Ripped From the Journals: The Biggest Discoveries of the Week

By Eliza Strickland | August 21, 2009 6:45 pm

Nature 8-20Nature, August 20
Sometimes the big news is also really, really small. A paper published on Nature‘s Web site on Sunday describes how researchers made the world’s smallest laser, composed of a single nanoparticle measuring only 44 nanometers across. Researchers say the tiny devices could one day be the foundation for optical computers that use circuits made of light instead of electrical impulses. Another article in the journal has implications for the future of agriculture and how we’ll feed the planet’s booming population: A study of rice plants that can survive severe flooding found that two so-called SNORKEL genes are responsible. The hardy plants don’t produce high rice yields, but researchers say they can now try adding the genes to high-yield varieties to create a super plant for flood-prone regions.

The Annals of Internal Medicine, August 18
What killed Mozart? Maybe strep throat. While the medical sleuths who came up with this hypothesis acknowledge that there’s no way to test it–Mozart’s body vanished into a common grave that was later dug up to make room for more–their analysis of medical records in 1790s Vienna make strep a likely cause. The study found that edema was a common cause of death, which can be a complication of a strep infection; this could explain the severe swelling reported in Mozart’s final illness

Science 8-21

Science, August 21
One paper in Science may have received wide coverage partially because of the pretty pictures. Researchers found five new species of deep-sea worms that are thought to fling out luminescent green “bombs” when attacked by predators. The bombs don’t do any damage, but they do distract the predator for long enough for the worm to make its escape. Beyond the nifty visuals, the study is also a reminder of how little we know about life in the ocean depths. Another study published on Science‘s Web site shows that even though we’re still trying to find out what organisms currently grace our planet, we’re not holding back from trying to create entirely new synthetic life. Genetics pioneer Craig Venter announced that his team successfully took the genome from one species of bacteria, transplanted it into yeast cells for tinkering, and then placed the genome in a different bacterial species. The new organism “booted up” and came to life, Venter reports.

Current Biology, August 20
It’s so satisfying when science confirms a commonly held belief. This week, researchers found that people who are told to walk a straight course through the forest or desert really do end up going in circles. The study found that people trying to navigate without the aid the sun, moon, a map, or any obvious and looming landscapes walked a looping path. When the test subjects were later shown the course they followed on a GPS mapper, they were shocked. In another paper, scientists determined that our two nostrils are rivals for our brain’s attention. When test subjects were rigged up with a device that simultaneously piped one scent (roses) to one nostril and another scent (magic markers) to the second, the subjects detected the two scents in an alternating pattern, instead of a single odor that was a combination of the two.

New England Journal of Medicine, August 20
Many drug addiction counselors endorse harm reduction policies for hard-core heroin addicts, which can include supplying clean needles or “safe injection rooms” where addicts can shoot up, on the principle that such moves can reduce diseases and criminal behavior associated with addiction. Now, a new study has tested out the next controversial step in harm reduction: providing “prescription heroin” to addicts in a clinical setting. The study found that addicts who were given heroin were more likely to stick with a treatment program than those given methadone, and also reduced their criminal activity outside the clinic.

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