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Privacy and the Internet of Things

Everyday objects -- watches, refrigerators and thermostats to name a few -- are becoming increasingly connected to each other and to us. The promise of "the Internet of things" is that we will be more efficient, healthier and ultimately happier. But so far consumers are not convinced. Recent research by data privacy company Truste found that a mere 22 percent of consumers believe the benefits of smart devices outweigh the risks. What are your hopes and concerns about these objects of the future?

PBS NewsHour

How studying fruit flies and zebrafish might unlock secrets of the human brain


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GWEN IFILL: Next: trying to better understand what’s happening in the brain of a fruit fly, a dragonfly, or a zebra fish, all part of a larger puzzle to learn more about how our own brains work.

NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien has the first in our three-part series on the science of the brain.

MILES O’BRIEN: Oh, to be a fly on the wall at the Basic Research Facility scientist consider nirvana. You might see a Nobel Prize in the making or you might be subjected to this, the fruit fly version of a scary movie, the rapidly growing shadow of a predator homing in for the kill.

GWYNETH CARD, Howard Hughes Medical Institute-Janelia Farm Research Campus: My lab is really interested in how flies make decisions.

MILES O’BRIEN: Neuroscientist Gwyneth Card runs a laboratory at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute-Janelia Farm Research Campus near Washington, D.C. She films fruit flies at 6,000 frames per second to better see what they do and eventually she hopes understand how their brains issue commands and their bodies turn that into lifesaving action.

GWYNETH CARD: One of the interesting things we have discovered is that if you show a fly one of these scary movies, they actually don’t do one particular thing knee-jerk reflex. They actually do a whole sequence of behaviors that’s quite flexible and quite varied.

MILES O’BRIEN: This is why we can’t swat a fly.

GWYNETH CARD: This is exactly why it’s really hard to swat a fly.

MILES O’BRIEN: This is the kind of question that bugs a neuroscientist in another lab here, Gerry Rubin. He has spent his entire career studying fruit flies, also known as Drosophila.

GERRY RUBIN, Executive Director: Fruit flies have a very distinguished and long career in biomedical research, mainly because they breed like flies.

MILES O’BRIEN: But the bugs are more than rapidly prolific. They can do a lot of very interesting things and, compared to humans, are much easier neuroscience test subjects.

GERRY RUBIN: These are very complicated calculations done by a very small biological computational device. If — we feel, if we could understand how those actually work, then we would know something important about how every brain works, including our own brains.

MILES O’BRIEN: Rubin not only runs a lab here, but the overall facility as well.

In fact, it’s his baby. He hatched the idea in 2002, the doors opened in 2006, and right now it houses 350 scientists working in 42 labs and on five collaborative teams. It is a well-oiled machine, to be sure, robotic efficiency. They feed, breed, bar code and house more than a million insects here, hoping they might hold answers to some of the most challenging problems in basic biomedical research.

It is funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, for the record, also a NewsHour underwriter. HHMI plans to spend $50 million to $100 million a year for at least 20 years here, giving the best and the brightest scientists what amounts to a blank check to do their work as they see fit.

GERRY RUBIN: So, we could bring together an unusual group of people, protect them from the real world, put them in a place where they just had to focus on their science, encourage them to work together, encourage them to work on challenging problems, and give them the freedom to do it, and see what happened.

MILES O’BRIEN: Rubin modeled Janelia after a workplace on his resume, the legendary Bell Laboratories founded by AT&T and Western Electric in 1925. It attracted the best scientists from virtually every discipline, encouraged them to collaborate and gave them the freedom and funding to conduct basic research, even if there was no obvious profit-making application evident.

Over the years, Bell researchers made big strides in the realm of basic science. They discovered cosmic background radiation, and thus the Big Bang theory, but they also invented some game-changers in the marketplace, including the transistor, the laser and the charged couple device. The lab garnered seven Nobel Prizes in all.

But in recent years, corporate funding of fundamental science with long-term goals has all but vanished, and federal funding for basic science has dropped precipitously.

GERRY RUBIN: I think there’s a broad recognition that there is a way the federal government chooses projects to fund, the way it supports them is — tends to cut out the most creative work.

MILES O’BRIEN: To pursue a greater understanding of neuroscience, Janelia scientists and engineers work in close collaboration to build new tools of discovery.

Developmental biologist and neuroscientist Philipp Keller showed me his amazing light sheet microscope.

PHILIPP KELLER, Group Leader, Janelia: So, this is a setup that is designed to basically minimally interfere with the normal development, the normal function of the biological sample.

MILES O’BRIEN: Living samples are bathed in laser light and recorded by two fast digital cameras to generate three-dimensional movies of biological processes. This is a Drosophila embryo from three hours after fertilization until it hatches 24 hours later.

PHILIPP KELLER: Every single little blob in this movie is one cell. We have tens of thousands of cells at this point in development. You can in fact now see these rapid movements. These are muscle contractions, so…

MILES O’BRIEN: This is one embryo from two angles, right?


