You may have missed… Decoding brain activity to spell sentences; Cone Nebula; rapid rain bursts in Sydney, and Sumatran rhino mini-brain.

Spectacular new image of a star factory, the Cone Nebula

Scientists at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) have been discovering the secrets of the universe since the ESO was established in 1962.

To mark its 60th year anniversary, the ESO has released a new image of the Cone Nebula – captured earlier this year with the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). You can access the images here.

The seven-light-year-long pillar of the Cone Nebula is part of the larger star-forming region NGC 2264 and was discovered in the late 18th century by astronomer, William Herschel. This horn-shaped nebula is located less than 2,500 light-years away from Earth, seen in the constellation Monoceros (The Unicorn).

In the image, hydrogen gas is represented in blue and sulphur gas in red.

Full size image of the cone nebula
The Cone Nebula is a perfect example of the pillar-like shapes that develop in the giant clouds of cold molecular gas and dust, known for creating new stars. This type of pillar arises when massive, newly formed bright blue stars give off stellar winds and intense ultraviolet radiation that blow away the material from their vicinity. As this material is pushed away, the gas and dust further away from the young stars gets compressed into dense, dark and tall pillar-like shapes. This process helps create the dark Cone Nebula, pointing away from the brilliant stars in NGC 2264. Credit: ESO

First steps towards a second chance for the Sumatran rhino

The Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) was once found across large parts of East and South East Asia. But due to poaching and habitat destruction only a few dozen remain, so mating encounters between males and females are becoming increasingly rare.

These rhinos have been considered extinct in Malaysia since 2019, following the death of the last male (Kertam) and female (Iman). But a team of researchers is trying to turn skin cells from the deceased rhinos into stem cells, from which they could then derive sperm and egg cells, to be fertilised in the laboratory for assisted reproduction.

Sumatran rhino kertam surrounded by green foliage
Sumatran rhino Kertam on the island of Borneo. Credit: Ben Jastram, Leibniz-IZW

The team has now reported an initial success in a study published in the journal iScience, having generated induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) from Kertam’s skin samples. These cells are able to divide indefinitely (so they never die) and are able to transform into any cell type in the body.

They were also able to grow brain organoids, called “mini-brains”, from these iPS cells. Their next goal is to use them to grow sperm suitable for artificial insemination.

“This step is more difficult,” says first author Dr Vera Zywitza, from the Pluripotent Stem Cells Platform at the Max Delbrück Center in Germany.

“To obtain sperm cells, we first need to use the iPS cells to cultivate primordial germ cells – the precursors of eggs and sperm.”

A microscopic cross-sectional image of a brain organoid
Pictured here is a one-month old brain organoid of a rhinoceros. In this microscopic cross-sectional image, progenitor cells of neurons can be seen in red. Fully developed neurons are colored green. Credit: Silke Frahm-Barske, Max Delbrück Center

A device that decodes brain activity to spell sentences

Neuroprostheses are devices used to replace function lost in the nervous system, and a team of international researchers has developed one capable of decoding the brain activity of a participant with severe vocal and limb paralysis.

The findings, published in a new study in Nature Communications, highlight the potential for a device that generates sentences through a spelling-based approach.

They used deep-learning and language-modelling techniques to decode letter sequences as the participant attempted to silently spell, using code words that represented the 26 letters in the English alphabet – for example “alpha” for “a”.

Read more: ‘Mind-reading’ may help those who cannot speak.

They were able to decode sentences using words from a 152-word vocabulary at a speed of 29.4 characters per minute, and an average character error rate of 6.13%. Then, in further experiments, they found that the approach generalised to large vocabularies containing over 9,000 words, averaging a 8.23% error rate.

Further research is needed to demonstrate if this approach is reproduceable in other patients.

Rapid rain bursts in Sydney intensified by 40% over last two decades

Australian researchers have pioneered a new technique using weather radar data to identify rapid rain bursts. Also referred to as “sub-hourly heavy rainfall”, these destructive short bursts of rain overwhelm roads, gutters, and drainage systems in as little as 10 minutes.

During a rapid rain burst huge amounts of water falls over a small region, increasing the likelihood and severity of flash flooding.

Using data from Sydney, and overlapping radars over Newcastle, Terrey Hills and Wollongong, the researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes (CLEx) identified a 40% increase in the intensity of rapid rain bursts in Sydney over 20 years.

“Previously, it was not possible to get this kind of data about rapid rain bursts,” says first author Dr Hooman Ayat from the University of Melbourne.

“Previously, rain gauges, climate models and satellites have struggled to accurately identify rain bursts on such small time scales. However, our new data analysis technique was able to take historical weather radar data to get a much stronger picture of these rapid rain bursts.”

The research has been published in Science.

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