Conservationists rip water policy, quit state panel

Members of four influential conservation groups abruptly resigned from a state waterway advisory panel yesterday, alleging that a new state policy undercuts environmental protection of rivers so greatly that some could run bone dry.

Members of the Conservation Law Foundation, Charles River Watershed Association, Ipswich River Watershed Association, and Clean Water Action sent a joint resignation letter to Governor Deval Patrick saying the policy “removes any environmental consideration’’ from decisions about how much water is safe to remove from a river basin for industry, agriculture, or household use.

The resignations are the most significant break yet between environmentalists and the Patrick administration, which has largely enjoyed the groups’ support. They also underscore the growing pressure on the state’s 11,000 miles of rivers and streams for lawn watering and other uses as development spreads out from Boston. Today, 160 rivers and streams already suffer from low flows or water levels.

“This move makes a mockery of sustainable water management,’’ said Peter Shelley of the Conservation Law Foundation. The groups pulled their representatives from the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Water Resources Management Advisory Committee, saying the panel - specifically assembled to help guide the state on water issues - was not consulted on the state’s new approach.

The groups said the new water policy could allow much larger amounts to be withdrawn from stressed rivers such as the Charles and Ipswich. For example, the new policy could allow an additional 22 million gallons to be taken from the Ipswich River, they say. The river, largely considered to be the most stressed in the state, has suffered from fish kills in the past because the state allowed it to be pumped dry. Brook trout, a local favorite, have all but disappeared from the parched upper Ipswich.

State Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Laurie Burt defended the state measure late yesterday, saying the new policy will help set Massachusetts on a path to sustainable water withdrawals. She said the groups were informed of the state’s new policy before it was formally announced last week.

“I am confident this will end up in a much better place than where we have been in the last decade,’’ Burt said in an interview.

At issue is the interpretation of “safe yield’’ - long considered by state officials and environmentalists as the amount of water that can safely be taken from a waterway during a drought while protecting fish and other river life. The state was directed to determine the “safe yield’’ of river basins in the 1986 Water Management Act, but has struggled since then to come up with a formula to calculate the amounts for each waterway.

Now, the state has finally issued a formal definition of safe yield, describing it as “the amount of water that would be present during a drought year’’ for each of the state’s 27 watershed basins, according to a statement from the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

On-site classes enthrall, unsettle students

But the students from two area high schools stayed glued to their chairs in a training room at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Projected on a large screen at the head of the class was the ivory neck of a 70-year-old patient identified only as Jane Doe. Surgeon Peter Mowschenson then brought out his scalpel and made an incision.

The students gasped. Some covered their mouths. Others clutched their classmates. Nobody left.

“I was grossed out,’’ confessed Alicia Forde, a 17-year-old Madison Park High School junior, after the thyroidectomy. “But then I started to get used to it.’’

Many students learn about the sciences with their eyes half shut, fighting to stay awake as their teachers speak at the blackboard. But Forde and more than 40 students from Madison Park and Brookline high schools saw their lesson on the endocrine system come to life yesterday as the surgeon removed the left lobe of the patient’s thyroid gland, which was possibly cancerous.

The students are part of a high school program that immerses them in the fast-paced medical environments of Beth Israel Deaconess, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School. In addition to health classes at their high schools, the students spend one hour a week at the medical school’s Gilbert Simulation Laboratory, where they work on simulated cases, from accidents to diseases.

The program began as a one-week summer initiative at the Gilbert laboratory. Last year, Julie Joyal Mowschenson helped expand it to a full course at Brookline High School, where she teaches science. This year, she got Madison Park Technical and Vocational High School in Roxbury to sign up.

Officials hope the program will be expanded to Cambridge Rindge and Latin School next year and - ultimately - nationwide.

Julie Joyal Mowschenson, whose husband performed yesterday’s thyroidectomy, said her aim is to make science exciting for students who might not otherwise like it or excel in it.

“This is really a national issue,’’ said Mowschenson, who is a registered nurse. “We are not keeping up with how we are teaching science to kids. . . . We need an innovative approach.’’

