Archive for April, 2009

"Space Tornadoes" Power the Northern Lights

By Eliza Strickland | April 28, 2009 5:26 pm

northern lightsThanks to a quintet of satellites and a backup posse of ground-based telescopes, researchers have gotten their best look ever at how auroras–also known as the southern and northern lights–begin to form in space. The dazzling light displays are provoked by “space tornadoes,” researchers say.

Whirling at more than a million miles per hour, these invisible, funnel-shaped solar windstorms carry electrical currents of more than a hundred thousand amps—roughly ten times that of an average lightning strike—scientists announced….  And they’re huge: up to 44,000 miles (70,000 kilometers) long and wide enough to envelop Earth [National Geographic News].

The observations were made as part of NASA’s THEMIS mission, which uses the satellites and telescopes to study how solar winds, the charged particles that stream from the sun, interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. On the Earth’s dark side, the solar wind stretches out the field, forming a region known as the magnetotail. The magnetotail is like a rubber band; when it is stretched too far, “eventually it snaps and releases the energy”, says team member Andreas Keiling [New Scientist]. That snap creates turbulence and forms the tornadoes, researchers announced at the European Geosciences Union meeting.

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New Biotech Corn Gives Triple Vitamin Boost; Protestors Unmoved

By Rachel Cernansky | April 28, 2009 3:29 pm

corn1.jpgA new genetically modified (GM) corn that produces beta carotene and precursors of vitamin C and folic acid is the first crop to be engineered to make more than one vitamin. Says lead researcher Paul Christou: “The major message of the paper is that it’s possible to engineer crops with multiple nutrients…. If you look at other nutritionally enhanced GM crops, up until now people have only been able to increase levels of one nutrient or vitamin” [Wired]. But anti-GM campaigners have not been won over by the scientific feat, even though the research behind it was not funded by agricultural corporations.

The researchers inserted five genes from other organisms—including rice and Escherichia coli—into a popular South African white corn variety called M37W that Christou said is “completely devoid of vitamins” [Los Angeles Times]. They then bombarded the corn embryos with metal particles coated with chunks of DNA that, if taken up by the embryo, would alter its internal biochemical processes to make it produce the vitamins [BBC]. Follow-up analysis of plants grown from the modified seeds showed not only their successful manipulation, but that the changes lasted several generations. The changes amounted to a 169-fold increase in beta carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. The corn also has six times the normal amount of vitamin C and double the usual level of folate [Los Angeles Times].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Health & Medicine

Geothermal Explosion Highlights a Downside of a Leading Alt-Energy Source

By Eliza Strickland | April 28, 2009 2:05 pm

geothermal leakA leading geothermal company has been rocked by an explosion from a well drilled deep into the earth, which was part of a system that converts the heat from buried rocks into clean, green energy. On Friday evening at the South Australian test site, a burst of pressurized water and steam blew through the well “cellar,” the 22-foot deep concrete structure set in the ground through which the deeper well is drilled.

In geothermal energy systems, wells are drilled two or three miles deep and water is circulated past the hot rocks at that depth to collect heat; the resulting steam is then used to run turbines in a power plant. Geodynamics, the Brisbane-based company that operates the South Australia well, is widely tipped as being closest to making the technology cost effective. Geodynamics holds the rights to a potential power supply of up to 10 gigawatts trapped in a 1000-square kilometre slab of hot granite deep under the town of Innamincka in South Australia [New Scientist]. But this accident is an embarrassment for the cutting-edge company. No one was injured by the blast, but the company was forced to suspend work on its first demonstration power plant, and a nearby highway was diverted.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology

Lab-Grown Blood Vessels Could Provide Safe Docking Station for Dialysis

By Eliza Strickland | April 28, 2009 10:40 am

dialysisBlood vessels grown from patients’ own skin cells have been used to make the process of dialysis safer and easier for people with failing kidneys, and researchers say the process may one day be used to custom-produce blood vessels for patients with circulatory problems in their hearts or legs [AP].

