Penicillin breeding experiments!

Scientists used their understanding of the MAT (mating) genes to induce penicillin mold to reproduce sexually, producing spores with new gene combinations. They hope to breed new strains that will kill antibiotic-resistant disease germs. And now that they have induced penicillin to breed, instead of merely producing identical spores, for the first time in a hundred years, they’ll try the same with other important fungi, such as those that produce other antibiotics.

Breakthrough in cancer tests

Jack Andraka (BBC image)


Jack Andraka, a high school student in Maryland has invented a new test for cancer of the liver, breast, or pancreas while they are still in early stage. It’s a blood test that takes seconds. It takes 1/168 of the time, is 400 times more sensitives, and it costs 1/26,000 as much. It costs 3¢ and takes five minutes.

The test uses single-walled carbon nanotubes to detect mesothelin, a protein that is overproduced by certain cancers, including mesothelioma and ovarian and pancreatic adenocarcinoma. Jack sent 200 e-mails about his proposed experimental procedure and collected 199 rejections. He found one lab where he test his idea.

Jack credits the Internet for online journals–he was reading in biology class about nanotubes as biosensors–and search engines that let him learn enough to do this.

Research to follow: Oakley Evolution Lab

Todd Oakley at the University of California is unravelling the mysteries of convergent and parallel evolution in a variety of organisms, aided by post-doctoral students on several projects.

“My research involves comparisons of independent evolutionary transitions such as convergence, parallelism, duplication, and homoplasy. Such transitions provide an element of replicability within the singular history of life, and can yield insight into the most general evolutionary questions. For example, when and why do the same molecular or developmental changes underlie similar – though independent – evolutionary changes? What are the fates of duplicated genes, and what causes them to diversify or retain old functions? How can we even determine what is an independent evolutionary event?”

One of his students has discovered that chitons have eye lenses made of aragonite, which is the material used by trilobites.

Book: The Four Percent Universe

Chad Orzel at Uncertain Principles reviews Richard Panek’s The Four Percent Universe. The subtitle is Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality.

It’s not a book about the known facts regarding the nature of the universe so much as a book about the process by which those facts were determined and became accepted.

Here’s a snippet from an interview with Panek on Amazon:

Q: Well, then, what do astronomers mean by “dark matter”?

Panek: A mysterious substance that comprises about 23 percent of the universe.

Q: And dark energy?

Panek: Something even more mysterious that comprises about 73 percent of the universe.

Q: Okay, 73 and 23 add up to 96 percent, which does leave a four percent universe. But if we don’t know what dark matter and dark energy are, how do we even know they’re there?

Panek: In the 1970s, astronomers observed that the motions of galaxies, including our own Milky Way, seem to be violating the universal law of gravitation. They’re spinning way too fast to survive more than a single rotation, yet we know that our galaxy has gone through dozens of rotations in its billions of years of life. Galaxies are living fast but not dying young—a fact that makes sense only if we say that there’s more matter out there, gravitationally holding galaxies and even clusters of galaxies together, than we can see. Astronomers call this substance dark matter.

Q: And the mysterious dark energy?

Panek: In the 1990s, two independent teams of astronomers set out to discover the fate of the universe. They knew the universe was born in a big bang and has been expanding ever since. Now they wanted to know how much the mutual gravitation among all this matter—dark or otherwise—was affecting the expansion of the universe. Enough to slow it down so that the universe would eventually grind to a halt, then collapse on itself? Or just enough that the expansion would grind to a halt and stay there? In 1998 the two teams came to the same conclusion: the expansion of the universe isn’t slowing down at all. In fact, it’s speeding up. And whatever force is counteracting gravity is what they call dark energy.

Canadian government muzzles federal researchers

Canadian scientists are being muzzled by the Conservative Reform Alliance Party  government, which refuses to let them talk about their research without vetting all statements first. This has a chilling effect on  research, as the free exchange of information is crucial to coming to the correct conclusions. It also deprives Canadians of knowing what their tax dollars are paying for and the verified facts that they could use to make decisions with.

By Petti Fong Western Bureau

VANCOUVER—As thousands of researchers gather in Vancouver for an international conference, focus has turned to the Canadian government and concerns that federal scientists are being muzzled from talking about their work.

A panel discussion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting heard that federal scientists — including those at Environment Canada, the Canadian Food and Inspection Agency and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans — are doing top-line research that’s being published in some of the most prestigious journals. But the Canadian public isn’t aware of this work because scientists have been told not to talk without getting clearance through layers of bureaucracy in Ottawa.

“Scientists are first and foremost a public servant, not a servant for the ministry,” said Andrew Weaver, a climatologist at the University of Victoria.

Weaver said he gets frequent emails from public-sector colleagues looking to leave the federal government. “When you control people, morale is bad.”

A policy change in 2008 said federal scientists must direct all media inquiries to national headquarters and not respond to requests to talk about their work.

Claire Dansereau, the deputy minister of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, was listed as a participant in the panel discussion. But Dansereau did not appear and a chair was left symbolically empty at the table. Department spokeswoman Mélanie Carkner said that organizers knew on Jan. 6 that the deputy minister “would have to respectfully decline the invitation to participate.”

Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program with the New York-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said scientists must be allowed to speak about their work so that the public can stay informed about research being done to safeguard water, protect the environment and ensure pharmaceuticals are regulated.

“We can’t manage without information,” she said Friday.

Last year, Kristina Miller, a Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist who had her research published in Science, was told not to talk to the media.

On Friday, seven groups including the World Federation of Science Journalists and the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression sent an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper citing another example of an Environment Canada scientist being prevented from talking about his ozone layer research.

“Clearly Canadians have the right to learn more about the science they support and to have unfettered access to the expertise of publicly funded scientist,” said the letter.

Faced with staffing cuts, the 23,000 federal scientists are operating in a culture of fear, said Johanne Fillion, a spokeswoman with the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.

What a difference exercise makes!

Holy smokes! Athlete muscles – old man muscles – old athlete muscles. “The incredible unaging triathlete.”

NASA’s Grail gravity twins enter moon orbits

Two satellites are going to map the mass profile of the moon.

The first satellite, Grail-A, achieved orbit on Saturday, December 31: “Together, the satellites will make measurements that are expected to give scientists remarkable new insights into the internal structure of the Moon. This new data should clarify ideas about the Moon’s formation and resolve many mysteries, such as why its near and far sides look so different.”

NASA's Grail satellites circling Luna

The second satellite, Grail-B, entered orbit on Sunday, January 1.The two satellites will note tiny differences between the distance between them, caused by variation in gravity as they pass over the surface of the moon. This will enable scientists to calculate variations in the density of the moon’s crust.  This is the first time two satellites have been placed around Luna.

Correlating their distances

You can read more at NASA.

Urban Heat Island effect is waning

A big study on the effect of cities on temperature measurements found that the temperature differential is slowly dropping; thus it is not distorting measurements nor exaggerating global warming at all.

The Lousy Canuck explains.

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