MILES O’BRIEN: There’s something fishy in Keller’s lab as well, zebra fish, here waiting for their closeup, an extreme closeup. Keller’s groundbreaking movie shows a zebra fish larva brain in action. Each of these blips is a single neuron lighting up.

MILES O’BRIEN: Whoa. What happened there just now in that big flash?  It’s like a thunderstorm.

PHILIPP KELLER: We don’t quite know what the zebra fish was thinking at that point, but these types of experiments are aimed at trying to find out what exactly it is that….

MILES O’BRIEN: He was thinking about something good or something really bad, right? It was one or the other, right?

PHILIPP KELLER: We tried our best to make sure that he does not have to think about something bad.


MILES O’BRIEN: Nicely done. True professional.

ANTHONY LEONARDO, Group Leader, Janelia: True professional.

MILES O’BRIEN: Neuroscientist Anthony Leonardo uses that collaborative approach as he studies another insect, the dragonfly.

He captures them capturing fruit flies, rolling at 1,000 frames per second. He is focused on what 28 muscles controlled by four neurons each do in the span of 14 wing strokes.

ANTHONY LEONARDO: So, none of it is learned. It gets better with practice, but they understand how to do it from the start. They…

MILES O’BRIEN: What’s amazing is he starts with his back to the fruit fly.



ANTHONY LEONARDO: And this is a really significant thing, right?

MILES O’BRIEN: Leonardo is focused on how our brains coordinate complex behaviors in split-second real time, like catching a ball.

To get a better look at the problem, he and a Janelia engineer have outfitted some dragonflies with 60-milligram backpacks. They capture and transmit signals from 10 neurons linked to four muscles.

ANTHONY LEONARDO: What we’re trying to do is measure essentially all the relevant knobs it’s controlling to steer its body when it flies. So, then, by looking at all those things together, we can slowly build up a model of how the nervous system has solved this problem.

MILES O’BRIEN: Leonardo says the tiny backpack is an example of how Janelia collaborations can streamline scientific research.

But there’s a big catch. There’s no such thing as tenure here. Even though long-term funding is not a worry, the scientists themselves work on five-year contracts, and can be asked to leave if they don’t measure up. And, as we spoke, Anthony Leonardo’s contract was up for renewal.

ANTHONY LEONARDO: So, the way this was put to me when I was interviewing here that resonated a lot with me, though we don’t say it anymore, is the ethos of the place was, we will bet these massive resources on you, on your ideas, and you bet your career in exchange. And that was the gamble.

MILES O’BRIEN: Whether they’re studying dragonflies, fruit flies, or zebra fish, researchers here are keeping long-term basic research afloat at a time when it finds very few safe harbors.

GWYNETH CARD: It can be a tough sell because, of course, not every avenue of research works out. You don’t know exactly where it’s going and you don’t know exactly what you’re going to learn. That is the beauty of it. We don’t know what the truth is, or we wouldn’t need to pursue it. So, sometimes, it turns out as you expect. Sometimes, it doesn’t.

MILES O’BRIEN: There are no guarantees the research at Janelia will pay off with new Nobel-class discoveries. But that’s precisely the idea. The sure thing need not apply.

GWEN IFILL: Tomorrow, Judy explores new findings on genetics and schizophrenia.

The post How studying fruit flies and zebrafish might unlock secrets of the human brain appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

How concerned should we be about the mosquito-borne Chikungunya virus?

The mosquito Aedes aegypti, with its distinctive markings in the form of a lyre, spreads disease like yellow fever and
         is a carrier of the Chikungunya virus. Photo courtesy Centers for Disease Control/Wikimedia Commons

The mosquito Aedes aegypti, with its distinctive markings in the form of a lyre, spreads disease like yellow fever and is a carrier of the Chikungunya virus. Photo courtesy Centers for Disease Control/Wikimedia Commons

On Thursday, federal officials announced that the tropical Chikungunya mosquito-borne disease had been transmitted for the first time within the United States, infecting two Florida residents.

What’s notable about these cases is that the people affected reported no recent trips to the Caribbean, Africa or Asia, where the painful virus is widespread. Until last week, all cases reported in the continental United States were from people who had recently traveled to endemic areas. Read: Chikungunya-infected mosquitoes are now living, breeding and sucking human blood in the continental United States.

“This is not good news,” says Mike Raupp, professor of entomology at the University of Maryland.

A few facts. The word Chikungunya derives from the Kimakonde language in Southeast Africa. (Click here for pronunciation.) It means contorted, a nod to the stooped-up appearance of people with severe joint pain, one of the main symptoms of the virus, along with fever, muscle pain, headache, fatigue and rash, according to the World Health Organization.

“Mainly, you’re going to get a fever,” said Walter Tabachnick of University of Florida’s Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory. “You’re going to feel lousy. With Chikungunya, you’re going to ache. You do not want to get this disease.”

It is seldom fatal. But that fact shouldn’t deter anyone from aggressive mosquito control, stressed Tabachnick, who believes the media has downplayed the danger of the virus.


“No one wants to be a fearmonger. No one is saying, ‘We’re all going to die.’ But on the other hand, it does take public awareness and public responsibility to protect themselves. We’ve been very frustrated by the inability to get this message out to the public and nothing seems to take.”

