Archive for May, 2009

Green-Glowing Monkeys Are Called a Genetic Engineering Milestone

By Eliza Strickland | May 27, 2009 5:22 pm

glow monkeyFive small monkeys that glow green under ultraviolet light are providing a beacon for medical research. Researchers introduced a jellyfish gene that codes for a fluorescent protein into the embryos of marmosets, and found that the resulting monkeys expressed the gene in all the cells of their body, including their egg and sperm cells–which means the genetically engineered primates can naturally pass on the foreign trait to their offspring. While creating a family of glowing monkeys doesn’t have obvious benefits for medical science, researchers say the study was really just a proof of concept.

Researchers have added genes to rhesus macaques before, but the new work with marmosets is the first to document that monkeys can pass an inserted gene along to future generations. That’s important because it opens the door to creating colonies of such “transgenic” monkeys by breeding, which would be far simpler than the cumbersome process of making each animal from scratch by inserting genes into embryos [AP]. Now that researchers have mastered the technique, they hope to create transgenic monkeys that carry genes associated with such diseases as Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World

How Seismic and Radiation Monitoring Reveal North Korea's Nuclear Secrets

By Eliza Strickland | May 27, 2009 3:47 pm

North Korea nuclear testEven before North Korea announced that it had conducted its second underground test of a nuclear weapon, scientists around the world were putting together a picture of what had happened. With a combination of seismic and radiation monitoring, scientists expect to soon have a working idea of how far the rogue nation’s nuclear program has advanced.

At 9:55 a.m. local time on Monday, two seismic monitoring stations on the Japanese coast detected seismic waves coming from the area where North Korea last tested a nuclear weapon, in 2006. The region has little natural seismic activity, and experts noted that the waves didn’t match patterns produced by earthquakes. Movements along natural fault lines transmit most of their energy through ‘s-waves’, whereas explosions at a single point release a greater proportion through compressional p-waves. In the waves detected in Japan, the s-wave component was just one-fifth that of the p-wave. “You can’t say it’s impossible for a natural earthquake, but it would be very rare,” says Gen Aoki of the Japan Meteorological Agency in Tokyo [Nature News].

Experts note that the network of blast detectors intended for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which has not yet come into force, seems to have perfectly identified the explosion as a nuclear test, despite its small size. [In 1998, the U.S. Senate] rejected the CTBT partly over fears that countries could cheat, by claiming small covert weapons tests were earthquakes. The detection of the North Korean test raises hopes that the Senate will no longer be able to object [New Scientist]. But scientists had to do more than simply show that an underground explosion had sent ripples through the earth; they also have to determine how big the bomb was, and prove that the tremors weren’t caused by conventional explosives.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology

Scientists ID the Culprit Threatening Chinese Sturgeon With Extinction

By Eliza Strickland | May 27, 2009 1:07 pm

Chinese sturgeonChina’s recent economic boom has come at the cost of polluted landscapes and newly endangered species, and now a new study explains how another species has been left teetering on the brink of extinction. The endangered Chinese sturgeon live in the East China and Yellow seas and return to China’s Yangtze River to spawn. Construction of dams on the river is thought to have contributed to a decline in the species, and an artificial propagation effort has not resulted in recovery of the fish [AP]. But the new study shows that a chemical called triphenyltin (TPT), which is commonly used in paint, may be the true culprit behind the sturgeon’s decline.

The tin-containing organic compound TPT is extensively used in paints to prevent the fouling of ship hulls and fishing nets. It is also used in fungicide to treat crops in China. A derivative of TPT is also used to eliminate snails in paddy fields [Reuters]. In the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that river water polluted with the chemical is producing sturgeon with misshapen skeletons and deformed eyes.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World

Found: The Earliest Known Leprosy Patient

By Eliza Strickland | May 27, 2009 10:37 am

leprosy skullThe disease of leprosy has been eating away at humankind for the past 4,000 years, according to a newly discovered skeleton that showed signs of the ailment. Researchers say that the ancient leper provides clues to how the disease spread through the human population. The skeleton was found at the site of Balathal, near Udaipur in northwestern India. Historians have long considered the Indian subcontinent to be the source of the leprosy that was first reported in Europe in the fourth century B.C., shortly after the armies of Alexander the Great returned from India [The New York Times].

