By Eddie Austin,2014-07-20 05:12
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    Unless your father was a prince with a shady past, you probably haven't thought much about how

    related you are to a frog lately. But it turns out that about 80 percent of the genes known to cause diseases in humans have counterparts in the genome of Xenopus tropicalisthe western clawed frog

    native to sub-Saharan Africa.

    Scientists at the Joint Genome Institute in California revealed the Xenopus genome in the April 30

    issue of Science. It's the first frog to have its genetic code cracked and the first amphibian. The researchers compared the frog's roughly 20,000 genes to those of humans and chickens. They

    were looking for areas of so-called "conserved synteny." That's science-speak for strikingly similar stretches of genetic code in these distantly related animals.

    The sequences shed light on the last common ancestor of amphibians, birds and, yes, humans. Which

    our current best estimates say was an animal that lived roughly 360 million years ago. Unfortunately, frogs the world over are suffering a mass extinction. Perhaps something in the newly

    cracked genetic code can help save them before they croak.


    When my toddler hears a strange noise, he‘ll say, ―Mom, what does that sound look like?‖ His amusing phrasing innocently mixes sight and sound. But now a study in the journal Nature

    Neuroscience suggests that the brain actually links the audio with the visual. Because simply seeing a vase shatter activates the part of the brain that handles sound.

    If I asked you to imagine a rooster crowing, you‘d probably hear the [audio of rooster crowing] in your head. But what‘s happening in your brain? We know which brain regions handle sound waves that come in through your ears. Are the same areas active when you simply imagine the sound? Scientists [Antonio Damasio et al.] placed volunteers in an MRI scanner and showed them a series of nine silent videos. The clips showed things like the breaking vase, a cow mooing or a violin being played. And in the subjects‘ brains, the auditory cortex—which handles soundswas not only

    activated by the sights, but it would categorize them. So the patterns of activity that represent a howling dog and a chainsaw were distinct.

    That means that Hamlet could hear the difference between a hawk and a handsaweven if he only

    saw them.


    Say a teenager takes the car without permission and crashes it. Or pole jumps off a bridge into white water. Bruised, broken or worse, arrested, the first words out of a parent's mouth are: What were you thinking?

    And the inevitable response from the teen: I don't know. Nothing.

    Prior studies have suggested that increased risk-taking in teenagers has to do with the late development of executive functions in the brain that control impulsivity.

    But research out of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

    shows it might not always be about a delay in cognitive function. For four years they tracked the risky moves and executive brain function (here they tested for working memory as one indicator of impulsivity control) of almost 400 youths of mixed race and backgrounds.

    The researchers found that different kinds of impulsivity correlated with working memory. Sure, those who "acted without thinking" did tend to have poor working memory. But there was another group, who tended toward sensation-seeking behavior, who appear to have more awareness of what they're doing. This group had significantly more developed working memory.

    The researchers note that many adolescents do have the capacity to control their risk-taking, and we will need to find ways for them to channel sensation-seeking drives toward safer activities. Like staying in regulated skateboard parks instead of trying to latch their skateboard to a car on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.


    A couple million years ago, mammoths migrated north from Africa to colonize Eurasia. Sometime around then a massive ice age kicked inand it was stay warm or die. So their tails and

    heat-shedding ears shrunk, and they grew thick coats of oily fur.

    But if you're out in the cold all day you also need some biochemical adjustments. Hemoglobin is the protein in red blood cells

    that delivers oxygen to your tissues. And it doesn't off-load oxygen well at low temperatures; it just clings to it more tightly. So mammoths solved that problem by evolving hemoglobin that releases oxygen more easily in the cold. That‘s according to a study published in the journal Nature Genetics.

    Researchers got the DNA that codes for hemoglobin from a 43,000-year-old mammoth specimen.

They then used E. coli bacteria to produce actual mammoth hemoglobin. Then they compared

    mammoth hemoglobin to that of their living cousins, Asian elephants, at 37, 25 and 10 degrees Celsius. Due to just a few key structural changes, mammoth hemoglobin can release oxygen more readily at cold temperatures. Which was just the thing to help mammoths keep their cool. 2010/5/5

    This podcast is one minute long. If you listen while going for a walk in a park or working in a garden, you‘re 20 percent of the way to giving your mental health a good boost.

    Because exercising in natural areas is not only good for your physical healthit can improve your

    mood and sense of well-being in as little as five minutes. So says research in the journal Environmental Health and Technology.

    Exercise alone is known to make you happier. So is being in a natural setting. So scientists at the University of Essex wanted to see the effect of combining the two. They evaluated 10 different UK studies involving more than 1,200 people.

    Participants had taken part in activities such as gardening, sailing and country walks, and rated their mood and self-esteem.

