Archive for July, 2009

Much-Ballyhooed Carbon Capture Plant Hasn't Stored a Thing

By Eliza Strickland | July 29, 2009 5:08 pm

coal trainWhen a small coal-fired power plant opened in northern Germany last September, it was heralded as the first example of a technology that could save us from the ravages of global warming, while allowing us to keep burning cheap and plentiful coal. The demonstration plant, built and operated by the Swedish power company Vattenfall, was designed to capture its carbon dioxide emissions and to pump them deep underground in a process called carbon capture and storage (CCS). But the project has thus far been a victim of “numbyism” – not under my backyard [The Guardian].

The plant’s managers say they’ve captured about 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide, but they haven’t been able to pipe it underground to the selected underground zone, where scientists say the atmosphere-warming carbon dioxide would instead be trapped in the rocks. Locals, apparently, aren’t so sure about the technology. “It was supposed to begin injecting by March or April of this year but we don’t have a permit. This is a result of the local public having questions about the safety of the project,” said Staffan Gortz, head of carbon capture and storage communication at Vattenfall. He said he did not expect to get a permit before next spring: “People are very, very sceptical” [The Guardian].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology

Swimming Sea Creatures Are the Ocean's Cocktail Stirs

By Allison Bond | July 29, 2009 3:46 pm

The motion of jellyfish and other sea creatures might mix the oceans just as much as the winds and tides do, according to a study published in Nature. The study’s findings provide support for a theory called Darwin drift, which was developed by Charles Galton Darwin (the grandson of the Darwin). The theory holds that a body moving through water brings along some of the wet stuff.

To test the theory of Darwin drift, researchers first modeled the motion of swimming organisms in a lab, using liquids of various viscosities, or levels of internal resistance. They found that bodies drag more liquid along with them when the liquid is thicker. This effect can be significant; in fact, when marine plankton-sized objects moved a couple of body lengths forward in the most viscous liquids, they carried with them up to four times their volume in liquid. Next the researchers monitored jellyfish as they swam through clouds of dye in a lake on the Pacific island of Palau. A trail of dye followed each animal, as Darwin’s mechanism would predict. Using a laser-equipped camera, the team then measured the dye’s movement and the stirring of suspended particles in the animal’s wake [Nature News]. The scientists found that the mechanism proposed by Galton Darwin provided for 90 percent of the mixing between the water and the dye. 

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Mammal-Like Tree-Climbing Critter Lived 30 Million Years Before Dinosaurs

By Allison Bond | July 29, 2009 3:01 pm

SuminiaThe oldest known tree-dwelling vertebrate lived 30 million years before the dinosaurs, scientists have found. The animal, known as Suminia getmanovi, had opposable thumbs and long hands, which would have allowed it to live in trees, according to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

A team of researchers found that Suminia, which lived about 260 million years ago, had disproportionately long arms and slender, curved fingers that were well-adapted to grabbing tree branches. But perhaps most importantly, one finger on each hand and foot was “opposed” to the rest, much like a thumb. “It’s the first time in the fossil record that we’ve seen evidence of an opposable thumb,” [said lead researcher Jorg Frobisch], adding that the creature was an early ancestor of mammals [BBC News]. The 12 well-preserved Suminia skeletons the scientists analyzed, which were found in Russia the 1990s, predate by 100 million years what was previously thought to be the earliest tree-dwelling animal.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

Crowdsourced Astronomy Project Discovers “Green Pea” Galaxies

By Eliza Strickland | July 29, 2009 1:38 pm

green pea galaxiesVolunteers helping astronomers classify galaxies in an online project have identified an entirely new type of galaxy, which they dubbed “green pea” galaxies due to their resemblance to little green legumes floating in space. The citizen scientists who had noticed the oddities, and who came to call themselves the “Pea Corps” and the “Peas Brigade,” began to discuss the phenomena on an online forum, and soon enough professional astronomers with links to the project confirmed that the volunteers had found a never-before-seen type of galaxy.

Says astronomer Carolin Cardamone: “No one person could have done this on their own…. Even if we had managed to look through 10,000 of these images, we would have only come across a few Green Peas and wouldn’t have recognized them as a unique class of galaxies.” Of the one million galaxies that make up the image bank, the researchers found only 250 Green Peas [SPACE.com]. Cardamone and her colleagues wrote up the results, which will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology

Tanning Beds Declared Carcinogenic, Like Cigarettes and Formaldehyde

By Eliza Strickland | July 29, 2009 10:30 am

tanning bedAn international health agency has officially ruled that tanning beds pose as likely to cause cancer as cigarettes, asbestos, and arsenic. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) moved ultraviolet-emitting tanning beds from the category of “probably carcinogenic” to definitely “carcinogenic to humans.”

