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Bonobos Join Chimps as Closest Human Relatives

from ScienceNOW Daily News

Chimpanzees now have to share the distinction of being our closest living relative in the animal kingdom. An international team of researchers has sequenced the genome of the bonobo for the first time, confirming that it shares the same percentage of its DNA with us as chimps do. The team also found some small but tantalizing differences in the genomes of the three species--differences that may explain how bonobos and chimpanzees don't look or act like us even though we share about 99% of our DNA.

"We're so closely related genetically, yet our behavior is so different," says team member and computational biologist Janet Kelso of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. "This will allow us to look for the genetic basis of what makes modern humans different from both bonobos and chimpanzees."

Ever since researchers sequenced the chimp genome in 2005, they have known that humans share about 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, making them our closest living relatives. But there are actually two species of chimpanzees that are this closely related to humans: bonobos (Pan paniscus) and the common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes). This has prompted researchers to speculate whether the ancestor of humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos looked and acted more like a bonobo, a chimpanzee, or something else--and how all three species have evolved differently since the ancestor of humans split with the common ancestor of bonobos and chimps between 5 million and 7 million years ago in Africa.

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Tropical Lakes on Saturn Moon Could Expand Options for Life

from Nature News

Nestling among the dunes in the dry equatorial region of Saturn's moon Titan is what appears to be a hydrocarbon lake. The observation, by the Cassini spacecraft, suggests that oases of liquid methane -- which might be a crucible for life -- lie beneath the moon's surface. The work is published today in Nature.

Besides Earth, Titan is the only object in the Solar System to circulate liquids in a cycle of rain and evaporation, although on Titan the process is driven by methane rather than water.

This cycle is expected to form liquid bodies near the moon's poles, but not at its dune-covered equator, where Cassini measurements show that humidity levels are low and little rain falls to the surface. "The equatorial belt is like a desert on Earth, where evaporation trumps precipitation," says astrobiologist Jonathan Lunine of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Any surface liquid there should evaporate and be transported to the cooler poles, where it should condense as rain. "Lakes at the poles are easy to explain, but lakes in the tropics are not," says Caitlin Griffith, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Indeed, Cassini has spotted hundreds of lakes and three seas in Titan's polar regions.

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To Cut Blood Pressure, Nerves Get a Jolt

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

In recent decades, there have been few new treatments for people with stubbornly high blood pressure. Exercise and a low-sodium diet, along with such stalwart drugs as diuretics, ACE inhibitors and beta-blockers, have made up the standard regimens. But these efforts fail in a surprising number of patients. On three or more medications, many still suffer from uncontrolled hypertension and with it a heightened risk of heart attack and stroke.

Now, doctors are experimenting with an innovative but drastic new approach that may help lessen the danger in patients for whom nothing else works. During the procedure, called renal denervation, a physician threads a catheter into the arteries leading to the kidney, then delivers pulses of radio-frequency energy that interrupt the signaling in nerves to and from that organ. The damage to the nerves is probably permanent, although no one is certain.

Small clinical trials, conducted mainly outside the United States, have suggested that in combination with drugs, renal denervation may help to reduce high blood pressure in patients with so-called treatment-resistant disease. The treatment is already available in Australia and Europe.

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X-Ray Telescope Promises Insight into Black Holes

from the San Francisco Chronicle

Space scientists at UC Berkeley are about to train their sights on a unique telescope that will fly into orbit Wednesday to explore the violent edges of black holes at the centers of countless galaxies like our own Milky Way.

The new NASA telescope, operated by the university's Space Sciences Laboratory, will also aim its X-ray eyes at the embers of burned-out exploding stars and at the sun's bursts of high-energy flares that send solar particles streaming to Earth at 2 million mph.

The telescope's instrument chief, astrophysicist William Craig of Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory, said Monday the mission, named NuSTAR, "will open a new window into the high-energy universe."

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Nature vs. Nurture: Outcome Depends on Where You Live

from the Telegraph (UK)

Both nature (meaning our genes) and nurture (the environment we grow up in) are known to significantly affect traits like our height and weight, our IQ, and our chance of developing behavioural problems or autism. But how strong environmental factors are in determining each characteristic, compared with the influence of DNA, differs significantly across the country, scientists have found.

