Archive for May, 2010

EPO: A Doping Drug Makes an Unwanted Cycling Comeback

By Joseph Calamia | May 26, 2010 4:35 pm

cyclingAfter years of denial, Floyd Landis–the cyclist who was stripped of his winning title to the 2006 Tour de France after failing a drug test–admitted last week that he did take performance enhancing drugs. And his confession is causing a stir, partly because he also implicated former teammate Lance Armstrong, seven-time-winner of the Tour de France (Armstrong denies the accusation), and partly because of the particular drugs he fessed up to taking:

Mr. Landis said in [several emails to cycling officials] that during his career, he and other American riders learned how to conduct blood transfusions, take the synthetic blood booster Erythropoietin, or EPO, and use steroids. All these practices are banned in cycling. Mr. Landis said he started using testosterone patches, then progressed to blood transfusions, EPO, and a liquid steroid taken orally. [Wall Street Journal]

EPO shook the cycling community in the 1990s, when police raids during the 1998 Tour de France (dubbed the “Tour de Dopage“) found that several riders were using EPO. It looks like the drug, believed to be thwarted by drug tests, has returned.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

"Top Kill" Operation Is Under Way in Attempt to Stop Gulf Oil Leak

By Andrew Moseman | May 26, 2010 2:14 pm

Live feedIt’s on.

Today the U.S. Coast Guard gave its approval to BP’s “top kill” plan to finally cap the oil spill, and at 2 p.m. Eastern time, the company got started. BP leaders warned that it may take a couple of days before they know for sure if it worked, but now say they will maintain the live video feed during the top kill attempt.

A successful capping of the leaking well could finally begin to mend the company’s brittle image after weeks of failed efforts, and perhaps limit the damage to wildlife and marine life from reaching catastrophic levels. A failure could mean several months more of leaking oil, devastating economic and environmental impacts across the gulf region, and mounting financial liabilities for the company. BP has already spent an estimated $760 million in fighting the spill, and two relief wells it is drilling as a last resort to seal the well may not be completed until August [The New York Times].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment

Nobody Panic: Wearing Sunscreen Is Unlikely to Be a Cancer Risk

By Andrew Moseman | May 26, 2010 1:25 pm

sunscreenRemember the sunscreen speech? The Chicago Tribune column, which became an urban legend and then a bizarre spoken word hit for Baz Luhrmann, began

Wear sunscreen.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.

But is even this sage advice subject to the “it’ll cause cancer, no wait, it’ll cure cancer” back-and-forth that plagues medical studies? Reading some headlines today, you might think so. Don’t toss out your tube of Banana Boat just yet, though.

The non-profit Environmental Working Group released another of its reports on the sunscreen industry, coming down hard on the chemicals it uses and the claims it makes in its advertising. Some stories about the report drew headlines like “Sunscreen May Hurt, Not Help;” “Your Sunscreen May Give You Cancer: Study;” and “Study: Many Sunscreens May Be Accelerating Cancer.”

EWG’s report claims that a Vitamin A compound called retinyl palmitate, used in some 40 percent of sunscreens, breaks down and causes skin damage under exposure to sunlight. The report cites research done under the Food and Drug Administration. But, according to dermatologist Henry W. Lim of Henry Ford Hospital:

These claims, says Lim, are based on a study in mice, which are far more susceptible to skin cancer than humans. “It’s dangerous to apply a finding in mice to humans, and I’ve spoken with a number of my colleagues about this and we all agree that it’s very premature to even cast doubt about the safety of this chemical.” The EWG also flagged products with oxybenzone, which it calls a “hormone-disrupting” compound. This, too, is based on mice data, says Lim; the animals were fed significantly greater amounts of the chemical than what’s commonly applied in sunscreen. Other research found no significant changes in blood hormone levels in human volunteers who were told to apply sunscreens containing oxybenzone every day for two weeks [U.S. News & World Report].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

To Cope With the Chaos of Swarming, Locusts Enlarge Their Brains

By Andrew Moseman | May 26, 2010 9:58 am

locustsThe single-mindedness that drives a swarm of locusts to rampage through the countryside and devour everything in its path might not seem like it would require a great deal of brainpower. However, biologists in Britain have found that the brain of a swarming locust swells up to 30 percent larger than the brain of its solitary counterparts.

These crazed grasshoppers aren’t geniuses, says lead researcher Swidbert Ott. According to his study forthcoming in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, swarming locusts simply need enlarged brains to cope with the assault on their senses that comes with being caught up in an insect mob:

Locust brains are quite simple: on each side of the head is an optic lobe taking in information from the eyes and performing basic processing, and these lobes feed into the central midbrain, which carries out higher-level processing.

In swarming locusts, the midbrain grew more than the optic lobes. This, and other subtle changes, suggest that because swarming locusts are constantly surrounded by wild activity, they do not need to worry about having particularly sensitive vision. However, they do need extra high-level processing power to cope with the extremely complex patterns of motion that they see [New Scientist].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

Physicists Achieve Quantum Teleportation Across a Distance of 10 Miles

By Andrew Moseman | May 25, 2010 3:20 pm

QTeleportHow far can you beam information instantaneously? Try 10 miles, according to a study in Nature Photonics that pushes the limits of quantum teleportation to its greatest distance yet. At that distance, the scientists say, one can begin to consider the possibility of someday using quantum teleportation to communicate between the ground and a satellite in orbit.