Nancy E. Oriol, dean of students at Harvard Medical School, said the hands-on program allows the teens to build critical thinking and problem-solving skills while teaching them about human anatomy in an unconventional manner.

This “allows young students to actually . . . see how science is alive in the human body,’’ she said. “Students this age are very interested in how their bodies work.’’

State Education Secretary Paul Reville, who was at the viewing, hailed the effort as ground breaking, saying that more efforts should be taken to engage young people in the field of science

Experts examine Pacific earthquake link

A recent cluster of large earthquakes in the South Pacific has some wondering if one quake triggers another.

Last week, a series of seven major earthquakes rocked a small area near Vanuatu and the Santa Cruz Islands in less than 24 hours.

The unusual swarm of four magnitude 6 and three magnitude 7 events, and many smaller aftershocks, has a lot of people asking what it means and whether the quakes have any connection to the very recent large quake in Samoa or even the 9.2 Sumatra-Andaman monster earthquake of five years ago.

"It's not unprecedented, but getting three events above 7 is unusual," says seismic researcher Dr Susan Hough of the US Geological Survey.

Hough has investigated similar, more powerful quake swarms - most notably the five large 7 and 8-magnitude quakes that struck the New Madrid area of Missouri in the winter of 1811-1812.

What New Madrid and other clusters of large quakes have taught seismologists is that it's largely a game of chance, says Hough.
Calculating odds

Since we don't have enough data on the exact happenings inside the Earth's crust to be more precise, we must resort to working out the odds of one shock being a foreshock of a larger quake or not, based on what's happened before.

For instance, anytime an earthquake happens there's a one-in-20 chance something bigger will follow, says Hough.

She says the odds of there being two such large quakes crowded close to a larger shock is about one-in-100.

Think of that in horse racing terms, for instance, and the rarity of the new South Pacific swarm becomes clearer.

In the case of the Vanuatu swarm there was first a 4.9 foreshock, then hours later a mighty 7.6 shock. That second quake might have been mistaken for a main event had it not been followed 15 minutes later by 7.8 magnitude show stopper. An hour later there was a vigorous 7.3 magnitude aftershock, then a couple of dozen more aftershocks ranging from magnitude 4.9 to 6.8.

The good news from all this is that despite the rarity of the swarm, these quakes, individually, are not the worst sorts of events produced in the collision zone of tectonic plates in that part of the world, says Hough.

She says a genuinely big quake for a subduction zone is more in the range of a magnitude 9.

Russia says to bear brunt of space missions

Russia expects to extend the life of the International Space Station beyond 2015, although Moscow must bear the brunt of flights after the United States retires its shuttles, officials said on Sunday.

Space agency heads will meet in March 2010, probably in Japan, to discuss the future of the International Space Station (ISS), Alexei Krasnov, head of manned programs at Russian space agency Roscosmos, told a news conference.

"The main question to be raised is whether to extend the life of the ISS beyond 2015. I believe the issue will be approved," Krasnov said at Mission Control outside of Moscow.

He was speaking after a Russian-American crew returned to Earth after a space odyssey lasting more than half a year. They were accompanied by Canadian circus billionaire Guy Laliberte, who spent about two weeks in space.

Russia's partners in the ISS are U.S. space agency NASA, the European Space Agency and the Japanese and Canadian space agencies.

NASA plans six more missions by its fleet of aging space shuttles after the construction of the $100 billion ISS is completed. Afterwards, the shuttles will be retired, next year or early in 2011.

Roscosmos head Anatoly Perminov was quoted by RIA news agency on September 25 as saying it had learned NASA could extend the deadline to retire the shuttles.

Should it proceed, however, the retirement of U.S. shuttles would increase the burden on Russia for manning the ISS, now in orbit 360 km (225 miles) above Earth, said Vitaly Lopota, general director of Russian spacecraft builder RKK Energia.

Lopota told the news conference Russia had doubled the number of manned space flights to four this year and planned to send six cargo ships per year to the space station, also more than usual.

"We work economically, we live economically and we maintain the station in an economical way," Lopota said.

