Archive for July, 2008

In a More Acidic Ocean, Coral Reef "Skeletons" May Crumble

By Eliza Strickland | July 29, 2008 7:54 pm

coral reef structure skeletonCoral reefs can resemble underwater monuments, with strong towers and meandering walls that stand firm against the tides. But a new study says that if global warming causes ocean water to become more acidic those elaborate structures may crumble because the cement-like binding agent that holds the reefs together won’t be able to form in those inhospitable waters.

Most of the world’s coral reefs aren’t yet showing signs of this degradation, as ocean pH is slow to change and reefs form slowly. But researchers got a chance to peer into the possible future in an area of the eastern Pacific off Central America… where the water is more acidic than elsewhere, thanks to the upwelling of carbon-dioxide-rich waters. Coral reefs in this region are poorly developed and tend to erode rapidly [The New York Times].

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Mars Phoenix Lander Wrestles With Sticky Dirt

By Eliza Strickland | July 29, 2008 4:47 pm

Mars Phoenix Lander scoopThe Mars Phoenix Lander has encountered some difficulties in its attempts to analyze the icy soil of Mars. Although the scoop on the end of the lander’s robotic arm has effectively scraped up samples from the rock-hard ice layer just below the dirt surface, the samples have stuck in the scoop, and haven’t fallen into the waiting instrument below.

The Phoenix team tried two methods of picking up and delivering a sample of the icy dirt over the weekend. In both cases, most of the sample stuck inside the lander’s inverted scoop at the end of its 7.71-foot (2.35-meter) robotic arm. “It has really been a science experiment just learning how to interact with the icy soil on Mars — how it reacts with the scoop, its stickiness, whether it’s better to have it in the shade or sunlight,” [researcher Peter] Smith said [].

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Dime-Sized Microscope Could Be a Boon for Developing World Health

By Eliza Strickland | July 29, 2008 2:45 pm

tiny microscopeResearchers have invented a microscope that’s about the size of a tiny iPod shuffle, and say the cheap, disposable, and sturdy device could be a boon for doctors in the developing world. The microscope, which researchers say could be mass-produced for about $10, could be used to quickly scan a patient’s blood for the parasites that cause malaria, sleeping sickness, and other tropical diseases, for example.

The new tool could be a useful alternative to the typically bulky optical microscopes, in which lenses and lights normally needed to illuminate, magnify and focus an image take up a lot of space, and are fragile and expensive to boot [New Scientist]. In contrast, researcher Changhuei Yang says his invention could be slipped into a doctor’s pocket, and could be brought to the most isolated village. “The whole thing is truly compact, it could be put in a cell phone, and it can use just sunlight for illumination, which makes it very appealing for Third World applications,” he said [The Independent].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Technology

Cholesterol-Lowering Drugs Could Dramatically Cut Dementia Risk

By Eliza Strickland | July 29, 2008 9:25 am

medications pills stethoscopeThe cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins are already one of the most commonly prescribed medications, taken by 15 million Americans in an attempt to ward off heart disease. Now, a new study suggests that the drugs may also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia by 50 percent.

While the provocative finding offers hope that the cholesterol-reducing drugs might help against Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, scientists say this study is unlikely to be the last word on the topic. Indeed, it may just fuel an already lively debate over statins’ potential effect on dementia. Some research has hinted at benefits, while other studies, particularly in people with clear signs of Alzheimer’s disease, show no effect from the drugs [Science News].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain

Tiny Tree Shrews Live on Alcohol, but Never Get Drunk

By Eliza Strickland | July 29, 2008 8:35 am

tree shrewResearchers have discovered that tiny mammals called the pen-tailed tree shrews spend hours each night sipping fermented palm nectar, but show no sign of intoxication–in other words, they don’t fall down after a nighttime binge.

The creatures live deep in the Malaysian rainforest, and have one favorite food source: the bertam palm, whose flowers have a very strong and distinctive smell. “They smell like a brewery,” [researcher Frank] Weins says. In fact, the flower buds function as brewing chambers — they have been invaded by previously unknown species of yeast, which ferment the nectar into frothy alcohol. “The maximum alcohol concentration that we recorded was 3.8 percent,” Weins says. “That’s in the range of a beer” [NPR].

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MORE ABOUT: alcohol, rainforest, shrews

5 of 21 Federally Approved Stem Cell Lines Are Ethically Tainted

By Eliza Strickland | July 28, 2008 6:00 pm

stem cellsSeveral medical research institutions are reconsidering the use of five stem cell lines that are approved for federal-funded research by the National Institutes of Health, citing recently discovered problems with the consent forms signed by the patients at fertility clinics who donated their extra embryos to medical research. Now, ethics oversight committees at universities across the United States are questioning which lines should be permissible for research [Nature News].