Kidney patients need frequent dialysis to filter their blood, and that requires a vessel, or shunt, to connect them to dialysis machines. This can be made from their own vessels. But because dialysis is done so regularly, kidney patients often run out of healthy vessels and need an artificial one, often made out of [Gore-Tex]. Those are prone to infection and inflammation [AP].

For the new study, published in The Lancet, researchers took small snips of skin from the backs of ten patients’ hands and extracted two cell types — fibroblasts from the skin which provide the structural backbone of the vein, and endothelial cells to form the lining of the vein [Reuters]. In the lab, those cells were grown into sheets of tissue that were then rolled into tubes measuring about six inches long, which then fused at the seams. Those tubes were essentially new blood vessels. The whole process took between six to nine months.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
MORE ABOUT: diabetes, kidneys

As Swine Flu Spreads, Focus Shifts to a Potential Vaccine

By Eliza Strickland | April 28, 2009 9:00 am

swine flu churchAs the swine flu outbreak continues to spread, with Russia, South Korea, and Australia joining the list of countries with suspected cases and the death toll climbing in Mexico, attention has turned to the potential of a swine flu vaccine that could protect populations from infection. But a new vaccine takes some months to develop. Says Iain Stephenson, an expert on flu vaccines: “We are in a position where if a swine flu virus becomes a pandemic we don’t currently have a vaccine for it…. I think that it is unlikely there will be widespread vaccine in less than six to eight months” [Telegraph]. In the meantime, says Stephenson, patients can be treated with antiviral drugs.

International health officials haven’t yet decided whether the swine flu poses a serious worldwide threat that would call for the immediate prioritizing of a vaccine. The pharmaceutical company Novartis said it had received the genetic code of the new virus strain, enabling it to start work on evaluating production, and it hoped to receive the actual virus in its laboratories “in the near future.” … But the World Health Organisation (WHO) said it would only call for large-scale production of such a pandemic vaccine if it strongly believed the world was on the edge of an unstoppable global outbreak of flu [Reuters]. Vaccine companies are currently producing the seasonal flu vaccine, and health officials worry that calling them off that task could lead to shortages of the common flu shot.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Promising New Malaria Vaccine Is Extracted From Irradiated Mosquito Spit

By Rachel Cernansky | April 27, 2009 4:52 pm

malaria.jpgThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved human trials of a new malaria vaccine: it is made from a weakened form of the entire malaria-causing parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, extracted from irradiated mosquito spit. Sanaria, the company producing the vaccine, has been working with a particular stage of the P. falciparum parasite called a sporozoite. This is the stage when it leaves the mosquito’s salivary glands to enter the human bloodstream [Reuters].

To produce the vaccine, Sanaria weakens the parasite by feeding human, infected blood to mosquitoes, then [exposes] the mosquitoes to enough irradiation to cripple the parasite [New Scientist]. The mosquitoes are then killed and their saliva is extracted by hand, with each of six laboratory workers averaging a rate of 100 mosquitoes per hour. With every mosquito containing about two doses in its spit, Sanaria founder Stephen Hoffman estimates that about 1,200 doses are produced per hour.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Global Warming Forces an Alaska Town to Relocate

By Eliza Strickland | April 27, 2009 3:42 pm

Newtok, AlaskaThe 340 residents of Newtok, Alaska will soon be among the first “climate refugees” in the United States. Global warming has battered the tiny coastal town: As average yearly temperatures rise, coastal ice shelves melt as does the permafrost on which the town sits.  The Ninglick River has overtaken the town as the ground level simultaneously sinks [Backpacker blog]. As a result, the town’s scattered buildings are connected by a network of boardwalks across the mud.

With the forces of nature arrayed against them, the townspeople have now voted to relocate their town to a new site nine miles inland, on higher ground by the river. “We are seeing the erosion, flooding and sinking of our village right now,” said Stanley Tom, a Yup’ik Eskimo and tribal administrator for the Newtok Traditional Council…. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated that moving Newtok could cost $130 million. Twenty-six other Alaskan villages are in immediate danger, with an additional 60 considered under threat in the next decade, according to the corps [CNN].