NASA's future strategy is under review [ID:nN08291139] with a focus on possible flights to Mars. It is also encouraging a private space taxi project to the ISS. [ID:nN23400481]

A new rocket and capsule to transport astronauts to the ISS is also being developed but will not be operational until about 2015. Until then, NASA will rely on Roscosmos and must pay $50 million per seat for flights to the ISS by Soyuz capsules.

Kashmir glacier melting 'alarming'

Indian Kashmir's biggest glacier is melting faster than other Himalayas glaciers, threatening the water supply of tens of thousands of people, a new report warns.

Experts say rising temperatures are rapidly shrinking Himalayan glaciers, underscoring the effects of climate change that has caused temperatures in the mountainous region to rise by about 1.1°C in the past 100 years.

According to the report, the Kolahoi glacier, which is spread over approximately 11 square kilometres, has shrunk 2.63 square kilometres in the past three decades.

"Kolahoi glacier is shrinking 0.08 square kilometres a year, which is an alarming speed," the report's authors write.

The three year-long study, led by Assistant Professor Shakil Ramsoo, of the University of Kashmir, was presented at a workshop on Climate Change, Glacial Retreat and Livelihoods, in Srinagar, Indian Kashmir's summer capital.

The Kolahoi glacier is the main source of water for Kashmir's biggest river, the Jhelum, and its many streams and lakes.

According to a United Nations Environment Programme and World Glacier Monitoring Service study, the average melting rate of mountain glaciers has doubled since the turn of the millennium, with record losses seen in 2006 at several sites.

More studies needed

But India's Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said in August there was a need for more scientific studies to conclusively establish the link between climate change and shrinking glaciers.

He said while "a couple of" Himalayan glaciers were receding, while others like the Siachen glacier were advancing. Some, such as the Gangotri glacier, were receding at a decreasing rate compared with the last two decades.

But Ramsoo says, "Other small Kashmir glaciers are also shrinking and the main reason is that the winter temperature in Kashmir is rising."

Experts say the melting of Kashmir glaciers could have serious fallout as most Kashmiris rely on glaciers for water.

Aging heart can be prevented, say scientists

Scientists in Japan said they have uncovered evidence that shows it may be possible to delay or prevent heart failure in humans.

In a paper published in the journal Circulation, Tetsuo Shioi, lead researcher and assistant professor of medicine at Kyoto University Graduate School of Medicine in Kyoto, and his team described how they managed to suppress a variety of the P13K gene in a group of elderly mice.

The gene regulates the lifespan of cells and plays a role in the aging of tissues. In previous studies, suppression of this gene extended the lifespan of the roundworm and kept the hearts of old fruit flies healthy.

Compared with another group of mice in which the gene was left intact, mice with the suppressed gene had improved cardiac function, less fibrosis (which makes the heart inflexible) and fewer biological markers of aging.

"This study showed that aging of the heart can be prevented by modifying the function of insulin and paves the way to preventing age-associated susceptibility to heart failure," Shioi said.

Old age is a major risk factor for heart failure, a condition when the heart is unable to pump enough blood around to supply the oxygen the body needs, the World Health Organization says.

According to the American Heart Association, 5.7 million Americans have heart failure, and nearly 10 out of every 1,000 people over age 65 suffer heart failure every year.

Mariell Jessup, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia, said older people experience a slow but gradual loss of heart cells and a host of other cellular abnormalities which make the remaining cells contract less efficiently.

"This early work in a mouse model, clarifying the role of PI3K in cardiac aging, could ultimately allow scientists to understand if human hearts are similarly influenced," he said.

As mammals, mice are considered a good surrogate for studies of human diseases and conditions; their body plan, physiology and genome share many features with humans.

Wireless inventors given top honour

The Australian team behind the technology wireless LAN has been recognised for their work, the same day that the organisation's annual report reveals the magnitude of the invention's worth.

Headed by electrical engineer Dr John O'Sullivan, the researchers were awarded the CSIRO Chairman's Medal at a ceremony in Melbourne today.

Wireless LAN, also known as WiFi or IEEE 802.11, forms the backbone of wireless networks around the world, and is used in an estimated 800 million devices including computers, printers and mobile phones.

Although wireless LAN had been under development since the 1970s, its slow transmission speed made it impractical for connecting to the Internet.