    The research showed that both areas get a significant boost with as little as five minutes of outdoor exercise. And people with mental disorders benefitted the most. The study authors say this is the first study to quantify the amount of time needed to get a positive effect. So download a few podcasts and head out for a walk in the park.


    The big dream for neuroscientists is to be able to watch our brain cells in action, in real time. Well, new research has maybe found the most promising tool yeta technique to watch individual

    neurons light up in response to a stimulus, like flipping on a light switch.

    Scientists at the Max Planck Institute inserted a light-sensitive protein into a lab mouse. When a neuron fires, calcium ions flood through special cell channels. And when this light-sensitive protein binds to calcium, it radiates yellow light. So when the neuron fires it glows yellow. When scientists shot a puff of air at the mouse‘s whiskers, the brain cells in the sensory areas of the cortex glowed yellow. They watch this via thin glass fibers inserted into that brain region. With this technique scientists now have a way to watch single cell activity in many different regions of the brain at once.

    The hope is to investigate how the brain forms and loses neural connections during life experiences and when suffering from illnesses such as Alzheimer‘s, Parkinson‘s and schizophrenia.


    [Clip of Rodney Dangerfield saying “It‟s not easy being me; when I was born the doctor told my mother, „I did all I could, but he pulled through anyway.‟”]

    Rodney mighta felt bad…but he should make you feel good, because a new study shows that laughter

    can produce the same health benefits as physical exercise. That euphoric finding was presented at the 2010 Experimental Biology conference in Anaheim.

    The idea that a good guffaw might be good for you surfaced in the 1970s. Since then, mirth has been shown to reduce stress and even boost immunity

    To continue cataloguing the health benefits of hilarity, scientists at Loma Linda University had volunteers watch a video: either 20 minutes from a funny movie or stand-up routine. And the researchers found that laughing along with some light-hearted comedy actually lowered volunteers‘

    blood pressure. And it altered their appetite hormones in the same way that moderate exercise would. Like a good joke, the study bears repeating. But the results suggest you might make giggling part of your fitness regime. So go ahead, LOL. Or for a full workout, ROTFL. But if you‘re gonna ROTFLPMP, well, you should wear extra-absorbent workout pants.


    We‘ve all agonized over difficult decisions. Go to college or backpack around Europe? Buy or rent? Apple pie or death by chocolate?

    Well, agonize no morebecause a study in the journal Science suggests that simply washing your

    hands after making a tough choice can keep you from second-guessing.

    Washing your hands of a situation is a powerful metaphor. But scientists got to wondering, could it be something more? Previous studies had shown that washing can remove the guilt people feel about past misdeeds. But is that because the brain somehow links physical and moral cleanliness? Or because ablution washes away the past?

    To find out, psychologists removed any moral implications from a forced decision. They asked students to choose between things like a pair of CDs or two flavors of jam.

    They found that subjects who washed their hands right after making their choice didn't look back. They made peace with their picks and moved onwhereas those who didn't have access to soap

    spent more time trying to justify which jam they took home.

    So if you want to avoid rethinking the past, lather and rinse. And if necessary, repeat 2010/5/11

    We‘ve all agonized over difficult decisions. Go to college or backpack around Europe? Buy or

    rent? Apple pie or death by chocolate?

    Well, agonize no morebecause a study in the journal Science suggests that simply washing your

    hands after making a tough choice can keep you from second-guessing.

    Washing your hands of a situation is a powerful metaphor. But scientists got to wondering, could it be something more? Previous studies had shown that washing can remove the guilt people feel about past misdeeds. But is that because the brain somehow links physical and moral cleanliness? Or because ablution washes away the past?

    To find out, psychologists removed any moral implications from a forced decision. They asked students to choose between things like a pair of CDs or two flavors of jam.

    They found that subjects who washed their hands right after making their choice didn't look back. They made peace with their picks and moved onwhereas those who didn't have access to soap

    spent more time trying to justify which jam they took home.

    So if you want to avoid rethinking the past, lather and rinse. And if necessary, repeat 2010/5/12

    Time for M.I.T.‘s Clean Energy Prize. The annual competition gives teams of university students a chance to compete for $200,000 to kick-start their new clean energy business. One finalist designed a compression technology for natural gas wells that will allow so-called marginal wells to produce much longer than they can today. They say this will reduce costs and increase production.

    Another came up with a new technique to reengineer concrete at the molecular scale––a process they

    say makes it stronger and uses significantly less energy. The students say their technology could save the equivalent output of 100 nuclear power plants per year.

    And the winner? A team from Stanford called C3Nano. They‘ve developed a novel material––a

    transparent electrode, like the screens on computer monitors and phones. But while our screens are brittle, theirs is flexible––at what they say is one tenth the price. The young inventors note that the somewhat transparent electrode used today in solar cells absorbs as much as 20 percent of available light––but theirs is significantly more transparent and will gobble up more light. Greater efficiency for less money? That‘s an idea worth 200K.


