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Science in the News Weekly

Science at the Top of the News for May 7-11

The most-viewed news story last week by subscribers to Science in the News involved an investigation by the Chicago Tribune into flame-retardant chemicals. Also popular were news items on the "Top Ten Mysteries of the Universe" and a way to guarantee complete randomness in a flow of information, such as the numbers generated by a roulette wheel. Subscribe for free daily updates.

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Bird Flu Hybrid May Transmit in Humans

Controversial research on a hybrid strain of bird flu that could potentially spread between humans was published last week in Nature after security restrictions on the work were lifted. Publication was delayed after the U.S. government's biosecurity advisers said key sections of the paper should be struck out to prevent the details being exploited by bioterrorists.

In other biomedical news, a groundbreaking trial involved 43 patients who got immune cells designed to attack and kill cells infected with HIV. Scientists reported that as much as 16 years later, these genetically engineered T cells are still circulating in their bloodstreams. And there's been no sign the gene therapy caused any cancers, or is likely to.

Scientists have detected tiny amounts of a strangely shaped protein -- a relative of a well-known suspect in Alzheimer's disease -- spreading destruction throughout the brains of mice. If a similar process happens in the human brain, it could help explain how Alzheimer's starts, and even suggest new ways to stop the molecule's spread.

Researchers are hopeful that a genetic test could help predict breast cancer many years before the disease is diagnosed. Ultimately the findings, in the journal Cancer Research, could lead to a simple blood test to screen women, they say.

And the Los Angeles Times was among media outlets to report on a pair of studies that may offer some clarity on mammograms. Researchers found that women who have a mother or sister diagnosed with breast cancer, or those who have unusually dense breast tissue, should have their first test at age 40 and repeat the exam at least once every other year.

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'Pretty Basic Things' Led to September Blackout

Federal investigators reported last week that millions of people in Southern California, Arizona and northern Mexico were plunged into darkness last September because of errors and system problems paralleling those that caused the great Eastern blackout of 2003.

In other technology news, the Simons Foundation has chosen the University of California, Berkeley, as host for an ambitious new center for computer science. The foundation's $60 million grant underscores the growing influence of computer science on the physical and social sciences.

A new study has found that wind farms can cause climate change. At night the motion of the turbines mixes warmer air higher in the atmosphere with colder air nearer the surface, pushing up the overall temperature.

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Brazil Skeleton 'The Most Exciting That We've Found'

Last week the New York Times featured the work of a paleontologist who has discovered some intriguing specimens in a Brazilian rock quarry.

In other news of the ancient past, researchers studying Oetzi, a 5,300-year-old body discovered frozen in the Italian Alps, have found red blood cells around his wounds, representing the oldest red blood cells ever observed.

A study of people from the Solomon Islands in Melanesia suggests that they evolved their striking blonde hair independently of people in Europe. This refutes the possibility that blonde hair was introduced by colonial Europeans, says Carlos Bustamante, a Stanford University geneticist.

A collection of ochre-tinted human bones in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, known as the Red Lady of Paviland, is older than previously thought, according to a new analysis. At 33,000 years old, the bones represent one of the earliest examples of ceremonial burial in Western Europe.

In a southern Illinois coal mine, the largest fossil forest ever discovered may shed new light on climate change today.

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ESA Heads to Jupiter

The European Space Agency has set its sights on Jupiter and its icy moons. A probe, called Juice, was approved at a meeting of member state delegations in Paris. It would be built in time for a launch in 2022.

In other space news, when Hal Levison presented what he called a "slightly radical" mechanism for building the solar system's giant planets, he received a pastry in the face for his trouble. Luckily, he was wearing a catcher's mask.

Astronomers have observed a star in another galaxy plunging toward a giant black hole and being ripped to shreds, sparking a flare so brilliant that observers detected it from a distance of 2.1 billion light-years.

Meanwhile, here on Earth, in the week since a fireball shot across the sky and exploded, scattering a rare type of meteorite over California's Gold Country, the hills have drawn a new rush of treasure seekers.

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Greenland Ice Loss 30 Percent Faster Than a Decade Ago

Greenland's glaciers are melting at an increasing rate, though not at the breakneck pace that scientists once feared, a new study has found.

In other environmental news, researchers have found in long-term studies that some plants are flowering up to eight times faster than computer models anticipate.

Genetically modified crops in the Midwest and South are having unanticipated consequences, including "Trojan corn," "super weeds" and the disappearance of monarch butterflies.

More water moved into and out of the atmosphere in 2000 than in 1950, making parts of the world's oceans saltier and fresher waters less salty, researchers report.

Pacific reef shark populations have declined by 90 percent or more over the past several decades, according to a new study, and much of this decline stems from human fishing pressure. It seems that shark populations fare worse the closer they are to people--even if the nearest population is an atoll with fewer than 100 residents.

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Science at the Top of the News for April 30-May 4

The most-viewed news story last week by subscribers to Science in the News involved what can be learned about relationships from speed dating. The New York Times explored the often-overlooked Permian extinction and what it meant for marine evolution. The Times also looked at research on clouds' effects on climate change. Subscribe for free daily updates.

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Recent Studies Question Link Between Gums and Heart Health

The American Heart Association said last week that the data connecting gum disease and heart health aren't as strong as experts had thought. It turns out that most studies suggesting a connection were not rigorous clinical trials that first measure dental health and then compare it to subsequent heart issues.

In other biomedical news, when Ray Fearing's body didn't take to the kidney his sister had donated to him, the 27-year-old Illinois man donated the organ to another patient in need.

A new study has found that global vaccination efforts have helped reduce deaths from measles outbreaks by 74 percent in a decade. Measles deaths went down from 535,300 in 2000 to 139,300 in 2010, according to the study, published in The Lancet.

Antidepressant drugs that inspired such enthusiasm in recent decades have become the new villains of modern psychopharmacology--overhyped, overprescribed chemicals, symptomatic of a pill-happy culture searching for quick fixes for complex mental problems.

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Mexico Adopts Legally Binding Emissions Goals

The Mexican legislature passed one of the strongest national climate-change laws to date on April 19. Mexico ranks 11th in the world for both the size of its economy and its level of carbon emissions.

In other environmental news, the first criminal charges linked to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill have been filed against a former BP engineer, for allegedly destroying evidence. Kurt Mix of Katy, Texas, faces two counts of obstruction of justice.

Jellyfish are increasing in the majority of the world's coastal ecosystems, researchers found in what is being billed as the first global study of the abundance of jellyfish. The results of the study are published in the journal Hydrobiologia.

The New York Times took a fascinating look out a living room window on the surprising variety of life so close at hand.

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Salp Shut Down California Nuclear Facility

Sea creatures called salp are clogging screens at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant that are used to keep marine life out of the seawater used as a coolant. Officials have been forced to adjust operations at the facility.

In other technology news, chemists have devised a better method of coating fabrics with a water-repellent, "self-cleaning" coating. They engineered a multi-layered coating whose layers, when struck with UV light, bond more firmly to each other and to cotton.

The U.K. and U.S. will work together to develop "floating" wind turbines to harness more offshore wind power. In order to exploit the U.K.'s huge wind resource, new technology is needed to access waters between 60 and 100 meters deep: too deep for turbines fixed to the seabed, but where wind speeds are consistently higher.

In a new study, a specially designed fantasy video game helped teens conquer depression just as well as--if not better than--the usual counseling. Researchers in New Zealand created the SPARX video game as a way to deliver cognitive behavioral therapy, packaged in a fun and appealing way.

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