The skeleton was buried, which is uncommon in the Hindu tradition unless the person is highly respected or unfit to be cremated, a category that included outcasts, pregnant women, children under 5, victims of magic or curses, and lepers. The leper’s skeleton was interred within a large stone enclosure that had been filled with vitrified ash from burned cow dung, the most sacred and purifying of substances in Vedic tradition [LiveScience]. A close examination of the skull showed eroded pits typical of advanced leprosy, as well as tooth loss and root exposure.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Human Origins

Chemistry Experiment Produces the Ultimate Wine Taster

By Eliza Strickland | May 27, 2009 9:00 am

wine barrelsUsing a fancy piece of chemistry equipment to study the chemical composition of wine, European researchers have one-upped the sophisticated palates of wine connoisseurs. The researchers used ultra high resolution mass spectrometry to sort through all the chemical compounds present in wines that had been aged in oak barrels, and found that for each wine, they could determine which French forest the oak was cut from. No other approach – analytical or sensory – has been able to significantly discriminate wines according to the species or the origin of the oak used for the barrels before, they say [Chemistry World].

The findings could prove useful to wine connoisseurs and historians, the researchers said, concluding that their findings produced “chemical representations of the way such noble nectar can shape, on the (tongue) of the wine taster, some of the outlines of the scene of its birth” [AP]. Similar analyses could also be used to detect wine fraud, the researchers noted.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Technology

A Burning "Infofuse" Can Transmit Messages Via Colored Flames

By Eliza Strickland | May 26, 2009 4:25 pm

infofuses“LOOK MOM NO ELECTRICITY.” That was the first message conveyed by a rudimentary new communication system that researchers are calling the “infofuse.” In a new study, researchers printed patterns of three different flammable metallic salts on a nitrocellulose fuse and then set the fuse on fire. As it burned, it emitted pulses of different colored light that can be interpreted with a Morse code system.

In the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers explain that they developed a code for the alphabet, numbers and four special characters (a full-stop, comma, exclamation mark and the “@” sign) based on the presence or absence of one of the three metals in each dot. Extra coding information comes from the length of the dot, which determines the duration with which it burns, and the space between dots, where no colour is produced [New Scientist]. They placed dots of the three metals–lithium, rubidium, and caesium–on the paper using an ordinary ink-jet printer. When the infofuse was set alight, its precise patterns were “read” by an optical detector.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology

More Dust Storms = Faster Snowmelt in the Rockies, Less Water This Summer

By Eliza Strickland | May 26, 2009 3:47 pm

RockiesFierce dust storms this spring have stained Colorado’s snow-covered peaks with brown, red, and pink dust, and state officials point out that this isn’t just a change in scenery. The darker snow is absorbing more radiation from the sun and is therefore melting faster and sooner than it normally would, which is upsetting the careful water rationing that defines life in the American West. Twelve dust storms barreled into the southern Rockies from the deserts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico so far this year…. That, coupled with unseasonably warm temperatures, has sped up the runoff here, swelling rivers to near flood stage, threatening to make reservoirs overflow and fueling fears that there will not be enough water left for late-summer crops [Los Angeles Times]. 