The CSIRO team based in Sydney were successful in speeding up wireless LAN, by overcoming a problem known as 'multipathing'.

"You might imagine that the little box with the flashing lights that powers your home wireless network is simply beaming information straight to your laptop," says O'Sullivan.

"In reality the radio waves travel in all directions, bouncing off walls, furniture and people - making it very hard to deliver a clear signal to the receiver."

The solution involved a technique that had been developed for use in radio astronomy.

O'Sullivan created a chip that used fast Fourier transforms to assist him in searching for exploding black holes 'hidden' on hundreds of metres of film.

"I was inspired to think about ways of cleaning up smeared radio signals to make searching for short pulses like those from exploding black holes easier," he says.

"We ended up building a 'fast Fourier transform' chip to do these sorts of processing tasks efficiently and fast."

Several years later, that same technology was used to resolve the multipathing problem.

"That proved to be the key to untangling the web of wireless signals so we could build a workable high speed wireless local area network (WLAN)," says O'Sullivan.

Arctic to be ice-free in summer in 20 years

Long-term tests on monkeys using Oxford BioMedica's gene therapy ProSavin suggest it can treat Parkinson's disease without causing the jerky, involuntary movements associated with current drugs, researchers said on Wednesday.

Parkinson's is caused by lack of the brain chemical dopamine. Standard treatment involves oral drugs that briefly raise dopamine levels -- but levels of the chemical still remain unstable, leading to a movement disorder called dyskinesias.

By contrast, tests on macaque monkeys found the gene therapy safely restored concentrations of dopamine in the brain, corrected motor deficits and prevented dyskinesias -- with no severe adverse side effects.

French researchers observed the animals for up to three and a half years in the study, after first inducing Parkinsonian syndrome by giving a neurotoxin and then treating them with gene therapy injections.

"Gene therapy-mediated dopamine replacement may be able to correct Parkinsonism in patients without the complications of dyskinesias," Bechir Jarraya and colleagues wrote in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Oxford BioMedica is currently conducting Phase I/II clinical trials with ProSavin and in July announced encouraging initial results.

ProSavin, which is administered directly to the striatum in the brain, delivers three genes required to convert cells that normally do not produce dopamine into cells that do.

Planets form out of 'dirty' stars

On Earth cleanliness is next to godliness, but in deep space it seems it is a recipe for a lonely existence.

A recent study published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters explains why 'dirty' stars, those rich in elements heavier than helium, are more likely to be surrounded by a system of planets and asteroids.

The findings suggest that the make-up of the original molecular cloud from which a star is formed will determine whether it can host a solar system.

When stars form from the collapse of a molecular cloud, they are surrounded by what is known as a protoplanetary disk - a gaseous dust cloud that orbits the star.

The team led by Dr Anders Johansen of Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, has shown that if the gas disk has an abundance of heavy elements it is more likely to form extrasolar planets, those planets that orbit stars other than the Sun.

Dr Sarah Maddison, of Swinburne University of Technology's Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing in Melbourne, says observations of the known 350 extrasolar planets show the majority are found around stars with an abundance of heavy elements.

She says planets form by the accumulation of tiny dust grains that grow in size to form pebbles, then larger planetesimals and finally protoplanetary bodies.

Clumping together

Maddison says the latest paper builds on the previous "good work" by the researchers.

In a Nature paper in 2007 they reported that in these dusty-gas disks, the "dust grains feel a headwind" from the more slowly moving gas, which stops the dust from rapidly falling into the central star.

Maddison says the astronomers have now shown the more dust in the cloud, the easier it is for pebble-sized grains to clump.

This is important, she says, because it is this clumping that allows the pebbles to grow in size and form larger preplanetary material.

Using a 3D simulation of the "drag resulting in clumping" effect, the researchers were able to demonstrate how a cloud of one centimetre pebbles is capable of "creating" a planetesimal up to 100 kilometres in radius.

These planetary building blocks merge over millions of years to form planets.

The researchers also found that when pebbles constitute less than 1% of the gas disk mass, clumping is weak.

