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California Institute of Technology

Nerve Cells That Make Petting Feel Good Discovered, Learn More While You Watch People Pet Cute Animals [Video]

Neuroscientists at the California Institute of Technology didn't know what to expect when they started researching a new type of skin cell they discovered in 2007, but what they may have found is impressive and adorable -- skin cells in furry animals that are specially designed to register the sensation of petting or stroking. These new cells could expand our entire understanding of petting animals, and redefine cuddling as we know it. Keep reading to learn more about the cells and see video of them in action on all sorts of animals.

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Astronomers Find Ice, Possibly Methane, on Distant Dwarf Planet

California Institute of Technology astronomers have found that about half of the surface of dwarf planet 2007 OR10, which goes by the punny nickname of Snow White, is covered in water ice that once flowed from ancient volcanoes. Findings also suggest that the planet (an artist's rendering seen above) is covered in a thin layer of methane, which is part of the remnants of an atmosphere fizzling out into space.

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Scientists Create Test Tube Brain, Use it to Play 20 Questions

Scientists at the California Institute of Technology have successfully created a rudimentary "brain" out of DNA molecules, and shown that it can be programmed to complete some basic tasks. The design was based on single-celled organisms that, while lacking a brain, are able to process information through the interaction of organic molecules.

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Farthest, Largest Mass of Water Discovered Around Quasar

Two teams working with researchers from the California Institute of Technology have discovered the largest mass of water yet observed. The gaseous, watery cloud was spotted around the quasar APM 08279+5255 some 30 billion trillion miles from Earth. And yes, there will be a lot more "-illions" used before the end of this post. The water surrounding the quasar is in the form of vapor, but taken all together it is about 140 trillion times the amount of water in Earth's oceans and is 100,000 times more massive than our sun. Because the quasar is so far away, its light has taken 12 billion years to reach Earth. This fantastic distance gives scientists a unique look at what the universe looked like when it was a mere 1.6 billion years old. (For reference, NASA estimates that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old.) Interestingly, water is not uncommon throughout the universe, though the amount of water around this quasar alone is estimated to be 4,000 times the water in the Milky Way.

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New Exoplanet Is Candidate For Life, Orbits Two Stars

The search for an Earth-like planet (an ExoEarth) with the characteristics necessary to support life has captured the minds and imaginations of scientists and the public alike. Researchers have already discovered several possibles, but a new planet has been discovered that, in addition to being likely to support life, also orbits two distinct stars. Named 55 Cancri f, the newly discovered planet is one of five that orbits an orange dwarf star and a red dwarf star approximately 40 light years away from Earth, in the constellation Cancer. The research to study the planet was led by Kaspar von Braun from the California Institute of Technology. By measuring the planet's orbit, the researchers were able to confirm that it is a candidate to support liquid water, the basis for life like ours on any planet.

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Turning Mice Into Psychopaths at the Flip of a Switch

Scientists have long known that the hypothalamus, sometimes called the "reptilian brain," is responsible for many basic functions like breathing in addition to being involved with emotions like anger and sexual desire. But Dr. Dayu Lin with the California Institute of Technology has taken our understanding of the hypothalamus' role a step further by controlling some of it's functions using light. Through a process called optogenetics, Dr. Lin made certain areas of a mouse's hypothalamus, specifically a region called the ventrolateral ventromedial hypothalamus (VMHvl), sensitive to light. Using fiberoptic cables, Dr. Lin was able to target these areas and stimulate them with light. The results were immediate and dramatic. From Discover magazine:

If the mice were alone, nothing happened when Lin shone a light onto their brains. But if they had company, it was a different story. A flash of light, and the mice transformed from Jekylls into Hydes. They rapidly attacked other mice, whether male, female or anaesthetised. They would even assail an inflated glove.

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