Researchers from King's College London studied 45 childhood characteristics in 6,759 pairs of identical and non-identical twins across the UK, to determine whether their genes or their environment was more important.

A new series of "nature-nurture" maps produced by the team revealed that some areas are "environmental hotspots" for particular traits, but in other places the same attribute is mainly governed by genetics.

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Diesel Exhausts Do Cause Cancer, Says WHO

from BBC News Online

Exhaust fumes from diesel engines do cause cancer, a panel of experts working for the World Health Organization says. It concluded that the exhausts were definitely a cause of lung cancer and may also cause tumours in the bladder. It based the findings on research in high-risk workers such as miners, railway workers and truck drivers. However, the panel said everyone should try to reduce their exposure to diesel exhaust fumes.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a part of the World Health Organization, had previously labelled diesel exhausts as probably carcinogenic to humans.

IARC has now labelled exhausts as a definite cause of cancer, although it does not compare how risky different carcinogens are. Diesel exhausts are now in the same group as carcinogens ranging from wood chippings to plutonium and sunlight to alcohol. It is thought people working in at-risk industries have about a 40% increased risk of developing lung cancer.

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Obesity Ills That Won't Budge Fuel Soda Battle by Bloomberg

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

A hospital offers Zumba and cooking classes. Farmers markets dole out $2 coupons for cantaloupe and broccoli. An adopt-a-bodega program nudges store owners to stock low-fat milk. And one apartment building even slowed down its elevator, and lined its stairwells with artwork, to entice occupants into some daily exercise.

In the Bronx, where more than two-thirds of adults are overweight, the message has been unmistakably clear for a long time: Slim down now. But, if anything, this battery of efforts points to how intractable the obesity problem has become in New York's poorest borough. The number of the overweight and obese continue to grow faster in the Bronx than anywhere else in the city--nearly one in three Bronx adults is obese--leading the city's health commissioner to call it "ground zero for the obesity epidemic problem."

So it was to the weight-burdened Bronx that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg went last week to make the case for his controversial proposal to ban supersized sodas and sugary drinks. Standing in the lobby of Montefiore Medical Center, the borough's largest hospital, he was flanked by doctors who spoke of treating more patients than ever with diabetes, hypertension and other obesity-related diseases.

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Journal Offers Flat Fee for 'All You Can Publish

from Nature News

Science-publishing ventures continually battle for market space, yet most operate on one of only two basic business models. Either subscribers pay for access, or authors pay for each publication--often thousands of dollars--with access being free. But in what publishing experts say is a radical experiment, an open-access venture called PeerJ, which formally announced its launch on 12 June, is carving out a fresh niche. It is asking its authors for only a one-off fee to secure a lifetime membership that will allow them to publish free, peer-reviewed research papers.

Relying on a custom-built, open-source platform to streamline its publication process, PeerJ aims to drive down the costs of research publishing, say its founders: Peter Binfield, who until recently was publisher of the world's largest journal, PLoS ONE, and Jason Hoyt, who previously worked at the research-paper-sharing site Mendeley. Their involvement is a major reason for the buzz around PeerJ. "I thought--wow--if the people I'm hearing about are working there--that's the sign of something happening. It makes it less crazy," says John Wilbanks, an advocate of open access and a senior fellow at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Missouri.

PeerJ is just one of a flurry of experiments, encouraged in part by the gathering momentum of open access, that might shape the future of research publishing. "We are seeing a Cambrian explosion of experiments with new publishing models. It's going to be an interesting period for the next few years," says Binfield.

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New Holey Material Soaks Up CO2

from BBC News Online

UK researchers have developed a porous material that can preferentially soak up CO2 from the atmosphere. NOTT-202 is a "metal-organic framework" that works like a sponge, absorbing a number of gases at high pressures.

But as the pressure is reduced, CO2 is retained as other gases are released. The development, reported in Nature Materials, holds promise for carbon capture and storage, or even for removing CO2 from the exhaust gases of power plants and factories.

Metal-organic frameworks have been considered promising structures to trap gases for a number of years. They are so named because they comprise atoms of a metallic element at their core, surrounded by scaffolds of longer, carbon-containing chains. These complex molecules can be made to join together in frameworks that leave gaps suitable for capturing gases.