"There is an extremely steep transition from not being able to make planets at all to easily making planets, by increasing the abundance of heavy elements just a little," says lead author Johansen. "The probability of having planets almost explodes."

Placebo effect in the spine and mind

It's not all in the mind - the so-called placebo effect is real and reaches right down to the spine, say German scientists.

The finding, which appears in the journal Science, may help in the hunt for better ways to tackle pain and other disorders.

Using modern imaging technology the researchers found that simply believing a pain treatment is effective actually dampens pain signalling in a region of the spinal cord called the dorsal horn, suggesting a powerful biological mechanism is at work.

"It is deeply rooted in very, very early areas of the central nervous system. That definitely speaks for a strong effect," says lead researcher Falk Eippert of the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf.

Eippert and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to study changes in spinal cord activity.

They applied painful heat to the arms of 15 healthy men and compared the spinal cord responses when they thought they had been treated with either an anaesthetic cream or a placebo.

Both creams, in fact, were inactive but the fMRI scans showed nerve activity was reduced significantly when subjects believed they were getting the anaesthetic.

Strong effect

The ability of sham medicines with no active ingredient to produce real clinical benefits has long perplexed doctors and frustrated drugmakers.

Patients are typically given either an experimental drug or a dummy in clinical trials and the fact that those on placebo often get better, too, makes it hard to determine whether a new drug is working.

The placebo effect is particularly strong when treating central nervous system conditions, like depression and pain.

Traditionally, experts have viewed the effect as psychological, but the new German research is the latest in a growing body of evidence that there is an important physical component.

Just what turns down pain signalling in the spine when a placebo is given is unclear, although Eippert suspects a range of chemicals including natural opioids, noradrenaline and serotonin may be involved.

Eippert and colleagues say their work "opens up new avenues for assessing the efficacy and possible site of action of new treatments for various forms of pain, including chronic pain".

The word placebo comes from the Latin for 'I shall please'.

Solar system surrounded by bright ribbon

A bright ribbon of hydrogen atoms marks the edge of the solar system, where the Sun's wind meets emissions from the rest of the galaxy, US researchers report.

The results come from the Interstellar Boundary Explorer spacecraft (IBEX), the latest in NASA's series of low-cost, rapidly developed space missions.

Launched last October it has already has produced stunning results, say scientists.

They used telescopes aboard the orbiting or IBEX to look toward the heliopause, which is the boundary where solar wind meets galactic wind at the edge of the solar system beyond Pluto.

Researchers combined images from IBEX with data from the Cassini spacecraft, near Saturn. They say the results, which appear in the latest issue of Science, are changing their ideas about what this border area looks like.

"The IBEX results are truly remarkable, with emissions not resembling any of the current theories or models of this never-before-seen region," David McComas of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, who led the research.

"We expected to see small, gradual spatial variations at the interstellar boundary, some ten billion miles (16 billion km) away.

"IBEX is showing us a very narrow ribbon that is two to three times brighter than anything else in the sky."

Big picture

Scientists have long been keen to gain greater understanding of the heliosphere, described by NASA as a 'giant bubble' that protects the solar system from high-energy cosmic rays.

They are particularly eager to learn more about the invisible boundary of our solar system and dust and gas that fills the area between the stars, referred to as interstellar medium.

The interstellar medium is created in part by the interaction between the solar wind -- charged particles continuously traveling at supersonic speeds away from the Sun in all directions.

The two Voyager spacecraft, the robotic space probes sent to the outer solar system and beyond, have in the past provided data about more localised parts of the interstellar boundary region, but NASA officials say IBEX is helping fill in the "big picture" of what the space boundary looks like.

Antioxidants may raise diabetes risk

Australian researchers have found that antioxidants may increase your risk of developing diabetes in the early stages.

"In the case of early type 2 diabetes ... our studies suggest that antioxidants would be bad for you," says Associate Professor Tony Tiganis of Monash University in Melbourne, whose study appears in the journal Cell Metabolism.

Antioxidants are protective proteins that can prevent cell damage caused by charged particles known as reactive oxygen species. This oxidative stress is thought to add to the progression of several diseases, including type 2 diabetes.

