Archive for May, 2009

For Maryland Officials, Lawn Mowers Are Out, Goats Are In

By Allison Bond | May 29, 2009 2:48 pm

goatYou might remember how L.A. recruited goats to clear plants from land for commercial development. Now Maryland has got the goat idea—for lawn mowing, that is. Mowing lawns isn’t just tedious and fuel-intensive: It also poses a threat to bog turtles, a threatened species that makes its home in the grassy areas along a highway project in the state, according to officials.

That’s why they’re starting a two-year, $10,000 experimental project to use goats to trim their grass, instead of noisy, gas-guzzling lawnmowers.

Goats are cheaper and lighter than cattle, which could also stomp the bog turtles to death. And, of course, there’s a side benefit: The goats do the job of a blade-wielding machine without gobbling up precious fossil fuels.

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MORE ABOUT: goats, pollution

Weird Science Roundup: Dead Space Monkeys and Suicidal UFOs

By Allison Bond | May 29, 2009 11:59 am

Yee-haw! It’s the blog roundup. • Forget Graceland: If you’re in Huntsville, Ala., be sure to visit the graves of spacemonkeys Able and Baker, the first monkeys to survive a space flight. You can find the graves easily—they’re strewn with bananas.

• If you’re reading this, you have a UFO to thank—at least according to a Russian scientist, who claims an alien spacecraft saved earth from an approaching meteorite by smashing into it a century ago.

• To test whether beer or a joint does more damage to driving skills, researchers got students drunk, or high on marijuana. The results? Stoned drivers drive significantly slower than drunk ones, but—surprise!—both groups drove less safely than their placebo’ed peers.

• Think you’re smart? Not compared to this 16-year-old Iraqi. It took him only four months to solve a math problem that had been baffling academics for 300 years.

Related Content:
Discoblog: Did An Alien Octopus Destroy a British Wind Turbine?
Discoblog: Can Scientists Put All the Good Parts of Pot in a Pill? Discoblog: Where No Film Has Gone Before: Star Trek Screened in Space

MORE ABOUT: alcohol, aliens, marijuana, space

"Seeing" Sounds and "Hearing" Food: The Science of Synesthesia

By Boonsri Dickinson | May 29, 2009 10:06 am

food.jpgWhen Julian Asher hears a violin, he sees red wine. However, this Imperial College London professor isn’t crazy: One out of every thousand people is said to experience this neurological condition called synesthesia. It causes two senses to blend together, so that stimulation of one sense triggers an entirely different one, involuntarily and simultaneously.

Here’s a theory on how it works: When one region of a person’s brain talks with another region that is wired to perceive a certain sense, the pathways cross and allow the person to experience “crossed senses.” Synesthesia is different for everyone who has it— some people claim they can smell a sound, while others hear a color, and some can even “taste” words.

The latest research on the topic has come out of Oxford University, where scientists found that people hear low-pitched sounds when they see large, round images. Experimental psychologist Charles Spence asked twelve “non-synesthetes” if they could identify whether an image or tone came first, in order to see how “soft” or “sharp” sounds registered in their brains. The volunteers associated high-pitched sound with angular shapes, and recognized low-pitched sounds when they were shown large dots.

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MORE ABOUT: food, music, senses

Will a Sunken Navy Ship Be the Next (or Only) Great Coral Reef?

By Allison Bond | May 28, 2009 3:34 pm

reefYou might’ve heard that the U.S. Navy has been purposely sinking old ships to make homes for fish—and that research shows this technique could be harmful to underwater ecosystems.

Well, folks at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission apparently haven’t given up on the idea. In fact, they’ve spent 75,000 man-hours and $8.6 million making an artificial reef out of a 17,250-ton, 522-foot long retired Navy ship—the same vessel featured in 1999’s Virus with Donald Sutherland and Jamie Lee Curtis.

The ship, USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, took less than two minutes to sink into the depths of the Gulf of Mexico near Key West, thanks to explosives placed strategically inside the bilge area beneath the water.

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MORE ABOUT: ecosystem, Ocean, pollution

Is Pollution in China Causing Cats to Grow "Wings?"

By Allison Bond | May 28, 2009 11:50 am

kittyNo, he’s not Supercat, but apparently a fuzzy feline in the southwest Chinese city of Chongqing began sprouting triangular, fur-covered “wings” out of his back when he was about a year old.

Some speculate the strange growths are the result of a mutation caused by chemicals the cat’s mother was exposed to before giving birth. It’s certainly possible, since the heavily industrialized city of Chongqing is packed with chemical, metal, and automobile factories pumping out acid rain and air pollution. In fact, as of 2004 the city was the second most polluted worldwide. And it’s taking its toll: Environmental authorities suspect chemical contaminations were behind the deaths of thousands of fish in the Fujiang River in Chongqing a few months ago.

