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How researchers advanced discovery in 2016


Recreating the sound of silence

While most anechoic chambers are used for acoustic research, UCL's is used in phonetics - the scientific study of the human voice. Researchers make precise recordings of voices, using both microphones and laryngographs. This latter device, developed by one of the academics who used this chamber, measures the opening and closing of the voice box while the subject speaks. Linguists at UCL use the recordings to identify the root causes of speech abnormalities in children.


How chameleons change colour   

Nature Communications

Chameleons are well known for their potential to change colour but recent research on panther chameleons is the first to find two layers of crystal containing cells, each with a potentially different purpose. Researchers from the University of Geneva have speculated that the deeper crystal containing cells may help with the regulation of temperature, whilst the more superficial layer of colour changing cells could be responsible for camouflage or mating displays.


Antarctica meltdown could double sea level rise


Researchers at Pennsylvania State University have been considering how quickly a glacial ice melt in Antarctica would raise sea levels. By updating models with new discoveries and comparing them with past sea-level rise events they predict that a melting Antarctica could raise oceans by more than 3 feet by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions continued unabated, roughly doubling previous total sea-level rise estimates. Rising seas could put many of the world’s coastlines underwater or at risk of flooding and storm surges.


Robots that learn to limp


Like most computers, robots are highly efficient until something goes wrong. A team of scientists from Pierre and Marie Curie University have been deliberately sabotaging walking robots and then seeing whether an algorithm that catalogued all the potential range of behaviours, could help them to adapt to mechanical faults. The research found that the injured robot would use the catalogue and a trial and error approach to find the fastest and straightest option. Typically it took under a minute for a hexapod with a broken leg to learn to limp.

- Antoine Cully / Pierre and Marie Curie University


Paying people helps them overcome phobias

Nature Human Behaviour

A study by neuroscientists from the university of Cambridge along with Japanese and US colleagues has found that there could be a devastatingly simple way to cure people of their fears and phobias. Even modest financial rewards subconsciously reduced fear among participants. The method known as decoded neurofeedback is being hailed as a viable and less traumatic replacement of aversion therapy.


Regulation of stem cells maintenance during ageing

As part of their mission to increase the healthy years of life, researchers at the Buck Institute are studying stem cells in the midgut of the fruit fly to see how stress and aging influences their ability to self-renew, and whether optimising stem cell activity can influence the aging process. Fruit flies share striking similarities to mammalian stem cells and it is hoped that this research will ultimately have application to human conditions.


Tracking glacier response to climate change

Currently about half of Greenland’s ice losses are through the release of icebergs into the ocean, a process known as calving - rather than by surface melt. In order to investigate the complex response of Arctic glaciers to warming of the atmosphere and ocean, the  CRIOS project (Calving Rates and Impact on Sea Level), recorded data from key locations including Kronebreen, a fast-flowing glacier in Svalbard, Arctic Norway. Data from the project is now being used to develop improved predictive glacier models as part of a NERC-funded project


How to date a fossil

Springer Encyclopaedia of scientific dating methods

In geological sciences, biology and archaeology the discovery of an ancient artefact, mineral or fossil is only half the story – being able to accurately date the find provides crucial understanding of its significance in the context of earth’s history. By bringing together the world’s leading experts and contributors in fields including sedimentation, tectonics, volcanism and glaciation – today's researchers are able to have access to the very latest thinking on scientific dating methods.


Accelerating the path to new discoveries

Particle Accelerators enable scientists to pursue inspirational goals, such as discovering the nature of dark matter, but with beams of light 10,000 times brighter than the sun they can also be used to probe the nature of more everyday things. Scientists at the UK’s Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire have used the accelerator on experiments designed to help the fight against cancer, improve air safety and energy efficiency and even design a much safer vaccine for foot-and-mouth disease.


Facial recognition tool for Lemurs developed

BMC Zoology

Being able to identify individual animals is a key part of understanding the demographic and evolutionary processes that occur in populations, and yet current techniques are expensive and often impractical for large scale studies. To try and overcome these problems a team of lemur biologists and computer scientists have developed and tested a facial recognition system that can identify individual lemurs in the wild with a high degree of accuracy. It is hoped that once optimized, this system can provide a rapid, cost-effective, and accurate method for individual identification.


Dogs in tune with earth’s magnetic field

BMC Frontiers in Zoology

In previous research scientists have shown that several species spontaneously align their bodies with the earth’s magnetic field when engaging in certain behaviours. In this research a team of scientists in Germany and the Czech Republic observed 37 breeds of dog over a two-year period, and found that in calm conditions dogs preferred to excrete with the body being aligned along the north–south axis.

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