Archive for November, 2007

Invader Cells Take a Page from Neo’s Playbook

By Andrea Anderson | November 29, 2007 10:54 am

Remember that scene at the end of The Matrix when Keanu Reeves dives headlong into the Agent Smith’s torso and writhes around inside? It turns out some cells in the human body can do something pretty similar—except without the whizzy special effects. Harvard researchers today described a new cellular process—they named it entosis—where one cell bores into another. Most of these interlopers die inside the other cell, but some survive and leave after a brief romp inside the host—and some even divide within the other cell.

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Mark August, 2031 on Your Calendar: The Day Humans Arrive on Mars.

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | November 28, 2007 4:36 pm

MarsThe map is centered on the site of DISCOVER’s future Mars bureau

Well, okay, things might just change a little bit between now and then. I’m actually sort of surprised that NASA would even try to pin a month on this event. Based on the number of things that could change or go wrong between now and then (and on the number of space shuttles that have blown up), you might think NASA would just be aiming to get this done anytime in, say, the ’30s.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Aliens Therefrom

Cars Go Back to the Future. No, It’s Not the Flux Capacitor.

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | November 26, 2007 10:42 am

Word is that American carmakers and -buyers are now “quietly turning” (whatever that means) toward using turbo-powered cars. Turbo-charging involves re-compressing exhaust gas back into the car’s cylinders, which gives an engine more power and efficiency, which lets you use a smaller, lighter engine, thereby increasing efficiency further.

Of course, turbo-charging has been around for almost a century, and according to the L.A. Times, the U.S. car market is only really coming around now because turbo was seen as a fiddly tweak for little, zippy Euro cars, not big, burly American models.

And Detroit wonders why they have to give cars away…

Bizarro Animal Sex Story of the Day

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | November 16, 2007 2:06 pm

Certain East African male cichlids, a kind of freshwater fish, have evolved a really odd way to increase their little sperms’ chance of reproductive success. The game plan goes as follows:

  1. Females of these species lay their eggs before they’re fertilized and then gobble them up and store them in their mouths to keep them safe.
  2. The males need to get their sperm into an egg-filled mouth to have fish babies. It might work if they just put flung their sperm out there in the water near a female, but that’s a bit of a shot in the dark (water).
  3. So the males’ anal fins have evolved to have spots that look like cichlid eggs. The females (displaying the notorious fish intelligence) think the spots are their own eggs, so they come over to eat ‘em.
  4. The males then squirt out their sperm, which the females unintentionally gobble down, thinking maybe they’re eating their own eggs.

How long before teachers and parents start adding these East African cichlids to their explanations to young ‘uns about the birds and bees?

Paris Hilton Doesn’t Do Drugs, She Is a Drug. A Pain-Killer.

By Clara Moskowitz | November 9, 2007 12:26 pm

When you look at a picture of Paris Hilton, don’t you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, as if all pain were leaving your body? If so, you have something in common with male mice, for whom looking at a picture of the tabloid queen has a painkilling effect.

But if you’re more like me and looking at a picture of the heiress gives you the heebie jeebies, you’ll feel better once you hear researchers’ explanation for this analgesic effect: The scientists suspect that the picture of Paris is really just stressing the mice out. They think she’s a predator (with those stilettos, they’re probably right). And when mice get scared, pain takes a backseat to their more important survival instincts. The reason the effect is only seen in male mice is that females don’t sweat it as much. Other research backs this up: In a number of situations, girl mice don’t seem to respond as strongly to threatening stimuli.

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Hey, There’s Algae in My Oil!

By Tyghe Trimble | November 6, 2007 5:45 pm

Oil hit $97 a barrel today, but mostly insiders have made a big deal about the upward trends in price per barrel of late. Sure, when it hits $100, a headline or two will appear, buried under the war in Iraq, Hillary’s march on Washington, and some holiday recipes, but pricey crude is out of most people’s minds.

Why is the public not panicking about the high oil prices? For one, it’s not hitting where it hurts nearly as hard as it could, with prices at the pump at an uncomfortable, but internationally cheap U.S. average of $3.06 this week. For another, we’ve been hearing about the rise of oil prices from everyone for years—a daily dose from CNN, The Wall Street Journal and even straight shooting from out of President Bush’s mouth—all saying that oil isn’t going to get cheaper.

But it doesn’t seem like this a problem of boy cries wolf, public stops listening, boy gets eaten by wolf. Plenty of companies have been sinking good money into alternative oil schemes, looking to replace our fine crude with corn-based ethanol (a favorite among politicians); grease from fast-food joints (a favorite among garage enthusiasts); switch grass, willows, and fungus (a favorite among niche researchers); liquid coal (nobody’s favorite); and better batteries (everybody’s favorite), just to name a few.

