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Science in the News Weekly


NASA Solicits Citizen Coders

NASA has launched a competition to find "space apps" to aid space exploration and education. The two-day event brought programmers together on seven continents to see how creative they could be with NASA's store of space data. Problems NASA wants solved include improving data sharing after disasters and spotting good lunar landing sites.

In other space news, data collected from an ice-watching satellite reveal that the vast ice shelves extending from the shores of western Antarctica are being eaten away from underneath by warming ocean currents. Meanwhile, Europe's Cryosat mission is now watching the ebb and flow of Arctic sea ice with high precision.

And a German radar satellite is returning regular images of the Pine Island Glacier (PIG) ice shelf. Scientists expect its observations to alert them to the birth of a monster iceberg covering some 750 square kilometers.

Elsewhere, scientists working on the Cassini probe have witnessed small clumps of ice plowing through one of Saturn's main rings. As they plunge through, the ice balls leave glittering trails behind them referred to as mini-jets.

And, finally, a group of wealthy, adventurous entrepreneurs announced a new venture called Planetary Resources Inc., which plans to send swarms of robots to space to scout asteroids for precious metals and set up mines to bring resources back to Earth.

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Kentucky 'Godzillus' Fossil Puzzles Experts

A 150-pound fossil recovered last year in northern Kentucky is puzzling experts, who are trying to determine whether it was an animal, a mineral or a form of plant life from a time when the Cincinnati region was underwater. Scientists say the fossil is 450 million years old.

In other news of the ancient past, the New York Times featured paleontological fieldwork that has been going on in the Nova Iorque area of Brazil.

Genetic analysis has revealed that an ancient Swedish farmer came from the Mediterranean. Researchers say the woman's genome provides clues as to how agriculture spread across Europe.

Creatures once thought to be dinosaurs have been recategorized as very different, distantly related sorts of archosauriforms (the major group to which dinosaurs, crocodiles and many related lineages belong). Smithsonian looked at what these reinterpretations have meant to the field.

Scientists used to think that violent impacts on Earth during the lunar Late Heavy Bombardment lasted several hundred million years. But new simulations suggest that Earth's pummeling lasted for billions of years.

New genetic evidence suggests that polar bears may have originated about 600,000 years ago. Previous studies have suggested that the polar bear, Ursus maritimus, emerged much later, about 150,000 years ago.

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Science at the Top of the News for April 23-27

An opinion piece from Wired Science on how science failed during the Gulf oil disaster was the most-viewed story last week by subscribers to Science in the News Daily. Other top stories included a look at six new molecules that can carry genes and how tiny electric cars are catching on in China. Subscribe for free daily updates.

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Breast Cancer Categories Promise More Precise Treatments

Classifying breast cancer tumors into 10 distinct categories, ranging from very treatable to extremely aggressive, constitutes a major step on the way to the long-sought goal of precisely targeting therapies for patients. The new categories were described in a study released last Wednesday.

By tacking drugs onto molecules targeting rogue brain cells, medical researchers have alleviated symptoms in newborn rabbits that are similar to those of cerebral palsy in children.

Activity cuts the risk of Alzheimer's disease and slows cognitive decline, even in the very old, according to a new study. The study is one of the first to show that activity of all sorts benefits people over age 80, even if they're not "exercising."

A simple blood test can distinguish between people who are depressed and those who are not. The test examined a panel of 28 biological markers that circulate in the bloodstream and found that 11 of them could predict the presence of depression at accuracy levels that ranged from medium to large.

Diagnoses of attention hyperactivity disorder among children have risen 22 percent from 2003 to 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But many experts believe that this may not be the epidemic it appears. They say many children are given a diagnosis of A.D.H.D. when in fact they have another problem: a sleep disorder.

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Early Peril for Newton's Principia

The Guardian recounted the story of how a book about fish nearly sank Isaac Newton's Principia. The lavishly illustrated Historia Piscium, or History of Fishes, by John Ray and Francis Willughby, was so expensive that it forced the Royal Society to withdraw from its promise to finance publication of Newton's Principia, one of the most important works in the history of science.

Even as coal-fired power plants are being phased out in Oregon and Washington, Boardman, an agribusiness outpost across the river from vineyards owned by the Columbia Crest winery, is among at least half a dozen ports in the region weighing whether to ship millions of tons of coal to Asia from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana.