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'Oldest Galaxy' Discovered Using Hawaii Telescope

from the Guardian (UK)

A team of Japanese astronomers using telescopes on Hawaii say they have seen the oldest galaxy yet discovered. The team calculates that the galaxy is 12.91bn light years away, and their research will be published in the Astrophysical Journal. The scientists with the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan used the Subaru and Keck telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea.

A light year is the distance that light travels in a year, about 6 trillion miles (9.66 trillion kilometres). Seeing distant galaxies is in effect looking back in time.

Richard Ellis of the California Institute of Technology, an influential expert in cosmology and galaxy formation, said the latest work was more convincing than some other claims of early galaxies. He said the Japanese claim was more "watertight," using methods that everyone can agree on. But he said it was not much of a change from a similar finding by the same team last year.

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Mammoths Didn't Go Out with a Bang

from Nature News

Why are there no more woolly mammoths? The last isolated island populations of these huge beasts disappeared about 4,000 years ago--well after the Pleistocene extinction that wiped out much of the world's megafauna--but what triggered their demise remains a frustrating mystery. According to the latest study to contribute to the ongoing debate, the last mammoths disappeared after a long, slow decline in numbers rather than because of a single cause.

Woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) once roamed over cold, dry grasslands in the Northern Hemisphere called mammoth steppe. Their remains are especially common in Beringia, the bridge of land that connects eastern Russia and western Alaska. Now, palaeoecologist Glen MacDonald at the University of California, Los Angeles, and his colleagues have tracked the pattern of the Beringian mammoth's extinction. Their results are published today in Nature Communications.

MacDonald and his colleagues combined a geographical database of mammoth finds with radiocarbon dates for mammoth specimens, prehistoric plants and archaeological sites to follow how woolly mammoth ranges expanded and contracted during the past 45,000 years.

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Thaw at Brain Bank Deals Setback to Autism Research

from NPR

The details sound like something out of a bad science-fiction movie. A freezer storing human brains for research went on the fritz, and nobody at the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center knew for days. Two separate alarms that should have alerted staff to the problem failed to sound late last month.

By the time one of the managers at the federally funded repository opened the affected freezer May 31, the temperature was well above freezing and 150 brains had begun to thaw. The Boston Globe first reported on the mishap, which looks like a painful blow to autism research.

Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Carlos Pardo-Villamizaro told the Globe the damage to the brains in the autism collection could slow research on the disorder by 10 years. About one-third of the brains in the malfunctioning freezer (one of 24 at the bank) were from people who had been diagnosed with autism, said Adriana Bobinchock, a spokeswoman at McLean Hospital, site of the brain bank. "Yes, this is a significant loss, but there's still a lot available for autism research," she told Shots.

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Choosing a Sugar Substitute

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

White. Pink. Blue. Yellow. On restaurant tables everywhere, the colors of the sweetener packets instantly identify the contents. Sugar. Saccharin. Aspartame. Sucralose.

Reaching for one to pour into a cup of coffee or tea can sometimes feel like sweetener roulette, with the swirl of confusing, conflicting assertions about which are safe and which are not.

Alissa Kaplan Michaels, for one, never picks pink. She still associates saccharin with cancer. The Food and Drug Administration sought to ban it in the 1970s, because rats that gorged on the chemical developed bladder cancer.

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New Wyoming Supercomputer Expected to Boost Atmospheric Science

from the Los Angeles Times (Registration Required)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- Here in the shortgrass prairie, where being stuck in the ways of the Old West is a point of civic pride, scientists are building a machine that will, in effect, look into the future.

This month, on a barren Wyoming landscape dotted with gopher holes and hay bales, the federal government is assembling a supercomputer 10 years in the making, one of the fastest computers ever built and the largest ever devoted to the study of atmospheric science.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research's supercomputer has been dubbed Yellowstone, after the nearby national park, but it could have been named Nerdvana. The machine will have 100 racks of servers and 72,000 core processors, so many parts that they must be delivered in the back of a 747. Yellowstone will be capable of performing 1.5 quadrillion calculations--a quadrillion is a 1 followed by 15 zeros--every second. That's nearly a quarter of a million calculations, each second, for every person on Earth. In a little more than an hour, Yellowstone can do as many calculations as there are grains of sand on every beach in the world.