    The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico worsens literally by the minute, with the addition of an estimated 3.5 barrels of crude. That's more than 200,000 gallons of oil a day adding to a slick that now covers an area roughly the size of Delaware. And some experts estimate the spill could actually be as much as 10 times worse.

    That would make BP's Gulf spill already worse than the infamous 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, which

    discharged roughly 11 million gallons of oil off Alaska. But it would take two more years of spillage to catch up to another deep-water catastrophe: a blowout in an exploratory well off the coast of

    Mexico in 1979.

    That spill took more than a year to stop, spewing an estimated 140 million gallons of oil into the Gulf.

    And that is dwarfed by the willful spill of oil by Iraq's Saddam Hussein, who dumped roughly one

    billion gallons of oil during the 1991 Gulf War, at least a quarter of it into the Arabian Gulf.

    Regardless, the aftereffects of an oil spill are likely to last for a long time. Twenty years after Exxon

    Valdez, puddles of crude oil can still be found in Prince William Sound.


    We know someone is in pain just by looking at their face. Winced eyes, grimacing smile. We recognize it immediately. But can we see pain in nonhuman faces?

    Well, recent research published in the journal Nature Methods shows that mice show the facial

    expressions of pain just like humans do.

    Scientists injected mice with inflammatory drugs, which led to pain similar to a headache or a swollen finger. Then they videotaped the mice and had the video images analyzed by expert facial-expression decoders. The researchers scored five distinct mouse pain expressions. Eyes close and squint, nose bulges, cheeks bulge and mice also pull back their little round ears and move their whiskers. All of this led to the creation of a "mouse grimace scale".

    It's a bit surprising that this is the first study of facial expressions of pain in nonhumans. Prior to this, scientists detected pain in mice from reflex reactions, like heat to the tail makes the tail flick. Next up is to see whether this scale can translate to other mammals. Pain research depends on mouse

    studies, so having a method to measure a mouse's pain will help researchers understand chronic and spontaneous pain in humans

    This research also opens up the possibility of studying mouse social behavior, like to see if mice respond to the facial cues of other mice. Won't that be interestingto see if or how a mouse consoles

    another mouse in pain?


    Twelve men have walked on the moon. And now you can, too. Virtually, that is. Because planetary researchers are enlisting everyday citizens in scientific exploration of the surface of the moon. At the Web site, you can check out new high-resolution images taken by NASA‘s Lunar

    Reconnaisance Orbiter Camera. And the team at Citizen Science Alliance, based at Oxford University, says you‘ll then be one of the first to see the moon‘s surface in what they call unprecedented detail.

    This lunar project is a spin-off of the popular Galaxy Zoo, which has gotten more than 250,000 people around the world involved in actual astronomical research. For the moon exploration effort, you might, for example, count craters as you stroll. The researchers say that‘s important because it

    can help them determine the age and depth of the lunar surface. Newer craters could give them clues about recent meteor impactsand hints about what might be in store for us on Earth. And remember the podcast from April 27th, about a Soviet reflector found on the moon‘s surface after forty years? Who knows what strange object you might find. That‘s at


    Bisphenol A. Also called BPA, it's used to make shatter-proof plastic known as polycarbonate, found in everything from water bottles to medical devices to the lining of food packaging. As much as 2.7 million tons of plastics are manufactured each year with BPA. But it's also an endocrine disruptor posing a threat to fetuses and young children. And it‘s been linked to cancer and metabolic disorders

    leading to obesity.

    So how can plastics be properly disposed of to avoid releasing BPA into the environment? Some fungus may help. So say researchers publishing in the journal Biomacromolecules. [Trishul Artham

    and Mukesh Doble,]

    The scientists selected three fungi that are already used for environmental cleanup. They wanted to optimize conditions for the fungi to break down polycarbonate, so first they treated the plastic with ultraviolet light and heat. Untreated polycarbonate served as a control.

    After 12 months, the untreated plastic hadn‘t decomposed at all. But the fungi had munched through the treated plastic and used it all as an energy source. Even better, the BPA had been entirely broken down as well. Tests of the sample found no BPA residue. That‘s good news in the effort to mop up a persistant pollutant.


    The sharp edges of the blue spiny lizard will not protect it against climate change. New research shows that it has gone extinct at 24 out of 200 sites in Mexico since 1975. The cause was not loss of habitat to spreading agriculture or sprawling cities. Rather, it was hotter springs, according to research published in the May 14 issue of Science.

    And that means climate change could end up driving nearly 20 percent of existing lizard species extinct by 2080.