As stories about quantum teleportation usually note, this isn’t the Starship Enterprise’s transporter: The weird quantum phenomenon makes it possible to send information, not matter, across a distance.

It works by entangling two objects, like photons or ions. The first teleportation experiments involved beams of light. Once the objects are entangled, they’re connected by an invisible wave, like a thread or umbilical cord. That means when something is done to one object, it immediately happens to the other object, too. Einstein called this “spooky action at a distance.” [Popular Science]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math

DARPA's New Sniper Rifle Offers a Perfect Shot Across 12 Football Fields

By Joseph Calamia | May 25, 2010 2:23 pm

sniper“Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes,” American revolutionaries supposedly yelled at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Legend has it that the rebels were trying to conserve ammunition, given the inaccuracy of their 18th century guns.

But things have come a long way since 1775. With DARPA‘s new “One Shot” sniper system [PDF], scheduled to be in soldier’s hands by the fall of 2011, the U.S. military will give snipers the ability to take out an enemy at a distance of .7 miles in winds around 10 to 20 miles per hour. Military brass hopes the system will give snipers a perfect shot at least six times out of ten.

The One Shot system still wouldn’t come close to matching the record for shooting accuracy: In November of last year, British Army sniper Corporal Craig Harrison made two shots at a distance of 1.53  miles in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. But Harrison modestly thanked perfect shooting conditions: no wind, great visibility, and mild weather. The DARPA program aims to give soldiers the technology to hit a target despite adverse conditions.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology

Will Venter's "Synthetic Cell" Patents Give Him a Research Monopoly?

By Andrew Moseman | May 25, 2010 11:33 am

VenterHere in the United States, people are all atwitter about Craig Venter’s announcement last week of a new “synthetic cell,” and whether it constitutes creating life or simply a nifty new step in genetic engineering. Across the pond in the U.K., however, there are increasing rumblings of a more practical matter: Whether the patents that Venter is seeking to protect his work will bring a chill to genetic engineering research elsewhere.

Dr Venter’s [team] has applied for patents on the methods it used to create the new organism, nicknamed Synthia, by transferring a bacterial genome built from scratch into the shell of another bacterium. Synthia’s genetic code contains four DNA “watermarks”, including famous quotations and the names of the scientists behind the research, that could be used to detect cases of unauthorised copying [The Times].

Nobel winner John Sulston is the main man sounding the alarm (pdf); he argues that Venter is trying to obtain a “monopoly” on a range of genetic engineering techniques, which would prevent other researchers from freely experimenting with those methods. He’s also a familiar adversary to Venter. The two butted heads a decade ago when scientists were rushing to sequence the human genome.

Craig Venter led a private sector effort which was to have seen charges for access to the information. John Sulston was part of a government and charity-backed effort to make the genome freely available to all scientists [BBC News].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Technology

Video: Comet Caught Crashing into the Sun

By Andrew Moseman | May 25, 2010 9:43 am

CometCrashSun
Its doom was sealed six years ago.

In 2004, UC Berkeley researchers say, this comet was tugged by Jupiter’s gravity into a path bound for destruction in the cauldron of the sun. And when its end finally came this March, astronomers captured the comet plunging deep into the sun on video (see below), watching it go farther into the light than any suicide comet seen before.

Seeing comets and other small objects approach the sun is difficult because the objects are overwhelmed by the sun’s brightness. Scientists were able to track this one closer to the sun than ever, before it it burned up in the sun’s lower atmosphere [Wired.com].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space

Does a Dose of Testosterone Make Trusting Women More Skeptical?

By Andrew Moseman | May 24, 2010 5:44 pm

face-collageAll it takes for some people to be a little less trusting of their fellow humans is a little more testosterone, according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers led by Jack van Honk of the Netherlands used a sample of 24 women in their study. The team showed photos of 150 strangers’ faces to the women and asked them to rate the faces for trustworthiness, using a scale from -100 to +100. The scores women gave after receiving a placebo became their “baseline” score. The women also completed a trustworthiness survey after being given an increase in testosterone instead of placebo (they weren’t told when they received which).

Scientists found that women were not so easily taken in by a stranger’s face after receiving a dose of the hormone…. Women who appeared the most trusting after receiving the “dummy” placebo reduced their scores by an average of 10 points when their testosterone was boosted [Press Association].

Why? The researchers point to the social advantages testosterone can confer:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain

Photo: Heart and Soul Nebulae Reveal Star Birth in the Cold Dust

By Joseph Calamia | May 24, 2010 4:18 pm

heartsoul

What do you see in this image?

“One is a Valentine’s Day heart, and the other is a surgical heart that you have in your body,” said Ned Wright of the University of California, Los Angeles, who presented the image May 24 at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. [Wired]

This infrared image is from WISE, more technically known as the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, a NASA space telescope launched on December 14, 2009. Orbiting Earth at an altitude of 326 miles, WISE snaps an infrared picture every eleven seconds. This one, of the so-called Heart and Soul nebulae, is made from 1,147 of these images stitched together.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space
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