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The Electric Flour Voltage Test

from Science News

Ordinary baking flour isn't the most electrifying substance, but spilling a box of the stuff yields a jolt of voltage that has scientists excited about their prospects for sensing catastrophic events like earthquakes and industrial accidents.

Scientists have known for years that materials including rock, crystals and adhesives like ordinary office tape can produce an electrical signal as they fracture or crack under a load. It's also known that before a granular material can flow, the space it takes up has to enlarge--think of a traffic jam in which another lane opens up and cars begin to move again. The voltage measured in the flour may be a signal of this 'dilation,' which indicates flow is about to happen.

"We've known about dilation and that there's an electrical signal when things fail, but nobody has put these two together before," says chemical engineer Joseph McCarthy of the University of Pittsburgh, who wasn't involved in the work. "This is a really, really interesting observation."

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Putting the Brakes on the Immune System

from ScienceNOW Daily News

Your immune system protects you from bacteria and viruses, but you need specialized cells to protect you from your immune system. Overaggressive immune responses can cause everything from autoimmune diseases to organ rejection. Now, scientists have identified a new group of these specialized cells that seem to keep the immune system in check--at least in the short term.

The cells are a type of regulatory T cells, or Tregs. Researchers already know that Tregs serve as a mute button for the immune system. Last year, a team in the United States and another in Italy reported that infusions of Tregs forestall an often-fatal complication of bone marrow and stem cell transplants called graft-versus-host disease, in which immune cells in the transplant attack the recipient's cells. And several groups are planning clinical trials to determine whether Tregs curb the rejection of transplanted organs such as kidneys. To turn down the immune system, Tregs often latch onto a protein called TIM-3 on the surface of helper T cells--which orchestrate immune counterattacks against a pathogen--killing the helper T cell in the process.

Like the helper T cells they target, the newly identified Tregs have TIM-3 on their surface. Researchers led by transplant immunologist Terry Strom of Harvard Medical School in Boston found the new Tregs in abundance in mice that had recently received skin grafts. The cells gathered in the lymph nodes near the grafts and wriggled into the transplants themselves. In the culture dish, the TIM-3 sporting Tregs were better at shutting down immune cells than were ordinary Tregs, the researchers report online today in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

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Our Dying Forests: Beetles Gnaw Through Utah, West

from the Salt Lake Tribune

Bozeman Pass, Mont. -- A gray-whiskered former fly-fishing guide waded through a horse pasture whacking weeds for his neighbor, the rumbling machine in his hands slicing thistles and sparing a robust tangle of grass and wildflowers, while on mountain ridges all around him, the trees silently died. Beetles.

Here, along the pine-scented exurban glory of Trail Creek, Lester DuChane and his sparse neighbors are the latest Westerners to watch their green valley turn red and fade to gray as swarms of rice-grain-size beetles eat the Rocky Mountain forest. He cannot figure out why the government never launched an aggressive counterattack against an epidemic, which has swept through neighboring ranges almost since he settled here in 1994.

"They say they're working on it," DuChane sneered, remembering his pleas with Gallatin National Forest rangers. "It's the government. It ain't doing anything." His is a complaint echoed by Western politicians, who think government land managers heaped disaster on the region by letting forests grow so thick that the trees cannot get enough water and sunlight to defend themselves from the pests.

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Tabletop X-Rays Light Up

from Nature News

The pressurized, cylindrical chamber fits in the palm of Margaret Murnane's hand. Yet out of one end of the device comes an X-ray beam that packs almost as much punch as the light generated by massive particle accelerators.

Murnane and Henry Kapteyn, both physicists at JILA in Boulder, Colorado, a joint institute of the University of Colorado and the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, have reported the first tabletop source of ultra-short, laser-like pulses of low energy, or 'soft', X-rays.

The light, capable of probing the structure and dynamics of molecules, was previously available only at large, billion-dollar national facilities such as synchrotrons or free-electron lasers, where competition for use of the equipment is fierce. But the report by Murnane, Kapteyn and their colleagues, published in the 8 June issue of Science, suggests that the devices might soon lie within the grasp of a university laboratory budget. "For us, it's incredible that we can do this at all in a tabletop system," says Murnane. "Three years ago, people would have said 'only large facilities can do that'."