    That's odd, given that lizards are known to thrive in heat and have evolved to conserve water. And

    their forebearers the dinosaurs certainly didn't mind a much warmer climate.

    But it appears that warmer spring temperatures drive lizards to take cover and restrather than

    gather the food necessary to spur reproduction. The result? Extinction.

    An analysis of more than 1,200 lizard species shows that this effect will not be confined to Mexico, and that those species that bear live young will fare worse than egg-layers. In fact, as much as 39 percent of all lizard populations around the globe could disappear by 2080. What's worse: extinctions caused by climate change are already happeningno matter what we do to try and stop them.


    Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has allowed scientists to watch areas of the brain ―light up‖ in response to various stimuli. And this has told them about where in the brain certain responses residelike where fear resides. But fMRI has limitations. The lighting up of certain brain regions leads to increased blood flow to active areas, and this is what you see in an fMRI image. But scientists only knew this as a correlation, not causation—meaning they weren‘t sure if increased

blood flow happened because neurons were firing.

    But a study published today in Nature has finally brought vindication. Using a technique called

    optogenetics, they were able to turn on genetically engineered brain cells in rats using a blue light delivered directly to those cells via an optic fiber. And then they put the rats in an fMRI and saw that the blood flow indeed matched precisely those excited cells. This shows that neural excitation is what produces the fMRI images of active brain areas.

    Being able to control individual neurons with light has not only justified fMRI, but has opened up an entirely new way to study the brain. Optogenetics works at micro scale, and fMRI covers wide regions of the braintogether this means that scientists have a way to intervene and experiment with entire brain circuits, to finally see how a certain type of brain cell affects the wider global activity of the entire brain.


    How do baby coral find a new home in the open ocean? They listenvery closelyfor reef sounds.

    Scientists at the University of Bristol in England had already discovered in the last few years that baby fish who live among coral use sound to find the reefs. So they decided to check out the coral larvae themselves. These are tiny creatures, the size of a flea.

    The researchers created so-called choice chambers. When the chambers were silent, the larvae floated about, equally distributed. But when the scientists played sounds of reefs, featuring the murmurs of fish and crustaceans, the larvae swarmed toward the speakers.

    What‘s even more interesting: fish larvae have anatomical features for detecting sound. But coral larvae have no such features. So how are they hearing? The researchers hypothesize that the sound waves are intercepted by ciliahairlike structureson the larvae. The work was published in the

    journal Public Library of Science ONE. [Mark J. A. Vermeij et al.,]

    Here‘s why this is important. Coral reefs around the world are threatened. Coral larvae could be

    deterred by noise from human sources. So managing noise pollution could be one more angle in the effort to save the reefs.


    Could the eradication of smallpox have been a factor in the spread of HIV? That‘s the question posed by researchers in the journal BMC Immunology, who think that the vaccine might have offered partial

    protection against HIV. As smallpox was wiped out, fewer people received the vaccine. The HIV explosion followed.

    In this small study, the researchers exposed immune cells from 10 smallpox-vaccinated people to HIV. Cells from 10 people never vaccinated against smallpox were also exposed. And HIV did replicate much more successfully in the cells from the non-vaccinated subjects. [Raymond S. Weinstein et al.,]

    Further research confirming the relationship between stopping the smallpox vaccine and the rise of HIV would not surprise William McNeill. The author of the classic book Plagues and Peoples also

    wrote a chapter titled "Patterns of Disease Emergence in History" for the 1993 book Emerging

    Viruses. He mused on our ability to ―insulate ourselves from local and frequent disasters.‖ But doing so comes at the cost of ―creating a new vulnerability to some larger disaster.‖ McNeill concluded: ―Perhaps what we face as humans is a conservation of catastrophe.‖


    Want to feed a hungry world? According to David Gracer, add bugs to the menu. Gracer is, he says, a normal guy who‘s also an entomophagist, an advocate for insects as food. He gave a talk about ingesting insects at a May 16th TEDxCambridge conference called ―How We Eat.‖ The event was a

    spin-off of the popular TED talks.

    Here‘s one of the reasons Gracer‘s a fan: "They can‘t give us pandemics. So the mass production of insectsfarm insects—really easy. There‘s no cricket flu on par with avian flu or swine flu or E.


    And then there‘s this: "Look, crickets are not better than beef in every category, just most of them."

    Gracer says a bowl of grasshoppers has more vitamins than beef and is lower in fatand uses far

    fewer resources to produce. Our disgust for insects is just cultural, Gracer says. After all, we eat lobsters, which are arthropods, as are insects. Ready to crunch a cicada?


