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Science in the News

Biomedicine: Stem Cells Cure Rare, Fatal Disease

Medical researchers reported last week that they had used stem cells from umbilical cord blood and bone marrow to cure a 2-year-old boy of a rare and usually fatal genetic disease called recessive epidermolysis bullosa. They say the new treatment could move it off the list of incurable diseases.

Life expectancy in the United States has reached a record high of 78 years, researchers reported. But America ranks 29th in life expectancy among U.N. member nations. The top spot belongs to Andorra, with an average life expectancy of 83, followed by Japan, Sweden, Australia and Switzerland.

The safety of the U.S. food supply again made headlines last week as public health officials continued their search for the source of a salmonella outbreak in tomatoes. Meanwhile, about 50 countries reportedly still harbor suspicions about American beef after a case of mad cow disease was found in Washington state back in 2003.

A daily measure of U.S. happiness and stress was hailed by researchers for its comprehensive nature. The index is based on 1,000 in-depth interviews nightly. And a new study looked at how our sense of fairness affects our outlook and decisions.

Another study released last week found that men who are deficient in vitamin D have more than double the risk of suffering a heart attack. But two other studies found that Type 2 diabetics do not reduce their risk of heart attacks and strokes by tightly controlling their blood-sugar levels.

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A 'Methuselah Tree' and a Provocative Australian Fossil

A 2,000-year-old date palm seed found in the arid Dead Sea palace of King Herod perched atop Masada has sprouted and grown into a tree, researchers reported last week. It has become the oldest seed ever grown.

Elsewhere, researchers said that a 200-million-year-old Australian fossil suggests that dinosaurs roamed farther than previously believed across the prehistoric supercontinent of Gondwana. The fossil belonged to a two-legged meat-eater related to a giant, big-clawed carnivore from Argentina.

And before it was swallowed by the sea, the English town of Dunwich was an important medieval city. Last week a research team set sail to discover the secrets of this British Atlantis. They will use the latest acoustic imaging technology to reveal Dunwich in its prime.

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Technology: A New Computing Speed Record

A computing milestone was reached last week when an American military supercomputer nicknamed Roadrunner processed more than 1.026 quadrillion calculations per second. The new $133 million supercomputer, more than twice as fast as its closest rival, was built by engineers and scientists at IBM and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

British researchers at Lancaster University say they have designed a carbon nanotube that spins in a current of electrons like a wind turbine. They say this simple motor could be used to shrink optical communications components or to devise new forms of computer memory.

Biomaterials pioneer Robert Langer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last week won the Millennium Technology Prize, often called the unofficial Nobel Prize for technology. His work has involved finding a way to gradually release drug molecules into a patient's body.

Meanwhile, the most advanced bionic hand yet devised won the U.K.'s top engineering prize, the MacRobert Award. The prosthetic device has five individually powered digits and has been fitted to more than 200 people.

And as the price of gasoline soars, many students are now taking field trips on the Internet, according to the Christian Science Monitor. As of last month, more than 1.1 million students had participated in virtual field trips organized through the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration in Indianapolis.

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Astronomy: A Search for Martian Life -- And a New Name for Pluto

After a couple of miscues, the Phoenix Mars Lander finally filled its tiny scientific oven with Martian soil last week, and scientists were expected to begin analyzing it to determine whether, among other things, the soil contains organic compounds.

Meanwhile, NASA launched its Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST) last week on a five- to 10-year mission in Earth orbit. It will pick up where the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory left off, but with better technology. Its particle detectors are much more sensitive and should provide the best look yet into the high-energy universe.

In other news, cosmologists speculate that structures larger than the visible universe may be responsible for a strange pattern seen in the Big Bang's afterglow. If confirmed, the structures could provide important information about the universe's early history.

Cosmologists are also pondering why the pattern of radiation left over from the Big Bang looks different in different regions of the sky. Several theories are being proposed for a "lopsided" universe.

And, finally, what was formerly known as the ninth planet in the solar system will henceforth be known as a "plutoid," according to the International Astronomical Union. That will be the official designation of all small, nearly spherical objects orbiting beyond Neptune.

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Global Warming Threatens Resource-Poor Africa

U.N. officials said last week that Africa is especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of global warming and lacks the resources to deal with them. They said industrialized nations should not look to developing nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without doing more themselves.