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Evidence That Man Cured of HIV Harbors Viral Remnants Triggers Confusion

from ScienceNOW Daily News

Only one person ever has been cured of an HIV infection, and a presentation about the man at a scientific meeting in Sitges, Spain, last week has caused an uproar about the possibility that he's still infected.

Timothy Brown, initially referred to as "the Berlin patient" until he went public about his cure, received unusual blood transplants 5 years ago to treat his leukemia. The blood came from a donor who had mutant cells resistant to HIV. Following the procedure, Brown stopped taking antiretrovirals (ARVs), the virus never returned, and his doctors reported that he had been cured.

But new research presented on 8 June at the International Workshop on HIV & Hepatitis Virus "challenge[s] these results," asserts Alain Lafeuillade of the General Hospital in Toulon, France, a well known HIV/AIDS cure researcher. Lafeuillade issued a press release, "The So Called HIV Cured 'Berlin' Patient Still Has Detectable HIV in His Body," that questions whether Brown was reinfected and may still be infectious to other people. Lafeuillade also posted a blog item, "The Weird Story of the Berlin Patient," raising similar questions.

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At Home in the Universe

from Science News

When Lewis and Clark started exploring the West, they didn't know much about what lay beyond St. Louis. Neither, at first, did astronomers know much about cosmic realms beyond Uranus.

But just as 19th century explorers filled in huge blanks on the American map, so did 20th century skywatchers flesh out a much greater map--of frontiers far beyond the solar system, out across the entire Milky Way. Now, in the last few years, cosmic cartography has again redrawn modern science's picture of the galaxy, from the inside out.

Surprising new findings from this endeavor begin at the Milky Way's heart, where astronomers recently spotted a tendril of gas streaming toward the galaxy's central black hole. Next year, scientists will have a ringside seat for the first time as the matter swings perilously close to its doom.

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Microbes Beam Electrons to Each Other Via Mineral "Wires"

from National Geographic News

Bacteria can use minerals in soil as electrical grids, which helps the microbes generate chemicals they need to survive, a new study says. The process involves different bacterial species trading electrons--negatively charged subatomic particles.

Electrons are key to all life-forms, from microbes to people. For instance, the human body constantly swaps electrons from one compound to another to help assemble and dismantle vital chemicals, such as natural sugars. Scientists had known that different species of microorganisms can work together by trading electrons, helping each species process food sources they couldn't otherwise digest easily.

These cooperative interactions were known to happen either via direct contact or by piggybacking electrons on molecules spread through the microbes' surroundings. But the new work is the first to show that microbes can use conductive minerals as "wires" for boosting their electrical transfers.

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Naturally Resistant HIV Foils Therapy

from the Scientist (Registration Required)

HIV's rapid mutation rates can lead to the evolution of drug resistance in HIV-positive patients receiving antiretroviral therapy, but naturally occurring resistance mutations can also accumulate to establish highly resistant HIV strains, according to new models published today (June 7) in PLoS Computational Biology. If true, the models suggest new interpretation for why HIV drug therapy can fail right off the bat.

"The paper is interesting, and may be important for getting scientists to think about evolution of drug resistance," said Andrew Read, an evolutionary biologist at Pennsylvania State University who did not participate in the study. "The mechanism of drug resistance seems straightforward, but it's not." Even relatively simple questions, like whether drug resistance can be avoided by cycling between two different drugs, randomly assigning the drugs, or giving all patients both, have yet to be answered, added Read, who studies the evolution of malaria drug resistance.

Scientists have been debating the relative contributions of pre-existing mutations and mutations that arise after therapy begins to HIV drug resistance since the mid-1990s, explained Robert Shafer, who studies mechanisms of evolved HIV drug resistance at Stanford University but was not involved in the project. It's generally understood that a multi-drug regimen works to prevent resistance from becoming established by forcing the HIV virus to acquire several mutations--raising the "genetic barrier" to resistance--and making it highly unlikely that viruses carry enough mutations before therapy, said Shafer.

