Archive for December, 2011

Cocaine Concentrations in the Air Above Italian Cities Correlate with Drug Use

By Veronique Greenwood | December 19, 2011 1:30 pm

cocaine

Drugs have a habit of making their way from our bodies into the environment: they’ve frequently been found in waste water, drinking water, and rivers (not to mention on dollar bills). But they could also be rising into the air, and a new study suggests their aerial concentrations could give scientists a clue to what, exactly, is happening on the ground below. Following up on earlier research showing that cocaine was present in the air above the cities of Taranto and Rome, Italian researchers at the Institute of Atmospheric Pollution Research in Rome took about 60 samples of air in various regions and tested for a number of contaminants, including cocaine, cannabinoids (chemicals found in marijuana), and more common pollutants, like ozone and hydrocarbons. When they looked to see whether there was a correlation between cocaine concentration and addicts’ requests for treatment in particular geographical areas, they found a very strong relationship. Weaker correlations existed between cocaine concentration and police seizures of cocaine and concentration and seizure of all kinds of illicit substances.

The team is excited about the possibility of using aerial cocaine concentration to get a sense of drug use levels, a notoriously slippery thing to measure, and possibly other activities that sometimes occur in tandem with drug use, like robberies. However, their approach didn’t turn up any significant correlations between crime-related activities and cannabinoids, which is interesting—what does that mean about the social correlates of marijuana use (or, alternatively, about the fraction of cannabinoids that actually make into the air)? If you’re worried about getting high from the air, it seems unlikely that concentrations are high enough to have an effect. But who knows—that’s a question that has yet to be addressed.

[via ScienceNOW]

Image courtesy of Adam Swank / flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Panel Finds That Nearly All Invasive Chimp Research is Unnecessary; NIH Agrees

By Veronique Greenwood | December 16, 2011 1:17 pm

chimp

After seven months of deliberation, the US Institute of Medicine has released a report that marks a turning point in the use of chimpanzees, humanity’s closest relative, in medical research. An IOM panel found that chimpanzees were in the vast majority of cases no longer required for disease research and laid out three stringent rules against which all current and future chimp research should be judged. Within two hours, Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, announced he had accepted the group’s analysis and would set up a committee to apply the rules to proposed and ongoing research projects funded by the NIH.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Health & Medicine

Study: Hairs on a Spider's Body Function as Individual Ears

By Veronique Greenwood | December 15, 2011 12:33 pm

spider

Spiders are covered with fine hairs that can detect the faint movements of an enemy creeping closer, or a prey insect moving nearby. Scientists had long thought that these hairs functioned like the hairs humans have in our ears, which each tremble in response to a specific frequency and have to work together for us to hear sounds. But a new experiment suggests that each individual hair on a spider is capable of responding to a whole spectrum of sound, thus acting as an ear all on its own. As Dave Mosher writes at Wired:

The hairs responded best to sounds between about 40 Hz, a low rumble of bass, and 600 Hz, a car horn (humans ears can detect between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz). That they picked up such a wide range of frequencies at all could overturn previous assumptions about how trichobothria [as the hairs are called] work.

“They operate like band-pass filters or microphones, not like the hairs in a human ear,” Bathellier said. In effect, each hair is its own ear that filters out background noise and zeroes in on biologically relevant information, such as an unwary cricket’s hopping or a spider’s sneaking.

How all these tiny “ears” work together, though, is still a mystery—further studies will have to investigate how the hairs’ vibrations affect spiders’ nervous systems.

Read more at Wired.

Image courtesy of timsnell / flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

Wild Monkeys To Monitor Radiation Levels In Japan

By Douglas Main | December 15, 2011 8:15 am

How do you do to measure radiation levels in the hard-to-reach forests near Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant? Why, fit wild monkeys with radiation sensors, of course! Researcher Takayuki Takahashi tells CNN that his team plans to fit three monkeys in early 2012 with collars that measure radiation, as well as GPS units that record location and distance from the ground. The researchers plan to leave the monitors in place for about a month, before detaching them via remote control and picking up them up to retrieve their stored data.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology

Scamming Social Media with Crowdsourcing is a Million-Dollar Business

By Veronique Greenwood | December 14, 2011 1:04 pm

astroturf
This is not real grass. And that’s not a real comment, either.

Most stories written about online crowdsourcing discuss the philanthropic aspects of people around the world pitching in on a task, like helping out in a study or identifying photographed objects for the blind. Sure, the microtasks are usually tedious, but they need humans to do them and they provide an income stream, albeit a small one, to people who have no other way to make a livelihood. It’s all good, right?

