Designer potatoes on the menu to boost consumption

A decline in overall potato consumption has Texas A&M AgriLife Research breeders working on “designer” spuds that meet the time constraints and unique tastes of a younger generation.Dr. Creighton Miller, AgriLife Research potato breeder from College Station, recently conducted the Texas A&M Potato Breeding and Variety Development Program field day at the farm of cooperator Bruce Barrett south of Springlake.”Potatoes are an important delivery system for nutrients to humans,” Miller said. “The average consumption in the U.S. is 113 pounds per year per person. But overall potato consumption in the U.S. has generally declined somewhat.”So what we are doing now is developing unique varieties that have a tendency to appeal to the younger set with high income who are willing to try something different,” he said. “This has contributed to an increase in consumption of these types over the russets, which are still the standard.”Miller said the objective of the Texas A&M potato breeding program is to develop improved varieties adapted specifically to Texas environmental conditions.”However, some of our varieties are widely adapted across the U.S.,” he said. “Three of them collectively represent the fifth-largest number of acres certified for seed production in the U.S., so we’ve released some successful varieties,and we are developing more all the time.”The Texas Potato Variety Development Program currently has 412 entries at the Springlake trials and 927 entries at the Dalhart trials. Additionally, the 2014 seedling selection trials at both Springlake and Dalhart include 115,408 seedlings from 634 families or crosses.One selected Best of Trial at Springlake this year is BTX2332-IR, which is a round red potato. And, he said, the traditional russet potatoes will always be a mainstay, as they are used primarily for baking and French fries. …

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The physics of curly hair

The heroes and villains in animated films tend to be on opposite ends of the moral spectrum. But they’re often similar in their hair, which is usually extremely rigid or — if it moves at all — is straight and swings to and fro. It’s rare to see an animated character with bouncy, curly hair, since computer animators don’t have a simple mathematical means for describing it.However, change may be coming soon to a theater near you: In a paper appearing in the Feb. 13 issue of Physical Review Letters, researchers at MIT and the Universit Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris provide the first detailed model for the 3-D shape of a strand of curly hair.This work could have applications in the computer animation film industry, but it also could be used by engineers to predict the curve that long steel pipes, tubing, and cable develop after being coiled around a spool for transport. In the field, these materials often act like a stubborn garden hose whose intrinsic curves make it behave in unpredictable ways. In engineering terminology, these items — and hair — are all examples of a slender, flexible rod.Co-authors on the paper are Pedro Reis, an assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Department of Mechanical Engineering; Basile Audoly and Arnaud Lazarus, of the Universit Pierre et Marie Curie; and former MIT graduate student James Miller, who is now a research associate at Schlumberger-Doll Research. Miller worked on this project as part of his doctoral thesis research and is lead author of the paper.”Our work doesn’t deal with the collisions of all the hairs on a head, which is a very important effect for animators to control a hairstyle,” Reis says. “But it characterizes all the different degrees of curliness of a hair and describes mathematically how the properties of the curl change along the arc length of a hair.”When Reis set out to investigate the natural curvature in flexible rods, he wasn’t thinking of hair. But as he studied several small flexible, curved segments of tubing suspended from a structure in his lab, he realized they weren’t so different from strands of curly hair hanging on a head. That’s when he contacted Audoly, who had previously developed a theory to explain the 2-D shape of human hair.Using lab experimentation, computer simulation, and theory — “the perfect triangle of science,” Reis says — the team identified the main parameters for curly hair and simplified them into two dimensionless parameters for curvature (relating to the ratio of curvature and length) and weight (relating to the ratio of weight and stiffness). …

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Possibility of selectively erasing unwanted memories

Sep. 10, 2013 — The human brain is exquisitely adept at linking seemingly random details into a cohesive memory that can trigger myriad associations — some good, some not so good. For recovering addicts and individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), unwanted memories can be devastating. Former meth addicts, for instance, report intense drug cravings triggered by associations with cigarettes, money, even gum (used to relieve dry mouth), pushing them back into the addiction they so desperately want to leave.Now, for the first time, scientists from the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have been able to erase dangerous drug-associated memories in mice and rats without affecting other more benign memories.The surprising discovery, published this week online ahead of print by the journal Biological Psychiatry, points to a clear and workable method to disrupt unwanted memories while leaving the rest intact.”Our memories make us who we are, but some of these memories can make life very difficult,” said Courtney Miller, a TSRI assistant professor who led the research. “Not unlike in the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we’re looking for strategies to selectively eliminate evidence of past experiences related to drug abuse or a traumatic event. Our study shows we can do just that in mice — wipe out deeply engrained drug-related memories without harming other memories.”Changing the Structure of MemoryTo produce a memory, a lot has to happen, including the alteration of the structure of nerve cells via changes in the dendritic spines — small bulb-like structures that receive electrochemical signals from other neurons. Normally, these structural changes occur via actin, the protein that makes up the infrastructure of all cells.In the new study, the scientists inhibited actin polymerization — the creation of large chainlike molecules — by blocking a molecular motor called myosin II in the brains of mice and rats during the maintenance phase of methamphetamine-related memory formation.Behavioral tests showed the animals immediately and persistently lost memories associated with methamphetamine — with no other memories affected.In the tests, animals were trained to associate the rewarding effects of methamphetamine with a rich context of visual, tactile and scent cues. When injected with the inhibitor many days later in their home environment, they later showed a complete lack of interest when they encountered drug-associated cues. At the same time, the response to other memories, such as food rewards, was unaffected.While the scientists are not yet sure why powerful methamphetamine-related memories are also so fragile, they think the provocative findings could be related to the role of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in reward and pleasure centers in the brain and known to modify dendritic spines. Previous studies had shown dopamine is released during both learning and drug withdrawal. …