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T-DM1 Treats Breast Cancer With Fewer Side Effects

According to results of a study presented to the American Society of Clinical Oncology at its meeting last week in Chicago, a drug that delivers a powerful poison to tumors without some of the side effects of traditional treatments can delay the worsening of breast cancer and also appears to substantially prolong lives.

In other biomedical news, researchers say multiple CT scans in childhood can increase the risk of developing brain cancer or leukemia. The British-led team examined the medical records of almost 180,000 young patients. But writing in The Lancet the authors emphasized that the benefits of the scans usually outweighed the risks.

A blood sample from the mother and saliva from the father have been used to sequence the genome of a fetus in the womb, just 18 weeks into the pregnancy. The findings could eventually lead to fetuses being screened for thousands of genetic disorders in a single, safe test. But it would also raise "many ethical questions."

NPR featured an Australian scientist's 20-year quest to defeat dengue fever. Dengue sickens tens of millions and kills tens of thousands every year. There's no cure, no vaccine and pretty much no way to prevent it. It's one of those diseases transmitted by a mosquito, like malaria.

An antibody-based treatment developed at the Johns Hopkins University either eliminated or shrank tumors in 49 of 236 patients with certain types of advanced skin, kidney and lung cancer. Previous cancer immuno-therapies have worked in smaller percentages of patients. The results of the phase I clinical trial were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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Building With Cross-Laminated Timber

Among the many apartment buildings in the London borough of Hackney, the nine-story structure on the corner of Provost Street and Murray Grove stands out, its exterior a mix of white and gray tiles rather than the usual brick. But it's what's underneath the tiles that makes the 29-unit building truly different. From the second floor up, it is constructed entirely of wood, making it one of the tallest wooden residential buildings in the world.

In other technology news, this is the era of Big Data, in which more and more information about our lives--where we shop and what we buy, indeed where we are right now--is stored on computers. Big Data probably knows more about us than we ourselves do, but is there stuff that Big Data itself doesn't know it knows? Big Data is watching us, but who or what is watching Big Data?

A solar-powered plane landed in Morocco last week after flying from Spain, completing the second leg of its pioneering journey. Solar Impulse landed in Rabat--19 hours after taking off from Madrid. The plane is the size of a jumbo jet and is powered by 12,000 solar cells turning four electrical motors. Made of carbon fiber, the plane is the size of an Airbus A340 but only weighs as much as an average family car.

The IceCube Neutrino Observatory, a telescope at the South Pole that detects the subatomic particles known as neutrinos, has measured the highest-energy neutrino oscillations yet. IceCube was designed primarily to study neutrinos streaming from astrophysical objects such as supernovae and x-ray bursts. But the detection of neutrino oscillations--the transformation of one type of neutrino into another--represents new scientific territory for the experiment.

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'Open Tree of Life' to Include All Known Species

Scientists are drawing a tree of life that includes every known species. A tree with about two million branches. "I think it is an amazing step forward for our community if it can be pulled off," said Robert P. Guralnick, an expert on evolutionary trees at the University of Colorado, who is not part of the project.

In other environmental news, the ship formerly known as the Exxon Valdez is floating off India in a kind of high-seas limbo as a court decides whether the vessel that dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's unspoiled Prince William Sound in 1989 can be hacked apart in this graveyard for once-mighty ships. Local environmentalists have petitioned the High Court in the western state of Gujarat to block its entry pending an onboard inspection for toxic chemicals, including mercury, arsenic and asbestos.

Researchers say hundreds of crown-of-thorns starfish found on a beach in southern Japan in January stranded themselves because they were starving. More than 800 were discovered on a 300m stretch of sand on Ishigaki Island. The starfish population "boom" was first identified in 2009, when masses of juveniles were seen feeding on the island's outer coral reef. The coral-eating starfish then took three years to move onto the beach where they perished.

Little is known about the condition of the many tropical glaciers that descend off the three peaks of mounts Baker, Speke and Africa's third highest peak, Mount Stanley. But last month, an expedition led by a London-based Danish photographer returned from Uganda with the best evidence yet that the 43 glaciers are still mostly there, but are in dire condition and can be expected to disappear in a decade or two.