One that has stayed pretty far off the radar is oil from algae. But if oil heavyweight Chevron has anything to do with it, algae will be on everybody’s mind as an oil alternative soon enough.

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Could Autism Be the Next Stage of Human Evolution?

By Jessica Ruvinsky | November 6, 2007 1:46 pm

In the play “Lucy,” an emotionally distant anthropologist (Lisa Emery) decides that her severely autistic daughter Lucy (Lucy DeVito) is not sick. Instead, says the hermit scientist, she is the future: Lucy’s lack of connection to other human beings is actually an evolutionary leap forward. The rest of us? Obsolete—mental health fossils.

Our anthropologist supposes that hypersociality has created a poisonous overgrowth of society curable only by turning inward, and that autism (the diagnosis of which has increased tenfold) arose to accomplish that.

Thanks for the science, but she’s wrong.

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Chinese-Made Toy Turns Into Party Drug When Eaten

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | November 6, 2007 1:30 am

As if their reputations hadn’t absorbed enough slings and arrows, Chinese manufacturers now take the dubious honor for having made a toy that when eaten—as by small children who don’t know any better—turns into the party drug GHB. The fact that some strange glue on the toys is breaking down and getting kiddies high is bad enough. But the fact that it’s getting them high on something the media routinely calls “the date-rape drug” really brings this to the next level of badness.

The Age’s report on the incident says, “The toy contains beads that have been found to contain a chemical that the body metabolises into gamma-hydroxy butyrate (GHB), also known as ‘grievous bodily harm’. It should instead contain a non-toxic glue.”

“Should contain” indeed.

Watch Your Water

By Clara Moskowitz | November 2, 2007 3:33 pm

This morning I was careful to turn off the tap while brushing my teeth. I even forced myself out of the shower after a mere ten minutes, instead of my usual fifteen (I know, I still have a ways to go to reach the EPA’s recommended five).

Sure, I’ve grown up knowing I should be frugal with water, so why am I starting now? My good intentions got a jump start by visiting the American Museum of Natural History’s new exhibition, Water: H20 = Life, which will be opening to the public on November 3.

“Water” is an amorphous topic for a museum show, but the exhibition boils it down for us: There’s not as much of the fresh stuff as you think. This exhibit is a testament to age-old conservation, an environmental viewpoint that stands in contrast to the many voices pushing technology (desalination, green roofs, permeable concrete) as the answer to our troubles. Although the message is far from new, this exhibition does something I never thought possible: It makes water issues sexy.

We tend to yawn when we hear the word “conservation,” (Yeah, yeah, I’ll turn off the lights and go easy on the paper towels). Usually it’s technology that turns us on. “The bells and whistles of technology capture us and we get excited,” says Eleanor Sterling, the director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at AMNH, and curator of the new exhibition.

But when instructions to save water are projected on a 6-foot globe, through interactive games, and alongside a giant polar bear, the idea of conservation starts losing its nagging qualities and becomes, well, exciting.

Water: H20 = Life stands to remind people about the “good old, use less to do more” tactic, says Sterling. And to do this, the exhibit takes a defensive stance against fancy technologies, which often bring more problems than benefits. Like dams. Although the exhibit notes that dams are a great source of energy—China’s Three Gorges Dam is expected to provide 10 percent of the country’s electricity when it’s up and running—it points out that China’s dam has forced the relocation of 1.2 million people, and will destroy precious river habitats, pushing several species of fish, birds, and other creatures such as the Baiji river dolphin toward extinction. The section concludes, “Will future generations regret the social and environmental cost?”

Desalination also takes a beating. The process of converting salt water to drinkable fresh is a big idea with loads of research dollars being sunk into it. And for a seemingly good reason—if we can make use of the water in the oceans, there will be no shortage for humans. But the exhibition primarily points out its drawbacks. “It uses a lot of energy… Marine life can be damaged… And there are those who think that increasing water supply attracts more people to fragile coastal areas, setting up a destructive cycle.”

Not all machines lose out, though. In keeping with the “simple-is-good” theme, the show lauds one low-tech solution. A whole exhibit showcases the PlayPump, a primary-colored carousel that pumps water from a well when children spin it around.

I walked away from the museum inspired. I was reminded that a shorter shower, a low-flush toilet, and a full laundry load really can help. Are there big issues that the exhibition misses? Sure. I was sad not to see green roofs and there was next to no talk of sustainable city design. But that’s for the engineers, architects and city planners. This show is for the public, whose lives depend on water and, like me, need the reminder that we are more able than we think to make a difference.

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