The IARC is an expert committee that makes recommendations to the World Health Organization. It made its decision following a review of research which concluded that the risk of melanoma – the most deadly form of skin cancer – was increased by 75% in people who started using sunbeds regularly before the age of 30. In addition, several studies have linked sunbed use to a raised risk of melanoma of the eye [BBC News]. The study results and the new classification were published in the journal Lancet Oncology, and experts say the findings are likely to prompt calls for stricter regulations of tanning salons.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
MORE ABOUT: cancer, health policy

Green Tech Co. Says It Has a Secret: A Fuel-Producing Wonder Organism

By Eliza Strickland | July 28, 2009 6:36 pm

Joule BiotechnologiesA startup biotechnology company unveiled its grand plans for a new energy source yesterday–although it didn’t share a few crucial details. The company, Joule Biotechnologies, says it has genetically engineered an organism that can efficiently produce unprecedented amounts of liquid fuel. However, chief executive Bill Sims will not reveal what that marvelous organism is. “If I tell you what the organism is, I’m inviting everyone else to take part in a transformational, evolutionary, game-changing technology” [Boston Globe], he says.

The company’s announcement comes soon after both ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical announced their investments in algae-derived biofuel production, and Joule’s technology has some similarities with those two projects. Like both those algae projects, Joule says it won’t be harvesting a plant and squeezing the oil out of it; instead the organism will secrete the fuel. But Sims says his organisms aren’t algae. In addition, Sims said the organisms do not need fresh water but can be grown in both brackish water or graywater, which is nonindustrial waste water from sources like baths and washing machines [Reuters].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Technology

Global Warming May Have Helped Make the Incas Mighty

By Allison Bond | July 28, 2009 5:28 pm

Machu Picchu 2The ancient civilization known as the Incan empire, which at its peak reached a population of 8 million people spread throughout South America, may owe its success at least in part to a warming climate, according to a study in the journal Climate of the Past. A rise in temperatures would have melted glaciers and allowed crops to grow further into the Andes mountains, fostering agricultural growth.

The study found that between 1100 and 1533 AD, temperatures increased several degrees, making it possible for the Incas to use new mountain land for agriculture. It also expanded the swath of land the empire occupied which, at its peak, spanned from the middle of Chile to the border shared by Ecuador and Colombia. This climate information came from an analysis of deeply buried sediment samples in the region the Incans once occupied. The researchers examined pollen and seeds buried in layers of mud on the floor of Lake Marcacocha in the Cuzco region of the Peruvian Andes. Similar to the rings in the trunk of a tree, each layer of sediment represents a fixed period of time. In the case of Lake Marcacocha, the researchers were able to analyze a 1,200-year-old sediment record [Discovery News].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Human Origins

Syncopated Rhythm Makes Orangutans Masterful Swingers

By Allison Bond | July 28, 2009 3:32 pm

OrangutanIt may seem as though orangutans’ 180-pound bodies would be unwieldy when it comes to swinging from delicate tree branches in the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia. But the animals have figured out a variety of ways to navigate treetops, allowing them to avoid a potentially deadly fall, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

When scientists observed wild orangutans in the Sumatran rainforest, they found that the animals traversed the delicate branches by moving their bodies with a rhythm that counters the vibrations of the trees. At the highest treetops in the forest, tree branches are thin and begin to wobble as animals climb on them, much as a suspension footbridge vibrates as people walk over it. Too much vibration and an orangutan can be thrown off altogether. From high in the trees, such a fall would be deadly [Time]. But because orangutans move with an irregular beat, they avoid compounding the already-shaking branches with the motion of their own bodies. Also increasing their stability, the animals also have the habit of grasping more than one branch at once–in fact, nearly one-third of the time, orangutans held on to more than four branches simultaneously.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

Blue Food Dye Helps Rats With Spinal Injuries–But Also Turns Them Blue

By Eliza Strickland | July 28, 2009 10:00 am

blue ratA chemical compound similar to the blue food dye found in blue M&Ms and blue Gatorade could one day be used to treat people with spinal injuries, and could reduce damage and improve mobility, according to a new study. Researchers found that when they injected the compound Brilliant Blue G (BBG) into rats suffering spinal cord injuries, the rodents were able to walk again, albeit with a limp. The only side effect was that the treated mice temporarily turned blue [CNN].

The same research team had previously shown that ATP, a vital energy source that keeps the body’s cells alive, quickly pours into the area surrounding a spinal cord injury after it occurs. Unfortunately, the release of ATP at hundreds of times the normal level kills off healthy, uninjured motor neuron cells by flooding them with a deluge of molecular signals, making the initial injury worse [BBC News]. In the new experiment, described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the blue compound prevented ATP from latching on to the motor neuron cells, and therefore prevented the secondary damage that occurs in the hours after a spine injury.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
MORE ABOUT: neurons, paralysis

Fast-Track Evolution Yields Custom-Made Genomes in a Hurry

By Allison Bond | July 27, 2009 4:57 pm

DNAChanges in an organism’s genome that once took years to make in a lab can now be done in a fraction of the time, thanks to a new method of genome engineering. “This technique allows us to do some amount of rapid evolution” [New Scientist], says lead researcher Harris Wang.

In the experiment, the scientists used a technique called Multiplex Automated Genome Engineering, or MAGE, to program E. coli bacteria to produce five times as much of an antioxidant called lycopene than normal. In addition, using the process, which grafts pieces of synthetic DNA into the genomes of dividing cells, researchers generated 15 billion different genomic patterns in just three days. The process would normally take years, and could eventually be used to produce industrial chemicals, drugs, fuel and anything else that comes out of bacteria [Wired.com]. The process is significantly faster than previous techniques, in which scientists had to modify genes by changing bases one by one, for example, or by cutting genes from one genome and gluing them into another, modifying and inserting them one at a time.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Technology
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