Well, as it turns out, there are other, darker tasks that only humans can do. Specifically, writing spam comments, participating in online discussions to promote brands, making new social media profiles specifically to skew the conversation on a particular topic, and other, similar practices that UC Santa Barbara professor Ben Zhao calls “crowdturfing.” (That’s a portmanteau of “crowdsourcing” and “astroturfing,” the process of faking grassroots involvement.) As detailed in an ArXiv paper, Zhao and colleagues found that this “evil crowdsourcing on a very large scale” consumes the vast majority of business on crowdsourcing sites: On the second-largest such site in the US, ShortTask, 95% of the transactions were crowdturfing (the largest, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which actively roots out such tasks, had 12%). Zhubajie and Sandaha, major Chinese crowdsourcing sites, turned out to be 88% and 92% ‘turfing tasks, with more than a million dollars paid for crowdturfing each month on Zhubajie alone. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology

Twenty Years of Climate Meetings, Through the Eyes of a Veteran Journalist

By Veronique Greenwood | December 14, 2011 1:02 pm

The most important climate meeting of the year, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Convention of Parties in Durban, South Africa, has just concluded, with the US envoy “relieved” by the results, but developing countries frustrated by the failure of developed nations to take greater responsibility for emissions. At Nature News, Frank MacDonald, a veteran reporter who has attended nearly every Convention of Parties meeting since they began in 1992, recounts his experiences as a spectator on the edge of the climate poker game:

Nearly 20 years ago, as I wandered as a newspaper reporter from tent to tent at the Global Forum in Rio de Janeiro’s Flamingo Park, with young, idealistic environmental activists milling about, I couldn’t help thinking of Dale Arden’s line from the film Flash Gordon, a decade before: “Flash, Flash, I love you, but we only have 14 hours to save the Earth!”

Brazil’s 1992 Earth Summit was in full swing, and when it closed it even seemed that we would manage to save the world from global warming, and species extinction too. After all, delegates at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development — as it was officially known — had just adopted two conventions to stave off these threats.

Read more at Nature News.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment

Police Could Use DNA to Learn the Color of Suspects' Eyes

By Veronique Greenwood | December 13, 2011 4:37 pm

eye

In the dreams of crime scene investigators, no doubt, they can feed a piece of hair into a machine and see a reconstruction of what the owner looks like. There’s a hint of that fantasy in the news that Dutch scientists have developed a test intended help police tell from a crime scene DNA sample the color of a suspect’s eyes. This information is gleaned from examining six single nucleotide polymorphisms, small genetic markers that are used in DNA fingerprinting, and could potentially help steer investigations when there are few other leads on a suspect and there is no match in police DNA databases. But the test, which can tell whether someone has blue, brown, or indeterminate (which encompasses green, hazel, grey, etc.) eyes with an average of 94% accuracy, doesn’t seem to have been tested outside of Europe, which raises questions about how well it would work in populations with greater diversity. It’s also a little hard to feature how you could bring this information to bear in a vacuum of other details—you’d want to avoid hauling someone in just because they looked suspicious and have the same eye color as the readout for the perp. At the moment, the test is not accurate enough to be introduced as evidence in court, which could be a bad thing or a good thing…depending on how many Philip K. Dick novels you’ve read.

Image courtesy of wetwebwork / flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Technology

The Linguistic Phenomenon Du Jour: Vocal Fry

By Veronique Greenwood | December 13, 2011 1:26 pm

What’s the News: Rarely has a humble little sound aroused such interest as in the last few days, as a paper about a phenomenon called vocal fry, a creak in someone’s voice as they speak, has been propelled to web prominence. Though many outlets got some basic facts wrong—the new study doesn’t actually show that fry has become more common among young women, just that it was common in the small group surveyed—all recognized the opportunity to launch into something we wish we knew more about: why we make funny sounds when we talk.

How the Heck:

  • Vocal fry is a low, rumbling creak that, in English speakers, seems to appear mostly at the ends of sentences and has been captured in voice recordings going back to the early part of last century. Below is a clip (start watching at 34 seconds) with Mae West showing vocal fry on the “me” in “Why don’t you come up sometime, see me,” identified by the linguistics wonks at Language Log. Basically, it’s the opposite end of the spectrum from falsetto.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Mind & Brain

Study Finds New Culprit in 2009 E. Coli Outbreak: Tainted Flour in Cookie Dough

By Douglas Main | December 13, 2011 12:51 pm

One of the most universally agreed upon facts in the world is that raw cookie dough is delicious. But it can also make you sick, though the ingredient to blame may be a surprise: In study published online in the journal Clinical Infectious Disease, researchers linked the 2009 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7  to tainted flour in Nestlé’s Toll House ready-to-bake cookie dough. Although they haven’t conclusively pinpointed the culprit, flour is the prime suspect after a detailed traceback investigation, since the other ingredients—including eggs—underwent a “kill step” to eliminate germs. In homemade cookie dough, eggs remain a possible source of contamination, particularly from Salmonella.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Four Hemophiliac Patients Successfully Treated with Gene Therapy

By Veronique Greenwood | December 12, 2011 4:53 pm

blood

Hemophilia, a disease whose victims can suffer serious internal bleeding and may bleed to death from injuries, has a long and eventful history. Caused by defective blood clotting factors, the disease has been with us since at least the second century, when a rabbi gave mothers whose first two sons had bled to death from circumcision wounds permission to leave the third sons uncircumcised. It also famously afflicted several members of European royal families. But a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine brings us a bit closer to a new kind of historic event: a cure.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
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