Stanford and San Francisco-based [California Institute for Regenerative Medicine] — the $3 billion state agency created when California voters approved the sale of bonds to fund embryonic stem cell research — along with Johns Hopkins University have stopped or may stop research on five of the 21 lines that President Bush in August 2001 deemed acceptable for federal funding [San Jose Business Journal]. Researchers had already chafed at the narrow range of genetic diversity available from the 21 lines; this new development is likely to further limit their research options.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Virgin Galactic Unveils Its New Space Tourism Rocket

By Eliza Strickland | July 28, 2008 3:58 pm

Virgin Galactic WhiteKnight TwoAt an aircraft hangar deep in the Mojave Desert this morning, the space tourism company Virgin Galactic unveiled one of the crafts that will boost paying customers up to the edge of space. Called the “WhiteKnight Two” by British tycoon Richard Branson, the vehicle will act as a mothership by flying to 48,000 feet with a smaller spacecraft slung between its twin fuselages. Then the spacecraft, SpaceShip Two, will detach and fire its rocket engines to take the six passengers the rest of the way up.

A crowd of engineers, dignitaries and space enthusiasts gathered inside a Mojave Desert hangar for the unveiling countdown. As the hangar door flew open, White Knight Two appeared outside under the sunny desert sky with Branson and American aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan waving from the cabin. White Knight Two, billed as the world’s largest all-carbon-composite aircraft, is “one of the most beautiful and extraordinary aviation vehicles ever developed,” Branson said [AP].

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Ancient Continental Collisions May Have Provided Air to Breathe

By Eliza Strickland | July 28, 2008 1:27 pm

Himalayas mountainsResearchers have proposed a new theory for how oxygen production was kick-started billions of years ago, when only trace amounts of the gas existed in the Earth’s atmosphere. When continents collided they started a chain reaction, researchers say, that eventually produced a hospitable, oxygen-rich atmosphere. They argue that the tectonic collisions that created the Superia/Sclavia, Nuna, Rodinia, Gondwana and Pangaea supercontinents also formed supermountains, which eroded rapidly, washing vast amounts of nutrients into the oceans. This fuelled explosions of oxygen-producing algae and bacteria [New Scientist].

The Australian researchers say that each collision of tectonic plates caused a bump in oxygen levels, and that studies of modern mountain formation bear out their theory. Other scientists have already shown that the formation and erosion of the Himalayas led to increases in atmospheric oxygen, [study coauthor Charlotte] Allen notes. “Scale up the Himalaya to supercontinental proportions and you have a modern analogue for what we think happened seven major times in earth’s history” [ABC Science]. However, some experts have expressed skepticism regarding the new theory.

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Hoping to Boost Heart Health, California Bans Trans Fats

By Eliza Strickland | July 28, 2008 9:16 am

fast food hamburgers donutsCalifornia is striking a blow against obesity and heart disease: On Friday, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill outlawing the use of trans fats in all restaurants and bakeries. The bill creates the first state-wide ban of trans fats, but follows the path set out by cities like New York City and Philadelphia, which have already evicted the substance from restaurants within city limits.

Trans fats are created by pumping hydrogen into liquid oil at high temperature, a process called partial hydrogenation. The process results in an inexpensive fat that prolongs the shelf life and appearance of packaged foods and that, many fast-food restaurants say, helps make cooked food crisp and flavorful [The New York Times]. The artificial fats have been shown to increase levels of “bad” cholesterol and decrease levels of “good” cholesterol, and are therefore linked to heart disease.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

A Conventional Brain Scan Could Diagnose Alzheimer's

By Eliza Strickland | July 28, 2008 8:22 am

MRI brain scansResearchers have caught sight of Alzheimer’s-like plaques in the brains of rabbits using a conventional MRI scan, in what could be an important step towards early detection of Alzheimer’s in humans. Researchers say that an earlier, easier diagnosis of the disease would allow patients to try more drugs and other therapies that could slow the progress of dementia.

Diagnosis by a commonly available clinical MRI scan would be a vast improvement over current methods. Many tools are used to look for signs of Alzheimer’s, including a battery of cognitive and behavioral tests… and imaging studies called PET scans that require the injection of special chemicals that help light up the brain. But doctors can make a definitive diagnosis only after a patient dies by identifying the presence of brain lesions called amyloid plaques [USA Today].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain
MORE ABOUT: Alzheimer’s, dementia, MRI

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