Meanwhile, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences joined with other such scientific groups in a dozen nations in calling on world leaders to limit the threat of climate change by decreasing their dependence on fossil fuels.

And the authors of an article in American Scientist magazine looked at the ecological effects of climate change on the Antarctic Peninsula. They say the average midwinter temperature there has increased by 6 degrees Celsius since 1950, or five times the global average.

American companies that burn coal to make electricity are looking for a way to build plants that would capture their emissions, a strategy that may become a lot more important soon, according to the New York Times.

And, finally, the Christian Science Monitor began a series called "Empty Oceans" that looks at disappearing fish stocks and changing undersea ecosystems, among other factors that are raising alarms.

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Mending Ozone Hole May Worsen Climate Change

from Scientific American

Decades of chemical pollution have damaged the ozone layer of the upper atmosphere that shields Earth from the harmful effects of the sun's ultraviolet rays, each summer eating a hole over the South Pole that expands to nearly the size of Antarctica.

But since 1996, when an international treaty banned the culprit chemical refrigerants and propellants ... , the size of the seasonal tear has been shrinking - and scientists predict it may stop forming by the end of this century.

You would think that was good news. But atmospheric scientists caution in a new study published in Science that sewing up the rift in the ozone ... layer may exacerbate another environmental woe: climate change.


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Novel Solar Thermal Power Concept for California Heats Up

from the Los Angeles Times (Registration required)

DIMONA, ISRAEL -- On the scorched floor of Israel's Negev Desert blooms a field of 1,640 robotic mirrors that behave like sunflowers.

Slightly larger than pingpong tables and guided by a computer, they turn imperceptibly to follow the sun and focus its rays on the pinnacle of a 200-foot tower, where a water boiler will soon start producing high-pressure steam.

This futuristic assembly is Arnold Goldman's scale model and testing ground for five larger solar fields his company plans to build in the Mojave Desert to supply up to 900 megawatts of clean energy to California in the next decade.


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Accidental Astrophysicists

from Science News

Dmitry Khavinson and Genevra Neumann didn't know anything about astrophysics. They were just doing mathematics, like they always do, following their curiosity. In 2004, they posted a new result, an extension of the fundamental theorem of algebra, on MathSciNet, a preprint server.

Five days later, they received an e-mail. Congratulations, it said. You just proved Sun Hong Rhie's conjecture on gravitational lensing.

Gravitational what? Khavinson, of the University of South Florida in Tampa, and Neumann, of the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, had never heard of it. So they started a crash course in gravitational lensing.


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Maritime 'Treasure Trove' Raised

from BBC News Online

A treasure trove of artefacts is being recovered from what experts describe as one of the most important maritime discoveries since the Mary Rose.

The late 16th Century shipwreck hails from a pivotal point in England's military history.

The raised haul includes a 2m-long cannon, which will give archaeologists an insight into Elizabeth I's naval might. The wreck, discovered 30 years ago, is situated off the coast of Alderney.


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Supernova 'Shock Breakout' Seen From Red Giant - A First

from National Geographic News

The ultraviolet flash that signals the explosion of a red supergiant star has been detected by astronomers for the first time.

"We have witnessed the violent death of a massive star in a galaxy almost a billion light-years away in unprecedented detail," said study team member Kevin Schawinski, an astrophysicist at the University of Oxford in the U.K.

The discovery comes just weeks after an independent team reported the first sighting of x-ray light from a star just as it was beginning to explode. Seeing such "first light" from supernovae could help astronomers better understand what's happening inside massive stars in their final moments.


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'New Shower Curtain Smell' Gives Off Toxic Chemicals

from the Los Angeles Times (Registration required)

Vinyl shower curtains sold at major retailers across the country emit toxic chemicals that have been linked to serious health problems, according to a report released Thursday by a national environmental organization.

The curtains contained high concentrations of chemicals that are linked to liver damage as well as damage to the central nervous, respiratory and reproductive systems, said researchers for the Virginia-based Center for Health, Environment & Justice.

The organization commissioned the study about two years ago to determine what caused that "new shower curtain smell" familiar to many consumers.