In Colorado, melting snow accounts for about 80 percent of the water that flows through rivers and ends up in the state’s lakes and reservoirs. Colorado water engineer Scott Brinton explains that the early snowmelt could spell disaster for thousands of farmers and ranchers in the region who depend on slowly melting snow to provide water flows over the dry summer months…. “Those people who were relying on the mountain snowpack are going to have difficulty later in the year…. There’s not a whole lot we can do about it,” Brinton said. “We’re telling people, ‘You’ll be getting your water early this year, so use it while it lasts’” [Greenwire]. But scientists note that this may not be just a year of freak storms, it may be a harbinger of things to come.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment

Mars Rover Followed Mineral "Blueberries" to a Watery Discovery

By Eliza Strickland | May 26, 2009 1:42 pm

Mars Victoria craterFor two years, the Mars rover Opportunity explored the Victoria crater and dutifully sent back reports on the sedimentary rock layers on display in the crater walls and the scattering of pebbles on the sunken floor. Now, the results of that comprehensive survey have been compiled and compared to data gleaned from Opportunity’s exploration of two smaller craters several miles away. The study shows that shifting sand dunes on ancient Mars once concealed a network of underground water spread across an area the size of Oklahoma…. “Given that we’ve seen the same stuff at places that are miles apart, it is a reasonable conjecture that those processes operated over most of this region” [National Geographic News], says lead researcher Steve Squyres.

The rover had previously explored the Eagle and Endurance craters, about 3.7 miles (6 kilometers) away from Victoria. Mission scientists chose Victoria as the next crater to explore because “it was the biggest crater we could possibly find,” said Steve Squyres…. The science team hoped that Victoria’s depth — of about 400 feet (125 meters) — might shed more light on the geology of the Meridiani Planum region [LiveScience]. Like a child in a fairy tale following a trail of pebbles, Opportunity also studied the small, round rocks made of the mineral hematite as it trundled towards the Victoria crater in 2006.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
MORE ABOUT: Mars, Mars rovers, NASA, robots

Not So Bird-Brained After All: Rooks Make and Use Tools

By Eliza Strickland | May 26, 2009 10:13 am

rooks toolFour rooks by the names of Cook, Connelly, Fry, and Monroe have upped estimates of birds’ intelligence by mastering a series of challenges in which they had to use tools to get tasty worms. Researchers say that the birds’ skills rivalled those of well-known tool users such as chimpanzees and New Caledonian crows…. “The study shows the creativity and insight that rooks have when they solve problems,” [BBC News], says study coauthor Nathan Emery. Their abilities are all the more remarkable, researchers say, because rooks are not known to use tools in the wild.

In the laboratory tests, researchers devised a series of challenges in which the rooks had to figure out how to release food from glass tubes. The first featured a worm on a platform that would collapse, allowing it to be eaten if a stone were nudged into the tube. All four birds completed the task. They also chose stones of appropriate shape for tubes of differing sizes.The rooks were also quick to realise that long, thin stones would fit in every tube, regardless of its diameter, as long as it went in lengthways [The Times]. But picking up stones was a modest accomplishment compared to what came next.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

Obama Picks a Former Astronaut to Be the First Black NASA Chief

By Eliza Strickland | May 26, 2009 8:43 am

BoldenThe man tasked with steering NASA through difficult transitions and pointing the space agency boldly towards the stars will be a former astronaut who has piloted the space shuttle. On Saturday, President Barack Obama announced his long-awaited nomination for NASA administrator: Charles F. Bolden Jr. If confirmed by the Senate, the former astronaut and retired Marine Corps general will be the first African-American to head the space agency.

The pick has been celebrated by NASA insiders, and is viewed as a signal that, after some signs of ambivalence, President Obama is now embracing the expensive manned spaceflight program. “Clearly Charlie Bolden would not have taken the job if he were being asked to shut down human spaceflight,” said John Logsdon, a space policy expert in Washington….  He added that a recent announcement of the administration’s plans to review the Ares 1 rocket and Orion spacecraft, which are to replace the space shuttle by 2015, is not a shot across the bow of NASA’s human spaceflight program. He said it would be a review of the hardware, not the destination or goals [Los Angeles Times].

However, it is not clear whether the new leadership will adopt all of the goals for human exploration of the solar system that were laid out by the Bush administration: namely, returning to the moon by 2020 and then working towards landing humans on Mars.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space
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