    Why do some chords sound sweet but others make you wince? Well it appears our earsor at least

    the ears of 250 Minnesota undergradsprefer chords containing harmonically related frequencies,

    according to a study in the journal Current Biology. [McDermott et al,]

    Even a simple note on my guitar has an array of harmonic frequencies. But the frequencies have a

    special harmonic relationship, which is why you hear it as a single sound with a single pitch. The chords the students liked best have frequencies with that harmonic relationship, tooall the

    frequencies are integer multiples of a common fundamental frequency. And the researchers say our brains might like these chords because their frequencies resemble those of a single harmonic note. The students were less fond of Inharmonic chords like [dissonant chord]. But the researchers say it's not that rough, wobbly quality, called beating, that turns us off. It‘s mostly because the chords aren't


    These preferences aren't completely innate though. Musically trained students found harmonic frequencies more pleasing—they‘re huge in Western music. But an ensemble of gamelan masters, who play inharmonic instruments like gongs, might beg to differ.


    Well, did you see the thing about why people on cell phones are so annoying? [Silence.] I know, right? Because you only hear... [Silence.]

    Oohp, I gotta go. Sorry. I know that was irritating. Because a recent study in the journal Psychological Science [Lauren Emberson, Michael Goldstein et al] shows that overhearing only one half of a cell phone conversation is much more distracting than listening to two people chat. When we follow a full conversation, we tend to fill in the blanks…anticipating what each of the speakers might say. But when we‘re limited to just one side of a two-sided dialogueor

    ―halfalogue‖—our brains have to work harder to guess what‘s coming next. That unpredictability grabs our attention, which makes these partial exchanges hard to tune out.

    Psychologists had volunteers perform tasks that required concentration. And while the subjects worked, they were treated to either a dialogue or halfalogue the scientists had previously recorded. The results: hearing just the ―tete‖ in a cell phone tete-a-tete leads to poor performance in other tasks.

    And that suggests that [phone rings]

    Can you excuse me? Hello? Yah, I‘m just recording it now.


    Whaling has been banned since 1986. And yet the actual number of whales killed each year has been increasing steadily. Japan, Iceland, Norway and indigenous groups hunted and killed at least 17,000

    whales over the last decade. [audio clip of minke whale song]

    That's the song of an Atlantic minke whale and minkes are often the type of whale in the

    cross-hairs of Japanese and Scandinavian harpoon ships. Whale meat isn't confined to those countries; a sample showed up in a California sushi restaurant in March.

    But there‘s an effort to hold back the rising tide of whaling. A group of countries, including the U.S., has proposed permitting a limited amount of whaling . This would allow for the return of the

    commercial whaling that Ronald Reagan led the charge to ban. In exchange, whaling countries would accept quotas for the number of whales they could kill . The proposal will be voted on at the end of


    Unfortunately, those quotas over the next decade would be exactly the same as the number of whales

    hunted and killed today for so-called "scientific purposes ." So the plan might slow the steady creep

    up in whaling. But it wouldn't halt, or even curtail, the current hunt.


    Social networking is all the rage. Seems the more people we know, the better we feel. But that drive for being connected may enrich more than our social lives. Because a study in the journal Science

    shows that the more diverse our personal networks, the stronger the local economy. [Nathan Eagle et al,]

    The fact that having broad social ties can financially benefit an individual makes sense. The more people you know, the more job opportunities you might be made aware of. After all, that‘s what

    networking is all about.

    But just how far do the benefits of these far-reaching associations really reach? Using reams of phone records, both landline and cell, scientists mapped out social networks across the entire United Kingdom. And they compared those maps with detailed information on regional economic conditions.

    The results showed that communities in which residents have more extensive connections are indeed more prosperous. Presumably because economic opportunities are more likely to come from contacts outside a tightly knit local group of friends. So keep building those social networks. It‘s not a total waste of time. It just might be your own personal economic stimulus package.


    Studies have shown time spent in nature does us all good. Specifically a recent study done with 1,200

people, published in the journal Environmental Health and Technology found that even just five

    minutes in a leafy park can significantly boost our mood. Well it might be because we inhaled some bacteria among the leaves and grass.

    It‘s called mycobacterium vaccae and research presented today at the 110th General Meeting of the

    American Society for Microbiology found that it might also increase an ability to learn.

    Injecting this bacteria into mice has already been shown to increase serotonin levels and decrease anxiety. But the researchers wondered if it might have a subsequent effect on learning. They fed the bacteria to mice and then tested them in a maze.

    And lo and behold these mice navigated the maze twice as fast as mice who received no bacteria. But here‘s a caveat: When they tested bacteria-fed mice three weeks after removing the single-cell

    organisms from their diet they found that these mice were still faster than the mice who never received the bacteria. The difference, however, was not significant. So the results are temporary. Of course this is all in mice. Still, it might give a clue to why we get a boost in mood and clear thinking, when we just take a simple stroll through the woods.


