Blogging from Antarctica

Seven weeks camping by a frozen lake in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth might not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but geology professor Dawn Sumner is excited to be on her way to Antarctica this week. That’s because Lake Joyce, in the dry valleys of Antarctica, contains microbes that are slowly fossilizing right now and look tantalizingly similar to rocks from 3 billion years ago. Understanding just how microbes lived in those rocks can help us understand the first appearance of life on Earth, and might give some hints about what traces of life would look like elsewhere in the universe.

Promising results from HIV vaccine trial

There are news reports today of the first positive results from a clinical trial of an HIV vaccine. The trial was conducted in Thailand using two shots with different vaccines, neither of which had been shown to be effective on their own, in over 16,000 Thai men and women at risk of infection with HIV.

Participants volunteered for the study and were told about the potential risks associated with receiving the experimental vaccine before agreeing to participate.

First images from Planck space telescope

First images from Planck space telescopeThe Planck space telescope has returned its first images of the sky. The mission, run by the European Space Agency with participation from NASA, will map tiny differences in microwave radiation left over from the Big Bang, allowing scientists to get a better picture of the structure of the universe when it was about 400,000 years old.

Lloyd Knox, a physics professor in the UC Davis cosmology group, says that Planck will provide improved data over previous microwave sky surveys such as WMAP. It will have a higher angular resolution, allowing structures to be mapped in finer detail; lower “noise” level and better data on polarization; and better frequency coverage, allowing astronomers to filter out other objects that emit microwaves from the cosmic microwave background.

The Evolution of Flowers

Yesterday’s NY Times has a long, elegant science feature by Carl Zimmer on the evolution of flowers. Prominently quoted is UC Davis botanist James Doyle, who has appointments in both the Department of Evolution and Ecology and the Department of Geology.

New breast cancer scanner combines PET and CT

UC Davis physicists, biomedical engineers and radiologists have developed a machine that combines two types of body scans to image breast cancer in 3-D. The new machine could be used to develop treatments for breast tumors tailored to the specific patient, by getting a better idea of where tumors lie within the breast tissue.

The scanner combines computed tomography (CT) which uses X-rays to get a 3-D image of body structure, and positron emission tomography, which images physiological process — including distinguishing benign from malignant tumors and what effect chemotherapy is having on tumors.