physical aspects of our universe can be explained by either general relativity or quantum mechanics. The former does a great job of explaining activity on very large scales, such as planets or galaxies, while the latter helps us understand the very small, such as atoms and sub-atomic particles.

However, the two theories are seemingly not compatible with one another. This has led physicists in pursuit of the elusive “theory of everything” — a single framework that would explain it all, including the nature of space and time.

Because gravity and spacetime are an important part of “everything,” Carroll said he believes the research he and Cao performed could advance the pursuit of a theory that reconciles general relativity and quantum mechanics. Still, he noted that the duo’s paper is speculative and limited in scope.

“Our research doesn’t say much, as yet, about the other forces of nature, so we’re still quite far from fitting ‘everything’ together,” he told Futurism.

Still, if we could find such a theory, it could help us answer some of the biggest questions facing scientists today. We may be able to finally understand the true nature of dark matter, dark energy, black holes, and other mysterious cosmic objects.

9 Physics Questions Baffling Scientists [INFOGRAPHIC]
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Already, researchers are tapping into the ability of the quantum world to radically improve our computing systems, and a theory of everything could potentially speed up the process by revealing new insights into the still largely confusing realm.

While theoretical physicists’ progress in pursuit of a theory of everything has been “spotty,” according to Carroll, each new bit of research — speculative or not — leads us one step closer to uncovering it and ushering in a whole new era in humanity’s understanding of the universe.

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