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Science Roundup: Jan. 15th, 2006

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For those of you who were paying attention (my Mom), this is the first Science Roundup in a couple of months. Sorry about that. Quals hit me – like a ton of bricks – or a school bus – or a ton of bricks in a school bus – hit me like a school bus with many bricks and very heavy nuns. Anyway, enjoy and I hope you will enjoy more regularly from now on.

Comets Gone Wild

Comet Wild 2 pulls up its shirt to give a sweet, sweet sample of its space dust. And scientists are falling over each other like Japanese tourists at Mardi Gras to get at it.

Comet Wild 2 spent billions of years in the Kuiper belt, a frozen reservoir of icy bodies beyond Neptune. While heat and geological processes have altered the inner planets like Earth beyond recognition, comets like Wild 2 are thought to be pristine samples of the gas and dust that formed the Solar System.

Chunks of the Stardust sample will soon be sent to labs around the world. A team in London, UK, hopes to begin work on it in February. “What’s exciting is that we’re near the front of the queue for a sample, so we’ll get the first sniff of what these things are made of,” says team member Phil Bland of Imperial College, London.

The smell guy seems a little odd. I am now visualizing planetary scientists saying, “Mmmmm, the sweet aroma of space. I think this Comet has hazelnut. It’s a good thing.”

Astronomers Really Seeing the Things From 2001: Space Odyssey

A cosmic jellyfish appears to pulse with light in this multi-wavelength image of the Cartwheel galaxy, compiled from images taken by four space telescopes.

The galaxy probably came by its distinctive shape when a small galaxy – possibly one of the objects at bottom-left of the image – collided with it head-on 100 million years ago. The crash set off ripples in the large galaxy’s gas that led to concentric rings of star birth.

‘It’s like dropping a stone into a pond, only in this case, the pond is the galaxy and the wave is the compression of gas,’ explains Phil Appleton of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, US. ‘Each wave represents a burst of star formation – the youngest stars are found in the outer ring.’

It could be a jellyfish, or it could just be all the pot.

Climate Change Doesn’t Kill Frogs, Bad Metaphors Do

‘Disease is the bullet killing frogs, but climate change is pulling the trigger,’ says Alan Pounds, an ecologist at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve and Tropical Science Center in Costa Rica.

[…]

The team first mapped the timing of species disappearances against changes in sea-surface and air temperature over the past few decades, and found that the frogs are disappearing almost exactly in step with climate change.

But it was not clear how the link between species loss and climate change worked: the world is generally warming, but the fungus is thought to be more deadly in cooler climes.

So the team looked at 50 sites from Costa Rica to Peru. It found that the frogs were doing worst in areas where night-time temperatures are getting warmer, but day-time temperatures are cooler – conditions that favour the fungus.

The most likely connection, say the researchers in Nature2, is that large-scale warming is accelerating the formation of clouds. This in turn makes local conditions kinder on the fungus, and spells bad news for the frogs.

Whoa, whoa, back up a second. I am pretty sure I read that clouds were good because they reflect the heat back away from the Earth. I am not sure I am buying this chain of unsubstantiated causality.

I do, however, completely believe that the US sold the gun to the climate so that the climate could shoot disease bullets at the frogs. That makes perfect sense.

The Dark Energy, It Is A-changing

Contrary to all expectations, the mysterious dark energy that is pushing the Universe apart may be changing with time.

By observing distant, powerful bursts of gamma rays (gamma-rays), Brad Schaefer says he has preliminary evidence that the strength of dark energy is different today from when the Universe was very young. Schaefer, an astronomer at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, presented his results at an American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington DC.

Just minutes after the data were presented in a late afternoon session, some astronomers were already calling the bold claim into question.

So you are saying that something that we weren’t sure exists is changing more than we expected. Fantastic then…I am so confused.

Fat Flies and Rotund Rodents

Fat cells form when a unique class of stem cells make a critical decision: They either become osteoblasts, which develop into bone cells, or preadipocytes, which give rise to fat cells. Exactly which messages tell a stem cell to become a fat cell rather than a bone cell remain a mystery, however.

To learn more about the process, Jonathan Graff, a molecular biologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, studied a set of genes known to impact development in humans, flies, and many other animals. To see if the set, called the Hedgehog suite, also influences the development of fat cells, Graff and his research team bred mutant flies missing select Hedgehog genes. Flies without the genes were fatter, survived starvation better, and had higher overall levels of lipid and fat related proteins than did flies with an intact gene suite, the team reports this month in Cell Metabolism.

One, did we really need to research some way to make animals fatter? I mean come on people — we’re a bunch of fat asses but do the animals really have to help? Two, mark my words, it is just a matter of time before the flies sue. They will so sue those scientists. And McDonalds probably, too.

New Scientist Breaking News – Big Brains Are Not Crucial to Teaching

Animals do not need a big brain to be able to teach each other, a new study suggests.

Animal behaviourists in the UK believe they have found the first evidence of two-way teacher-pupil communication between ants, suggesting that teaching behaviour may have evolved according to the value of information rather than brain size.

[…]

This is what Franks and Richardson found – follower ants would indeed find food faster when tandem running than when simply searching for it alone, but at the cost to the teacher who would normally reach the food about four times faster if foraging alone.

Well, brain size may not be necessary, but somehow I think it probably helps.

Plants Conspire to Destroy Planet

It’s not just farting cows and belching sheep that spew out methane. Living plants have been disgorging millions of tonnes of the potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere every year – without anybody noticing.

The concentration of methane in the atmosphere has almost tripled since pre-industrial times. Environmental scientists thought they had identified all natural sources where bacteria convert organic plant matter to methane, such as swamps, wetlands and rice paddies. These bacteria only thrive in wet, oxygen-poor environments; they cannot survive in air.

[…]

When the group repeated the tests with living plants they were stunned by the amount of methane created. They estimate that, globally, living plants produce between 63 and 236 million tonnes of methane per year, with plant debris adding another 1 to 7 million tonnes. This would make plants responsible for roughly 10 to 30 per cent of global methane production.

Those bastards! Here they were, looking all innocuous and green, saying “Hey, we help the environment. Love our green goodness,” when they were really polluting the whole time. That’s it. I’m pissed now. These plants are so going to pay – starting with the plant in my room – I am so not watering you for another month.

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