In other environmental news, California citrus growers are terrified about what they say will be the inevitable local arrival of the dreaded citrus disease huanglongbing, now that it has been discovered in Los Angeles County. The Asian citrus psyllid insect carries the tree disease, which has no cure.

As the oyster industry heads into the fifth summer of its most unnerving crisis in decades, scientists are pondering a disturbing theory. They suspect water that rises from deep in the Pacific Ocean--icy seawater that surges into Willapa Bay and gets pumped into seaside hatcheries--may be corrosive enough to kill baby oysters.

Defying the global trend, some glaciers on Asia's Karakoram mountains are getting thicker, researchers say. Satellite data show that glaciers in part of the Karakoram range, to the west of the Himalayan region, are putting on mass.

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At AAPA Meeting, a Fossil Show-and-Tell

The annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Portland last week featured an exhibition of plaster casts of skulls, bones and teeth of important members of the human family. The fossils included the partial skeletons of Lucy from Ethiopia; Australopithecus sediba from South Africa; and the fingernail-size sliver of bone of a new type of archaic human from Siberia.

In other news of the ancient past, some 400 million years ago, nautiluslike creatures known as ammonites may have been far more sedentary than once believed, spending most of their lives at spots where methane bubbled up from the sea floor.

The way dinosaurs reproduced probably had something to do with their success. They grew fast, started mating before they hit skeletal maturity and laid clutches of multiple eggs--a life history that may have allowed dinosaurs to proliferate and diversify rapidly.

Researchers have concluded that 1.5 million-year-old footprints excavated in Africa, initially thought to reflect a thoroughly modern walking style, were instead made by individuals that walked differently than people today do.

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A Glimpse of an Early Galaxy

By taking advantage of a rare cosmic zoom lens--in which the gravity of a large mass magnifies light from objects in the distant background--a team of researchers has spotted a galaxy so remote its light was emitted just 490 million years after the Big Bang, when the Universe was a mere 3.6% of its current age.

In other space news, scientists say the chances of finding life on Mars could be improved by looking in craters made by asteroids. That conclusion is based on the discovery of organisms thriving deep underneath a site in the US where an asteroid crashed 35 million years ago.

Astrophysicists have believed that only two sources could make cosmic rays: supermassive black holes in active galaxies, or so-called gamma ray bursts. A study in Nature has now all but ruled out gamma ray bursts as the cause.

Last week the sun erupted in a tremendous solar flare, unleashing an intense eruption of super-heated plasma that arced high above the star's surface before blasting out into space.

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Science at the Top of the News for April 16-20

The most-viewed news story last week by subscribers to Science in the News concerned a predator-proof fence that is helping to restore a corner of Hawaii to a pristine state and proving a boon for scientists and bird-watchers. The New York Times looked at an innovation in highway bridge-building that cuts months, if not years, off construction. And it has been revealed that Scottish people have extraordinary DNA. Subscribe for free daily updates.

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'America's Most Common, Least Known-About Disease'

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explored lupus, a devastating and much misunderstood illness. The hereditary autoimmune disease attacks various organs of the body.

In other biomedical news, it was 57 years ago--April 12, 1955--that the polio vaccine developed by Jonas Salk was found to be 90 percent effective. The vaccine was part of an historic scientific push that basically wiped out polio. In the years before the vaccine was available, up to 20,000 people contracted polio in the U.S. each year.

The New York Times reported that a new FDA rule will require farmers and ranchers to get a prescription from a veterinarian before using antibiotics in farm animals. It's hoped that more judicious use of the drugs will reduce deaths from antibiotic-resistant diseases.

Researchers say an experiment in Brazil to reduce populations of the dengue-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquito, by releasing millions of genetically modified insects into the wild, is working.

A new study links autism and developmental delays in young children to obesity and diabetes in their mothers.

And, finally, last week the FDA approved a radioactive compound for evaluating people with cognitive impairment for Alzheimer's disease. The drug, called Amyvid, binds to amyloid plaques, the calling card of Alzheimer's disease in the brain. When administered before a PET scan, Amyvid allows doctors to see whether amyloid has begun to build up.

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