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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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