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Johns Hopkins Raps AP Story on Lead Experiment

from the San Francisco Examiner

(Associated Press) - For about 20 years, Dr. Michael Klag has used a fertilizer made from Milwaukee municipal sludge on azaleas and yew shrubs at his suburban Baltimore home. And Klag, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, says he's never had any question about its safety.

But in the past few weeks, he has found himself reassuring the public about a similar product .... Johns Hopkins researchers spread it on nine yards in poor black Baltimore neighborhoods in an experiment eight years ago.

That's become a cause for outrage among some politicians and others who have called for an investigation. The trigger was an Associated Press story in April that raised questions about the Baltimore experiment and whether there has been adequate testing to determine if sludge is safe.


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EU Chemical Rules Pressure U.S. Firms

from the Seattle Times

WASHINGTON - Europe this month rolled out new restrictions on makers of chemicals linked to cancer and other health problems, changes that are forcing U.S. industries to find new ways to produce a wide range of everyday products.

The new laws in the European Union (EU) require companies to demonstrate that a chemical is safe before it enters commerce, the opposite of policies in the United States, where regulators must prove a chemical is harmful before it can be restricted or removed from the market. Manufacturers said complying with the European laws will add billions to their costs.

The changes come as consumers increasingly are worried about the long-term consequences of chemical exposure and are agitating for more aggressive regulation. In the United States, these pressures have spurred efforts in Congress and some state legislatures to pass laws that would circumvent the laborious federal regulatory process.

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Palm Tree Grown from 2,000-Year-Old Date Stone

from the Guardian(UK)

An ancient seed that germinated after being recovered from the rubble of King Herod's pleasure palace has been dated as 2,000 years old, smashing the record for the oldest seed ever grown.

The seed was among three recovered during excavations at Masada, an imposing 2,044-year-old clifftop fortress on the edge of the Judean desert overlooking the Dead Sea.

Researchers planted the seed three years ago after treating it with hormone-laced fertilisers. To their surprise, it germinated and began to grow. The plant, dubbed the "Methuselah tree" after the oldest character in the Bible, now stands 1.5m tall.

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Record Life Expectancy Still Lags

from USA Today

U.S. life expectancy has reached 78 years, a record high driven by declines in all but one of the major causes of death, the government reported Wednesday.

Despite the good news, the USA ranks 29th in life expectancy among the United Nations' member nations. Tops is Andorra, which has an average life expectancy of 83, followed closely by Japan, Sweden, Australia and Switzerland.

"We're two to three years behind most Western countries at this point," says University of Pennsylvania demographer Samuel Preston, a member of a National Academy of Sciences panel that convened for the first time last week to try to explain the lag.

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Similarity of Chinese, Calif. Fault Systems Raises Concerns

from the Washington Post (Registration Required)

Kenneth Hudnut sees trouble out his window. He works in Pasadena, Calif., in a sunny valley of palm trees, historic bungalows, gourmet coffee shops and elite institutions of higher learning and space technology.

But Hudnut, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey, knows that it also is home to something called the Sierra Madre fault, which is adjacent to something called the Cucamonga fault.

That, in turn, is not far from the fabled San Andreas fault. What worries Hudnut is the possibility of the geological equivalent of dominos: What if an earthquake on one fault causes a chain reaction? That, he believes, is what happened in China last month in the earthquake that has so far been blamed for more than 69,000 deaths.

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Some Shark Populations Collapsing

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

Some shark populations in the Mediterranean Sea have completely collapsed, according to a new study, with numbers of five species declining by more than 96 percent over the past two centuries.

"This loss of top predators could hold serious implications for the entire marine ecosystem, greatly affecting food webs throughout this region," said the lead author of the study, Francesco Ferretti, a doctoral student in marine biology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

Particularly troubling, the researchers said, were patterns indicating a lack of females of breeding age, which are essential if populations are to recover even with new conservation measures.

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Theory Suggests a Pre-Big Bang Universe

from Science News

Some people are loath to take a lopsided view of the universe, but cosmologist Sean Carroll and his colleagues are positively reveling in it.

Embracing a study that suggests the pattern of radiation left over from the Big Bang looks surprisingly different from one side of the sky to the other, Carroll and colleagues have come up with some mind-bending possibilities to explain the puzzle, described in a paper posted online June 3.