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Canine remote control, using your smart phone? Hands-free dog walking for the digital age

Sep. 3, 2013 — That old “best friend” can get a bit tiresome, all that rolling over, shaking paws, long walks and eating every crumb of food off the floor. But, what if there were a way to command your dog with a remote control, or even via your smart phone…or even without hands?Share This:Jeff Miller and David Bevly of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, at Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama, have devised just such a system and describe details in a forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Modelling, Identification and Control. The device based on a control suite with a microprocessor, wireless radio, GPS receiver, and an attitude and heading reference system provides autonomous guidance of the canine using an embedded command module with vibration and tone generation capabilities. Tests in a structure and non-structured environment show obedience accuracy up to almost 98%. It sounds like a boon for the lazy dog owner.Of course, there is a serious side to the development of such a technology that allows dogs to be given commands remotely and for them to respond consistently. Dogs remain, for instance, the most accurate and sensitive mobile detection system for hidden explosives, people trapped after earthquakes and other disasters and in sniffing out drugs. However, the dog handler in such environments may not be able to safely access the place the dog can reach. Moreover, in a noisy environment or where the dog’s hearing is compromised giving the necessary commands might also be impossible.The team has demonstrated that a search & rescue or other working dog can be trained to respond “virtually flawlessly” to remote control tones and vibrations as if they were immediate commands from a human handler. “The ability to autonomously control a canine has far reaching,” the team says. …

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Devastating long-distance impact of earthquakes

July 23, 2013 — In 2006 the island of Java, Indonesia was struck by a devastating earthquake followed by the onset of a mud eruption to the east, flooding villages over several square kilometers and that continues to erupt today. Until now, researchers believed the earthquake was too far from the mud volcano to trigger the eruption. Geophysicists at the University of Bonn, Germany and ETH Zurich, Switzerland use computer-based simulations to show that such triggering is possible over long distances. The results have been published in Nature Geoscience.On May 27, 2006 the ground of the Indonesian island Java was shaking with a magnitude 6.3 earthquake. The epicenter was located 25 km southwest of the city of Yogyakarta and initiated at a depth of 12 km. The earthquake took thousands of lives, injured ten thousand and destroyed buildings and homes. 47 hours later, about 250 km from the earthquake hypocenter, a mud volcano formed that came to be known as “Lusi,” short for “Lumpur Sidoarjo.” Hot mud erupted in the vicinity of an oil drilling-well, shooting mud up to 50 m into the sky and flooding the area. Scientists expect the mud volcano to be active for many more years.Eruption of mud volcano has natural causeWas the eruption of the mud triggered by natural events or was it human-made by the nearby exploration-well? Geophysicists at the University of Bonn, Germany and at ETH Zürich, Switzerland investigated this question with numerical wave-propagation experiments. “Many researchers believed that the earthquake epicenter was too far from Lusi to have activated the mud volcano,” says Prof. …

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Harbor porpoises can thank their worst enemy, the killer whale, for their success

June 12, 2013 — The harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) is a whale species that is doing quite well in coastal and busy waters. They are found in large numbers throughout the Northern Hemisphere from Mauritania to Alaska, and now researchers from the University of Southern Denmark explain why these small toothed whales are doing so well: The harbor porpoise can thank their worst enemy, the killer whale, for their success.Coastal areas are more challenging and potentially dangerous for a small whale. There is a risk of beaching and being caught in a fisherman’s net, but there are also benefits. Fish are plentiful and easier to find in coastal waters than in the open sea.Therefore, coastal waters are attractive for porpoises, and they are extremely skilled at navigating, locating prey and avoiding hazards near the coast. Like other toothed whales porpoises use echolocation for orientation and to detect prey. They emit a constant stream of sonar clicks, which, when these hit a rock, a fish or a ship nearby an echo is sent back to the porpoise. From the echo, the porpoise can distinguish the location of the object and often also can identify the object.Porpoises can locate even small fish and small objects such as net floats and fine fishing nets. This ability sets them apart from many other toothed whales, which do not have such sophisticated echolocation abilities. The secret of this ability is that the porpoise uses very short clicks and these are higher in frequency than those of many other toothed whales, explains Lee Miller from the Institute of Biology, University of Southern Denmark (SDU).Porpoise clicks last just a hundred-millionth of a second, and are about 130 kHz. For comparison, a human can hear up to 20 kHz and a dog up to about 60 kHz.Lee Miller and his colleague Magnus Wahlberg, also from the Institute of Biology, SDU, now believe that they have found an explanation why porpoise clicks are so high in frequency. …

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