The virus is primarily transmitted by two types of mosquitoes, the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, also known as the yellow fever and Asian tiger mosquitoes, respectively. Both are invasive to the United States. The yellow fever mosquito arrived in the 1500s; the Asian Tiger more recently, in the 1980s.

Unlike the West Nile virus, which is transmitted to mosquitoes mostly from birds and only occasionally to humans, Chikungunya is a mosquito-man virus. This means mosquitoes easily and efficiently transmit the virus to humans.

Transmission of the virus goes like this: A female mosquito bites an infected person. For about seven days, the virus incubates inside the mosquito, multiplying. The warmer the weather, the shorter that incubation period. Eventually, it migrates into the insect’s salivary glands, and as the mosquito feeds on human blood, she spits, transmitting the virus. (Note: only female mosquitoes bite. They need the protein in the blood to grow eggs.)

These mosquitoes prefer to breed in man-made storage containers: soda cans, birdbaths, rain barrels and garbage can lids. Standing water that collects on tarp-covered boats is a major breeding site in Florida, Tabachnick said. Yellow fever mosquitoes prefer these sites to natural water, like puddles.

As of July 18, 2014, a total of 436,586 suspected and 5,724 laboratory-confirmed Chikungunya cases had been reported in the Caribbean, Central America, South America and the United States, according to the Pan American Health Organization.

“This is not a trivial illness,” Raupp said. “Even though it’s not often lethal. What’s disturbing is we know we have vector-competent mosquitoes who are able to feed off someone who has a virus circulating in their bloodstream and to transmit it to people who have not yet traveled.”

To prevent breeding, he said, police and clean up your yard. Dump the birdbath twice a week. Dump or monitor other sources of water.

“The public outcry should be to demand your neighbors to clean up,” Tabachnick said. “All it takes is one property owner who doesn’t care, and he could be rearing enough mosquitoes to endanger the entire neighborhood.”

And a rule of thumb: apply insect repellant over sunscreen, not the other way around.

The post How concerned should we be about the mosquito-borne Chikungunya virus? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

Bats use polarized light to calibrate internal compasses

Bats are the only other mammal, other than humans, known to be able to perceive polarized light. Photo by Flickr user
         Noel Reynolds

Bats are the only other mammal, other than humans, known to be able to perceive polarized light. Photo by Flickr user Noel Reynolds

Bats navigate the evening sky using patterns of polarized light, according to a new study. Researchers from Queen’s University in Belfast have found that in addition to their uncommon echolocation skills, bats use polarized sunlight at dusk to set their internal compass. They are the first mammals known to exhibit this ability.

Sunlight is naturally scattered in all directions but becomes directional when it is passes through gases in the earth’s atmosphere. The directional patterns it creates are determined by the position of the sun in the sky.

These patterns create stripes across the sky 90 degrees from the position of the sun when they are strongest at both sunrise and sunset. Many species of birds, fish and insects are capable of seeing the polarized light. So far bats are the first mammals aside from humans who are known to be capable of perceiving the phenomenon at all.

Dr Richard Holland, the paper’s senior author, was also a part of the team that
bats used a magnetic compass which they set using cues at sunset. “The question was, what cues? It was known that birds calibrate the magnetic field with the pattern of polarization at sunset, so we tried the same for bats,” said Holland.

To determine whether or not Bats had this ability, the zoologists placed bats in boxes that showed them polarized patterns before allowing them to fly their homes 20 kilometers away. Using small radio transmitters, the scientists found that the bats that had been shown a polarization pattern shifted by 90 degrees flew in right angles from the bats that were shown the natural polarization pattern.

The behavioral evidence supports bats using the polarized light at dusk to set their course, but scientists are unsure how they detect it. Unlike many insect species, vertebrates lack the specialized photoreceptors in their eyes, leading researchers to believe the structure of their cone cells may play a role.

The research provides a clearer picture of how bats use “map and compass” mechanisms to navigate longer distances outside the range of their echolocation.

The post Bats use polarized light to calibrate internal compasses appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

Earth sees hottest June on record since 1880, NOAA says

The world’s heat record was broken for a second consecutive month. With the exception of Antarctica, new temperature highs were recorded on every continent.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released June’s results Monday, revealing an average global temperature of 61.2 degrees for the period. The result is 1.30 degrees higher than the 20th century average of 59.9 degrees, making this June the warmest in more than 130 years.

The same trend was seen in May, which experienced a 1.33 degree increase from the the average 58.6 degrees. Increases were most prominent in northern South America, Greenland, New Zealand, central Africa and southern Asia.

Derek Arndt, NOAA climate monitoring chief, attributes the warming to hotter oceans. His colleague, NOAA climate scientist Jessica Blunden, relays the role of a developing El Nino — the warming of Pacific Ocean — to June’s record heat.

The U.S. was not dramatically warm due to high levels of precipitation. Although it experienced its 33rd warmest June on record, the month was the wettest since 1989.

The post Earth sees hottest June on record since 1880, NOAA says appeared first on PBS NewsHour.