In one scenario, the universe existed before inflation - the short-lived but enormous growth spurt associated with the Big Bang. In the other scenario, the universe is but a tiny part of a primordial structure now grown so big it exceeds the horizon of the observable universe.

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Stem Cell Guidelines On the Way

from the Scientist (Registration Required)

You can now have your say about regulations on bringing stem cell therapies to the clinic.

A special task force set up to create guidelines for bringing stem cell therapies from bench to bedside will be accepting public commentary on the guidelines, continuing until this fall, the group announced [Thursday] at the annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) in Philadelphia.

The task force's primary goals are to create guidelines that will help basic researchers address the regulatory challenges of stem cell therapies. In particular, the task force of more than 30 members from 13 countries will address issues of standardizing stem cell populations ...

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A New Swimsuit Is Shattering Records and Unleashing Debate

from the Economist

Athletes in the ancient Olympics competed in the buff, on the grounds (among other things) that clothes were a hindrance to performance. Modern technology, however, has changed that. In some sports, notably swimming, the right attire can be an enormous boon. Take Speedo's LZR swimsuit, which was introduced in February.

Fully 38 of the 42 world swimming records that have been broken since then have fallen to swimmers wearing LZRs. Indeed, some of those records have been claimed by less-than-notable racers, suggesting that the difference lies in the apparel, not the athlete.

To make the LZR, four innovations had to come together. The first is the fabric. The new suit is cut from a densely woven nylon-elastane material that compresses the wearer's body into a hydrodynamic shape but is extremely light. Moreover, there are no sewn seams. Instead, the suit is bonded by ultrasonic welding.

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Musicophobia: When Your Favorite Song Gives You Seizures

from the Scientific American

Stacey Gayle used to love music. Listening to it and performing it was a big part of her life. She had stacks of CDs in her car, went to concerts of artists like Sean Paul, and would go to parties where hot songs would blare. ... Then she started having seizures.

The first one happened while she slept in her bedroom in Rosedale, Queens in New York City on the night of March 3, 2005. ... Several brain scans and blood tests gave no clue as to why she seized. Soon after, she had another, this time at a friend's barbecue.

... At first, the seizures seemed to occur randomly. In the spring of 2006, however, she noticed a pattern. At the time, Sean Paul's "Temperature" was sitting at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, continually being played on urban radio stations. It was playing at nearly every barbecue and party she went to. That was a problem: "Every time it would go on, I would pass out and go into a seizure," she recalls.

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'Non-Planet' Pluto Gets New Class

from the BBC News Online

"Plutoid" is the word of the moment for astronomers. It is the new classification that has been sanctioned for the object that was formerly known as the "ninth planet."

It is nearly two years since the International Astronomical Union (IAU) stripped Pluto of its former status as a "proper" planet. Now an IAU committee, meeting in Oslo, has suggested that small, nearly spherical objects orbiting beyond Neptune should carry the "plutoid" tag.

As astronomy's official nomenclature organisation, the IAU must approve all new names and classifications. Its decision at the 2006 General Assembly to demote Pluto from "planet" to "dwarf planet" caused an international furore.

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Telescope Launched to Scout Out Gamma Rays

from the San Diego Union-Tribune (Registration Required)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Associated Press) - NASA launched a telescope Wednesday to scout out elusive, super high-energy gamma rays lurking in the universe. Glast - a NASA acronym standing for Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope - began its five- to 10-year Earth-orbiting mission with a midday blastoff aboard a Delta rocket.

The $690 million telescope, supported by six countries, will pick up where NASA's Compton Gamma Ray Observatory left off before its deliberate destruction in 2000, but in a bigger and better way.

With superior new technology and insight gained from Compton and other telescopes, Glast will be able to do in three hours, or two orbits of Earth - survey the entire sky - what Compton took 15 months to do. What's more, Glast and its particle detectors are much more sensitive and precise, and should provide an unprecedented view into the high-energy universe from a 345-mile-high orbit.

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Honor for Biomaterials Pioneer

from BBC News Online

One of the most prolific inventors in medicine has won the prestigious Millennium Technology Prize. Professor Robert Langer's biomaterials research has allowed for more accurate and controlled release of drugs into patients' bodies.

His work has had a significant impact on fighting cancer and heart disease, with more than 100 million people using medicines delivered via his designs. The 800,000 euros award is seen as an unofficial Nobel Prize for technology.