    It‘s often said we know more about the moon than we do about the depths of the ocean. There is a lot we don‘t know about the H2O that covers much of the planet. Now we‘re getting closer, though, to

    an important understanding: Just how deep are the oceans, and what‘s the volume of all that water?

    The latest, best estimate is 1.332 billion cubic kilometers, according to research published in the journal Oceanography. [Matthew Charette and Walter Smith,]

    That‘s actually lower than previous estimates by about five Gulf of Mexicos. It‘s not that there‘s less water out there. Rather, new satelite images have presented a clearer image of all the mountain ranges strewn across the ocean floor. Those peaks displace what we‘d thought of as space for water.

    But even the new satellite-based radar images still need fine-tuning. As researcher Walter Smith says, ―We‘re seeing only really big mountains, and in a blurry way. The resolution is 15 times worse than our maps of Mars and the moon.‖

    Ship-based sonar would help, but ship-based instruments have mapped only about 10 percent of the ocean floor so far. We really do know more about the surface of the moon than the total ocean floor. 2010/5/26

    What do a carnivorous sponge, a lobular yam and a flat-faced psychedelic frogfish all have in common? They‘re among the Top 10 Species first described in 2009. That‘s according the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University.


    Scientists are discovering new species all the time. But who knew how many? Or how weird? According to the Institute, scientists spotted more than 18,000 plants and animals they‘d never seen

    before in 2008 alone. That year‘s most notables included caffeine-free coffee and bacteria that live in

    hairspray. But in 2009 we met: a bug-eating slug (most of ‗em stick with algae); a minnow with fangs, dubbed the Dracula fish; and a deep-sea worm that confuses predators by ejecting body parts that then start to glow.

    Several new species sport the monikers of folks their discoverers admire, including a very large, carnivorous pitcher plant named for naturalist and TV host Sir David Attenborough to mark his 80th birthday. [Attenborough: ―The Earth, as it makes its annual journey around the sun…‖] Because nothing says happy birthday like being linked with a meat-eating plant big enough to digest a rat. 2010/5/27

    A strain of mutant mice groom compulsively til they seriously injure themselves. The condition is considered a good animal model for OCD, and it‘s similar to the human disorder trichotillomania, where people pull out their own hair. Now researchers have successfully treated this pathological behavior in the micewith a bone marrow transplant. The work, led by Nobel Laureate Mario

    Capecchi, was published in the journal Cell. []

    The mouse condition is related to immune system cells called microglia. These cells originate in the bone marrow and wind up in the brain, where their job is to fight off infections. But a genetic mutation leads to defective microglia, which drive the mice to perform the odd, self-mutilating behavior.

    The researchers gave 10 mutant mice bone marrow from healthy mice. And the presence of normal microglia stopped the compulsion. It‘s compelling evidence for the long-proposed link between the

    immune system and certain psychiatric disorders.

    Capecchi warns that bone marrow transplants are too risky to be commonly used against, for example, OCD. Rather, a fuller understanding of the immune system-mental illness connection should produce

new treatments.


    Some interesting electrical activity in the clouds of ash drifting around Europe as a result of that Icelandic volcano. Models predicted that electrical charge should be limited to the top and bottom of any ash plume, which is often the site of spectacular lightning.

    But info obtained by a weather balloon found significant electrical charge within the plume. And that such charge was being generated within the plume—it wasn‘t a remnant of the energy of the volcanic

    eruption or a result of any local weather events. Interactions among ash particles seem to be constantly renewing the charge.

    The finding appears in the journal Environmental Research Letters and is the first peer-reviewed

    research related to the April volcano eruption. [R. G. Harrison et al,]

    The study authors note that charging can change the way the particles clump and how they interact with rain. The practical reason for understanding the electrical nature of ash plumes is that they can interfere with aircraft radio communication. And if any charged ash infiltrates a plane, it could be an electrostatic hazard, to the plane‘s systems and to the plane‘s passengers.


    The rise of social media sites like Facebook, MySpace and Flikr, has been accompanied by fears that

    we are producing the most narcissistic ―Generation Me‖ in history. But is there any actual scientific evidence for that view?

    Well, a study of 14,000 college students found that today‘s young people are 40 percent less empathetic than college kids from 30 years ago. The research was presented this weekend at the annual meeting of Association for Psychological Science.

    Researchers analyzed data from studies conducted between 1979 and 2009, and found the sharpest drop in empathy occurred in the last nine years.

    For instance, today‘s students are less likely to agree with statements like, ―I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective" and "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me."

    According to one of the lead researchers, Ed O‘Brien, [AUDIO QUOTE] ―It‘s harder for today‘s

    college student to empathize with others becau se so much of their social lives is done through a computer and not through real life interaction.‖

    O‘Brien also notes that students are facing increasing competition so they‘re spending much more

    time working on their grades and resumes, instead of socializing.