Others say the so-called wings are actually growths from an embryo that never completely separated from the cat before birth – in other words, the cat’s, er, Siamese twin.

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MORE ABOUT: cats, china, genetics, pollution

Possible Cure For Blindness: Implanting a Telescope in Your Eye

By Boonsri Dickinson | May 27, 2009 4:14 pm

telescope.jpgA miniature telescope, which can be implanted in the eye, might help the blind see—assuming it passes clinical trials.

Remember how Galileo could see through his telescope, even when he had a degenerative eye disease? Now imagine inserting a miniature telescope directly in the eyeball—that’s exactly how VisionCare Inc. plans on restoring sight for people with eyes so bad, not even glasses and laser surgery help. Right now, the company’s target patients are those with advanced macular degeneration, a progressive disease that can lead to blindness.

The telescope, which is made of glass and is the “size of a pencil eraser,” uses the cornea as a telephoto lens, and then magnifies the images onto the retina. This allows the person to see images as being three times larger than they really are.

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New "Happy Hour" Gene Could Mean You're a Good Drunk…Or an Alcoholic

By Allison Bond | May 27, 2009 3:32 pm

boozeIf you can drink your friends under the table, you may have your genes to thank. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, have for the first time pinpointed a genetic mutation that determines your tolerance for booze. Specifically, those who have the so-called “happy hour” mutation produce a protein called epidermal growth factor, or EGF, which allows them to imbibe more alcohol than their peers before feeling its effects, such as falling asleep or getting just plain sloppy.

Of course, the “happy hour” gene comes at a cost: Experts say a high tolerance for booze predisposes a person to alcoholism. As such, scientists say that they might be able to both decrease alcohol tolerance and help treat alcoholism by deactivating the gene.

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Cancer Patient Loses Fingerprints, Becomes Possible Terror Suspect

By Allison Bond | May 27, 2009 1:37 pm

fingerprintA Singaporean man trying to enter the U.S. was detained by TSA officials for four hours as a possible security threat, all because he had no fingerprints. Turns out he wasn’t a potential terrorist—he just had cancer. Experts point to capecitabine, a drug he was taking to prevent a recurrence of his head and neck cancer, as the reason for the fingerprint loss.

One of the side effects of capecitabine, which is a common treatment for breast, head and neck, and stomach cancers, is a disorder known as hand-foot syndrome. The disease causes the skin on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet to swell, peel, and bleed.

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Farmers "Steaking" a Claim in Mini-Cows for Jumbo Profits

By Allison Bond | May 26, 2009 4:22 pm

cowThe rocky economy has led some beef ranches to downsize not just their acreage, but the cows themselves. Minicows, which are shorter and more compact than more standard breeds, produce one-half to three-quarters of the meat of regular-sized cows, but consume less than half of the feed eaten by standard-sized bovines.

These cows aren’t genetically engineered—instead, they’re the offspring of a breed that was popular in the 1800s, before feed became cheap in the mid-twentieth century. Today, farmers once again want more beef for their bucks spent on feed, and so they’re increasingly investing in the minicows, which originally came to the U.S. from Europe.

These mini-mooers might also be more environmentally friendly than bigger bovines. Fans say they produce less methane, a gas linked to global warming. And because they eat less, they help keep grazing fields greener and healthier.

Anyone else craving sliders?

Related Content:
Discoblog: A Medicinal Soft Drink Made From Cow Urine
Discoblog: Name Your Cows to Get More Milk
Magazine: Fighting Cow Methane at the Source

Image: flickr/Thunderchild tm

Child With Rare Disorder Has Backward Organs, Heart in Her Back

By Boonsri Dickinson | May 26, 2009 3:45 pm

heart.jpgIf six-year-old Bethany Jordan plays outside too vigorously, her heart will start pounding—through her back.

Jordan suffers from Ivemark Syndrome, an extremely rare genetic disorder. What it means is that, if you flip around the textbook picture of the inside of a human body, you’d have her body. She has five small spleens, a backwards liver that will require a transplant, and a poorly-formed cardiovascular system, including a hole in her heart, which is located behind her lungs rather than in the front of her chest. Her stomach is also on her right side, rather than her left.  In fact, her anatomy, is so unusual that people now call her the “Jigsaw Kid.”

The misplaced organs didn’t come as a complete surprise to Jordan’s parents, Lisa and Robert. When doctors at Birmingham’s Women’s Hospital were performing routine pregnancy scans, they thought the unborn child was missing a spleen and might have Down’s Syndrome. After further tests, they found that the baby’s brain was normal—but that was about the only thing that was.

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