It is given every second year for a technology that "significantly improves the quality of human life, today and in the future." ... His work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology involved finding a way to gradually release drug molecules into a patient's body.

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Questions on U.S. Beef Remain

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

About 50 countries, including Korea, Taiwan and Japan the last of which accounted for 36 percent of American beef exports closed their doors to American beef after the first confirmed case of mad cow disease was found in Moses Lake, Wash., in December 2003.

The circumstances of that first case, and the defensive reactions of the United States Department of Agriculture after its discovery, led to years of skepticism by American consumer groups and difficult negotiations with foreign countries over reopening their markets -- especially in Asia's wealthier countries, where consumers are used to demanding that their governments certify that imported food is safe.

Although the first infected cow was probably not a "downer" -- too diseased or crippled to walk -- it was part of a shipment of broken-down old dairy cows, and it became clear from press reports that some small slaughterhouses specialized in taking such borderline animals, which often had to be hoisted or winched out of their trucks on chains.

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Empty Oceans

from the Christian Science Monitor

For thousands of years, humans saw the seas as an infinite source of plenty. But the industrialized fishing fleets of the 20th century found the ocean's bounds. Today, fish stocks are disappearing and undersea ecosystems are changing in ways that raise alarm. How did this happen? And what must be done to reverse these trends and sustain life in the world's seas?

In Part 1 of a series, the Monitor looks at the factors that have conspired to cause the collpse of fish stocks.

In the past, sail-powered fishing boats were limited by wind and weather; today's factory ships, with sonar and GPS, can scour the sea for months. The sea was not so vast, once we deployed an industrial armada against it.

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'Electron Turbine' Could Print Designer Molecules

from the New Scientist

A carbon nanotube that spins in a current of electrons, like a wind turbine in a breeze, could become the world's smallest printer or shrink computer memory, UK researchers say.

The design is simple. A carbon nanotube 10 nanometres long and 1 nm wide is suspended between two others, its ends nested inside them to form a rotating joint. When a direct current is passed along the tubes, the central one spins around.

That design has as yet only been tested using advanced computer simulations by Colin Lambert and colleagues at Lancaster University, Lancashire, UK. But Adrian Bachtold of the Catalan Institute for Nanotechnology, who was not involved in the work, intends to build the electron turbines and says it should be straightforward.

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Mars Lander Fills Test Oven with Pinch of Soil

The Phoenix Mars Lander has successfully filled its scientific oven with clumpy Martian soil, and scientists expect to close the door and begin their analysis within a few days.

The lander had trouble getting the oven to fill because the soil clods refused to sift through a screen over the oven's opening. After repeated attempts and a last try at vibrating the screen, they succeeded in coaxing soil through the screen and into the oven.

The tiny oven is one of eight aboard the Phoenix Mars Lander. The high-temperature ovens are part of a key scientific instrument that will analyze Martian ice and soil and determine whether organic compounds, the building blocks of life, are present.

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New Dinosaur May Link S. American, Aussie Dinos

A rare fossil found in Australia suggests dinosaurs were able to trek north across a vast continent, scientists report.

The hundred-million-year-old fossil belonged to a two-legged meat-eater, or theropod, that is closely related to Megaraptor namunhuaiquii, a giant, big-clawed carnivore from Argentina, says a team led by Nathan Smith of the University of Chicago's Field Museum. The discovery could help redraw the world map during the dinosaur era, researchers add.

That's because the newfound Australian dinosaur shows that animals could travel across the prehistoric supercontinent of Gondwana during the Cretaceous period, about 145 to 65 million years ago. This in turn suggests that Gondwana's Southern Hemisphere landmasses broke up later than traditionally thought.


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Science Academies Call for Climate Action

from Science News

Our National Academy of Sciences and its counterparts in a dozen other nations issued a joint statement [Tuesday] calling on world leaders to "to limit the threat of climate change" by weaning themselves off of their dependence on fossil fuels.

They also called for a move to sustainable resource use - which, as we all know, would not include the continued full-throttle mining of finite, millions-of-years-old coal, oil, and natural gas.

The academies that issued the request for action are known as the G8 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) plus 5 (the largest developing countries: China, India, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa). These science academies represent some nations that do not yet work together on discussing, much less tackling, climate change.

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