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Sniffing Out Sickness: Mouse Noses Respond to the Urine of Diseased Mice

By Eliza Strickland | April 27, 2009 10:06 am

mouse noseResearchers may have determined the method by which some animals can literally sniff out a sick individual–and hence avoid it to protect their own health. A team of scientists has identified a type of smell receptor in mice that seems to respond to disease-related molecules produced by bacteria, viruses, or as the result of inflammation [New Scientist].

Scientists have previously identified a number of mouse smell receptors, cell-surface proteins in the animals’ noses that pick up everything from the fragrance of food to the scent of fear…. Neurogeneticist Ivan Rodriguez of the University of Geneva in Switzerland and colleagues wondered whether there might be additional such receptors that respond to a disease “scent,” perhaps by detecting chemicals associated with bacteria and inflammation [ScienceNOW Daily News]. After scanning the mouse genome for genes in the olfactory system, they detected genes for five new smell receptors that seemed to be likely candidates. The receptors are part of a known family of proteins that are involved in immune response; other proteins in the same family detect chemicals given off by pathogens in an animal’s own blood.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain

Fears of a Swine Flu Pandemic Increase as the Virus Goes Global

By Eliza Strickland | April 27, 2009 8:43 am

swine fluThe swine flu outbreak that began in Mexico over the past few weeks has gone global, spread to new continents by infected air travelers returning from Mexico. Confirmed cases have been reported in the United States, Canada, and Spain, while suspected cases are being investigated in France, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Israel, and New Zealand. Amid fears that a global pandemic is in the offing, governments around the world are taking new precautions. Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Indonesia, and the Philippines dusted off thermal scanners used during the 2003 SARS crisis and were checking for signs of fever among passengers arriving at airports from North America [AP]. 

The situation remains worst in Mexico City, where many schools and public buildings are closed and doctors have warned citizens to wear face masks and avoid crowds. The virus is believed to have killed 103 people in Mexico, and sickened at least 1,600. But so far, the cases reported elsewhere in the world haven’t been as deadly.

A 23-year-old Spanish man has tested positive for swine flu, and at least 17 further suspected cases are under investigation in Spain…. The patients concerned had all recently returned from Mexico. None of the cases is thought to be life threatening [BBC News]. There are now 20 confirmed cases in the United States, including eight associated with a New York City elementary school where some students had recently been to Mexico for spring break. While the United States has declared the outbreak a public health emergency, health officials note that all the U.S. cases thus far have been mild, with no deaths reported.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Metal Injections Make A Spider Silk that Spiderman Would Envy

By Rachel Cernansky | April 24, 2009 4:48 pm

800px-leucauge_venusta.jpgScientists have managed to make extra-strength spider silk—already notable for having a tensile strength higher than many alloys of steel, even though its comprised entirely of proteins [Ars Technica]—by incorporating small amounts of metal into it. A research team at the Max Planck Institute was inspired by studies showing traces of metals in the toughest parts of some insect body parts. The jaws of leaf-cutter ants and locusts, for example, both contain high levels of zinc, making them particularly stiff and hard [Reuters]. The researchers wanted to try adding metals into existing biological materials, and decided to start with the Araneus spider.

The researchers, whose work is published in Science, used atomic-layer deposition to pulse zinc, titanium, and aluminum ions into spider silk [Technology Review]. The process is used normally to apply a thin film layer of one material onto another, but the researchers found that the metal ions had actually penetrated and reacted with the protein structure of the silk, yielding a material significantly stronger than natural spider silk, though they don’t quite understand how the integration occurred. One of the researchers, Mato Knez, attributes the strengthening effect to the metal’s displacement of hydrogen bonds within the silk’s protein structure…. The team were also able to show that the outer metal coating of the silk was of minor importance in the improvement of strength, and therefore that the phenomena was caused by the metals imbedded in the protein fibres [Chemistry World].

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MORE ABOUT: insects, spiders

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