    [AUDIO QUOTE] ―I think our best suggestion now is to force yourself to step outside the computer a little bit each day and try to remember what it‘s like to relate to others in the real world.‖


    A pond is a rich ecosystem, full of nutrients and life (and lots and lots of beetles). Each pond often has a unique array of species, from plankton to fisheven if it was created by scientists.

    Biologist Jon Chase and his colleagues at Washington University in Saint Louis had noted that it was nigh impossible to make the ecosystems in 300 gallon plastic pools exactly the sameeven if all the

    starting conditions were identical. So he spent seven years trying to figure out why. They seeded 45 such pools in the summer of 2002, and let nature take its course. Neighboring plankton species colonized one tank via the wind but not another. Dragonflies flitted from plastic pond to plastic pond to lay their eggs.

    In the end, each nutrient-rich pond was different from every other. That was determined largely by

    specific events in each ponds' history, such as the order in which species were introduced. Randomness trumped the scientists' effort.

    That means restoring an ecosystemwhether a pond or an entire coastlineis no easy task. One

    random event, like the recent Gulf oil spill, will be written into the tissue and shell of Gulf sea life and marshes for decades to come.


    Mmm, sticky rice. It‘s a glutinous side dish that‘s perfect for practicing your chopstick skills, for sopping up curry sauce and, amazingly, for building really strong pagodas.

    The Chinese have been building with mortar made from sticky rice and limestone since the time of the Ming Dynasty. Now scientists have figured out this ancient secret, in a study in the journal Accounts of Chemical Research. [Fuwei Yang et al,]

    Mud is probably the oldest mortar used to hold together bricks or stones. About 5,000 years ago, China started producing lime for construction. At least 1,500 years ago Chinese masons discovered that mixing in sticky rice soup makes lime even stronger.

    Some tombs and city walls that were reinforced with the stuff are still standing. They‘ve survived earthquakes and even modern bulldozers. The key, say the chemists, is amylopectin, a component of starch that interacts with the calcium carbonate in limestone to form a mortar that‘s more water-resistant and less prone to shrinkage than lime mortar alone.

    And that‘s true even today. In 2006 traditional sticky rice mortar was used to restore the Shouchang bridge, built some eight centuries ago. Because even for an ancient stone bridge, sometimes sticky rice hits the spot.


    After hundreds of years, the most common, basic microscopes still operate by means of the same old hardware: the lens. But what if you could do away with that lens and create a microscope that fits on a cell phone? That‘s what researchers led by Aydogan Ozcan at U.C.L.A. have developed. Ozcan recently won an NSF (National Science Foundation) Early Career Development award for his work [see].

    Normal microscopes image cells themselves. But Ozcan‘s team is imaging their shadows. Tissue cells and bacteria are semi-transparentlight penetrating through cells causes shadings and reveals texture. Ozcan uses an LED as his light source, creating cellular shadows. An algorithm turns those shadows into an image of the cells.

    Millions of people in the developing world suffer because they‘re misdiagnosed, or because simple

    diseases are missed. With this system, a blood sample can be loaded into a small imaging device attached to a cell phone. The cellular image generated from the sample can be transmitted to a central computer in a nearby hospital. The image can be assessed for disease, with the resulting diagnosis sent back to the field in just minutes. Tests of the device begin in Africa this summer. 2010/6/3

    Most of us don‘t think twice about getting behind the wheel even for short hops to pick up some milk.

    And that‘s not just because cars are convenient, or because we‘re lazy. According to Andrew Furman of Ryerson University in Toronto [], it‘s because in many places in North America

    it‘s just not that nice to walk. But if cities and suburbs put more effort into building better pedestrian routes, he says more people might leave their SUVs at home.

    With its older cities, Europe is more amenable to meandering. Think cobblestone streets and hidden gardens. But North American cities and suburbs are more modern and car-centric, which generally forces pedestrians and cyclists to always take the same, boring path from A to B. But what if you could take a detour through a lobby that exhibits art, or down a lane that borders a green space? Furman thinks you‘d be more likely to hoof it, which would be good for you and the environment.

    Take New York City‘s High Line, an abandoned railroad that‘s been converted into a public park.

    Since its opening a year ago, this elevated walkway has people strolling through the meatpacking district. Even for folks who like to walk, that‘s quite a feat.