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NASA May Inherit Ex-Spy Telescope

Working with a small band of astronomers for the past couple of months, NASA has come up with a plan to re-purpose an ex-spy telescope that had been declared surplus by another U.S. agency.

In other space news, Pluto and its newest moons may tell us a lot about how other worlds orbit distant stars. A new computer simulation not only zeroes in on the masses of two of the moons but predicts that planets orbiting double stars are more widely spaced from one another than are the worlds of single stars such as the sun.

When the Kepler spacecraft finds a giant planet closely orbiting a star, a new study found that there's a one in three chance that it's not really a planet at all. Study results suggest that 35 percent of candidate giants orbiting close to bright stars are impostors, known in the planet-hunting business as false-positives.

Venus put on a show for skywatchers last week, moving across the face of the Sun as viewed from Earth. The transit is a rare astronomical event that will not be seen again for another 105 years. Observers in North and Central America, and the northern-most parts of South America saw the transit begin just before local sunset. The far northwest of America, the Arctic, the western Pacific and east Asia witnessed the entire passage.

It looks as though the Milky Way will collide with its closest neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy, in 4 billion years. Andromeda is our closest fellow spiral galaxy. Spiral galaxies have flat, rotating, disc-shaped bodies with spiral arms anchored by a supermassive black hole at the center.

Finally, two mysterious bright spots in a distant galaxy suggest that astronomers have found the best evidence yet for a supermassive black hole being shoved out of its home. If confirmed, the finding would verify Einstein's theory of general relativity in a region of intense gravity not previously tested. The results would also suggest that some giant black holes roam the universe as invisible free floaters.

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A Mammoth Find in Iowa

A nearly complete mammoth skeleton has been found buried on an Iowa farm about 60 miles southwest of Des Moines. The bones were largely undisturbed, which has allowed scientists to gather evidence that could help show what the area was like more than 12,000 years ago, when the animal died.

In other news of the ancient past, a warship submerged for two centuries in the Patuxent River about 20 miles from Washington, D.C., could provide new insight into the War of 1812. Archaeologists are preparing to excavate the wreck.

Researchers say the world's oldest fish traps have been found off coast of Sweden. Wooden fish traps said to be some 9,000 years old have been found in the Baltic Sea. Marine archaeologists from Stockholm's Sodertorn University found finger-thick hazel rods grouped on the sea bed.

About 150 million years ago, insects of monstrous size met their doom battling the ancestors of modern birds. The epic struggle ended an era of insect growth spurts that coincided with upticks in the amount of oxygen in the air. Starting with the Cretaceous period, predators kept the sizes of insects down, researchers report online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Well-preserved remains of Shakespeare's original "wooden O" stage, the Curtain theater, where Henry V and Romeo and Juliet were first performed, have been discovered in a yard in east London. The Curtain theater in Shoreditch preceded the Globe on the Thames as Shakespeare's first venue, showcasing several of his most famous plays. But it was dismantled in the 17th century and its precise location lost.

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Ants in 3D: Project Begins to Image Every Known Species

from BBC News Online

The US team is visiting museums around the world to photograph all of the ant specimens in their collections. They are using a technique that, for the first time, allows microscopic anatomical detail of the insects' bodies to be photographed.

The aim is to make an online catalogue called Antweb, providing a unique tool for scientists who study the insects. It will also allow anyone with access to the internet a detailed glimpse of the diverse world of ants.

Brian Fisher from the California Academy of Sciences is leading the study. He and his colleagues have started their "world ant tour" at the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London.

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Freezer Failure at Brain Bank Hampers Autism Research

from the Boston Globe (Registration Required)

A freezer malfunction at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital has severely damaged one-third of the world's largest collection of autism brain samples, potentially setting back research on the disorder by years, scientists say.

An official at the renowned brain bank in Belmont discovered that the freezer had shut down in late May, without triggering two alarms. Inside, they found 150 thawed brains that had turned dark from decay; about a third of them were part of a collection of autism brains.

"This was a priceless collection,'' said Dr. Francine Benes, director of the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, where the brains were housed. "You can't express its value in dollar amounts,'' said Benes, who is leading one of two internal investigations into the freezer failure. The damage to these brains could slow autism research by a decade as the collection is restored, said Carlos Pardo, a neuropathologist and associate professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University.

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