    July is coming. It‘s a time to fire up the barbecue, hit the beaches and watch the fireworks. It‘s definitely not a time to be in the hospital. Because fatal medical errors peak in July, an increase that happens to coincide with the annual arrival of new medical residents. That‘s according to a study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. [David Phillips and Gwendolyn Barker,]

    Could new docs really be deadly? That‘s what sociologists at the University of California, San Diego, were wondering. They examined almost a quarter of a million death certificates issued in the U.S. between 1979 and 2006. And they focused on those that showed a mistake with medication as the primary cause of death. They then recorded the month in which the error was made, and whether the incident occurred in a county with teaching hospitals. Turned out that fatal medication errors spiked only in July, which is when new residents hit the wards. And this peak was seen only in regions where training takes place.

    The results suggest that freshly minted medical residents may need added supervision, or extra lessons in dispensing meds safely. It also suggests that you use extra caution next month with the grill, on the shore and at the fireworks.


    In the largest study of its kind researchers have found a link between IQ scores and attempted suicide in men. The study was published this week in the British Medical Journal.

    The team analyzed medical records of over one million men dating back nearly a quarter century. Of the one million, nearly 18,000 were admitted at least once for attempted suicide. After adjusting for age and socioeconomic status the scientists found that men with low IQ were increasingly more

likely to be suicidal than those with higher IQ scores.

    Researchers suggest that the association of an unhealthy lifestyle (that is, binge drinking) with lower IQ may influence suicidal ideation. But they also point to other studies that link lower IQ with poor problem-solving ability and this in turn can impact one‘s resilience to stress in crisis situations.

    Another factor may be exposure to violence during childhood. Violence, either experienced directly or merely witnessed, has been shown to have a negative impact on IQ, as well as future suicide risk. One caveat: This study is based on medical records of Swedish men between 16 and 57 years, so the results cannot be attributed to other cultures, women or even other age groups.


    Sound of cricket mating call.] That's a cricket love song. Male crickets rub their legs together to

    produce the chirp in a bid to lure females. But 64 motion-sensitive infrared cameras have revealed that male crickets don't just sing for their mates--they actively seek them out. [Tregenza et al,]

    The multiple cameras tracked 152 crickets in a Spanish field for an entire summer. In addition to battles over burrows and lurking predators, an even more grim reality emerged from the 250,000

    hours of footagemost crickets have no descendants.

    The most successful sires came in two types: Big crickets that didn't even have to sing to attract a few sex partners, or little males that chirped all night and mated with as many females as possible. But those crickets with the most offspring were simply those that lived the longest, regardless of size.

    Female crickets are promiscuous, mating up to 40 times with a single partner but also hopping out for the occasional dangerous liaison. Regardless, DNA tests of the next generation showed that even the most successful cricket lovers produce only a handful of offspring from hundreds of eggs. The rest

    get eaten. Ain't love grand?


    Counterfeiters and money minters constantly try to outsmart each other. But money could become much harder to forgethanks to butterfly wings.

    Butterflies that flit through tropical forests often have brightly colored wings that irridesce in the sun. But it‘s not pigments that create those eye-catching shades. It‘s microscopic structures on the insects‘

    wings that reflect the light.

    Researchers at the University of Cambridge studied an Indonesian butterfly known as the peacock or swallowtail. Scales on the wings are made up of tiny structures that researchers say resemble the inside of an egg carton, with alternating layers of cuticle and air. The light bounces off the structures so that the scales appear to us as a shimmering green. But using optical equipment that can polarize light, those scales appear bright blue.

    Researchers used nanofabrication techniques to create scales structurally identical to the butterflies‘, and the structures presented the same gorgeous color. The research appeared in the journal Nature

    Nanotechnology. [Mathias Kolle et al.,]

    Using the ‗now it‘s green, now it‘s blue‘ technique that the butterflies have evolved, the scientists say we might be able to design money or credit cards that are much harder to copy. And perhaps add a little colorful flair in the process.


    It‘s refreshing. It‘s invigorating. And it leaves you feeling truly alive. No, I‘m not talking about a cold shower or a fruit smoothie with a mochachino chaser. I‘m talking about nature. Because according to a study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, getting outsideor even just thinking

    about itcan increase your vitality. [Richard Ryan, University of Rochester, et al.,]

    Hiking, biking or walking in the woods can be revitalizing. But why? Is there something special about the great outdoors that recharges our batteries? Or is it that enjoying nature often involves physical activity and, unless you‘re Henry David Thoreau, interacting with others?

    To find out, psychologists conducted a series of experiments to isolate nature from the equation. In one study, for example, they had undergraduates take a 15-minute walk along a tree-lined river bank or through an indoor hallway. And they quizzed students on how energized they felt before and after the stroll.

    The results: participants who spent time outside, whether alone or with company, reported greater feelings of vitality. It even worked when the students looked at pictures of plants, or imagined being

    outdoors. So when you‘re looking for that late-afternoon energy boost, try a walk in the park. Think

    of it as a "leaf" of absence.


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