Because antioxidants fight oxidative stress, they have become a popular food supplement. But Tiganis says the picture appears to be a bit more complicated.

"We think there is a delicate balance, and that too much of a good thing - surprise, surprise - might be bad," he says.

Tiganis' team studied the effects of oxidative stress in mice fed a high-fat diet for 12 weeks. One group of mice lacked an enzyme known as Gpxl, which helps counter oxidative stress.

They found mice that lacked the enzyme were less likely to develop insulin resistance - an early sign of diabetes - than normal mice. But when they treated the enzyme-deficient mice with an antioxidant, "they lost this advantage and become more diabetic," says Tiganis.

He says oxidative stress may be working not to damage the body, but to inhibit enzymes that hurt the body's ability to use insulin early on in the development of diabetes, and that antioxidants remove this protective mechanism.

"Our work suggests that antioxidants may contribute to early development of insulin resistance, a key pathological hallmark of type 2 diabetes," says Tiganis.

He cautioned that the study was in mice and more study in people is needed.

But he says other studies have suggested that antioxidants can shorten lifespan in both worms and humans. And clinical trials in people have shown that taking antioxidants does not protect healthy people from developing diabetes.

"My belief is that individuals who are otherwise healthy should not take antioxidants, but rather eat healthy and exercise," he says.

According to the 2004-05 Australian National Health Survey, 582,800 people (approximately 3% of the population) reported having type 2 diabetes.

Cosmic rays reveal erupting volcano's guts

COSMIC radiation has been used to peer inside an erupting volcano, a technique that could allow eruptions to be predicted.

Short-lived particles called muons are produced in Earth's atmosphere when charged particles from space slam into gas molecules. These muons can travel through solid rock, though some get absorbed, and the percentage lost depends on the mass of material along their path.

A team led by Hiroyuki Tanaka of the University of Tokyo, Japan, had already shown that muons can reveal the mass of material inside a volcano. Now the team reports observations of Japan's mount Asama during an eruption on 2 February that spewed ash up to 20 kilometres away.

Measurements from before and after the eruption show that between 11,000 and 70,000 tonnes of material left the volcano, agreeing with estimates of the total ash fall at 50,000 tonnes.

The technique might eventually be able to show shifting magma or other changes portending an eruption, says physicist Roy Schwitters of the University of Texas in Austin. Muons are easier to interpret than seismic waves. "The images you get are not confused by whether the rock is fractured or other details," Schwitters says.

Flickr Pictures Help Build 3-D Rome in a Day

Since 2005 computer-graphics researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle have been testing whether images collected from the Web can be used to digitally reconstruct buildings in 3-D. (Related pictures: "Ancient Rome Reborn in 3-D.")

The technique could be used to make virtual-reality experiences for tourism, auto-build cities for video games and movies, or help digitally preserve and study historic cities that are being destroyed by human-caused or environmental factors.

The team first developed a program that downloads multiple images of a landmark and finds common points in the architecture. From this information, the program can calculate the subject's three-dimensional structure and where the people who took the shots must have been standing (marked with black cones in the videos above).

But scaling up to build whole cities at once increases the number of source photos needed, upping the time required to download and process them. Searching for "Rome" or "Roma" on the photo-sharing site Flickr, for example, returns more than two million hits, the researchers noted.

From Monuments to Skate Parks

The new version increases photo-matching speed a hundred fold by allowing multiple computers to work in parallel. The update also establishes likely matches before it starts comparing specific features, so that the computers are matching a given picture only to similar images and not to the entire set.

Based on 150,000 publicly accessible Flickr pictures of Rome, the program automatically re-created the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, and the outside and inside of St. Peter's Basilica, among other Roman icons. With the help of 496 computers, the program completed its monumental task in 21 hours.

Still, you'd need more than 150,000 photographs to re-create Rome in its entirety, team member Sameer Agarwal said in an email. The results are therefore limited to isolated landmarks.

"But interestingly, it doesn't have to be better known [landmarks]," Agarwal added. "We take the bag of images and process them and see what comes out. In some cases, you get interesting things, like a skateboarding park."

The same technique produced a complete 3-D model of the smaller old city of Dubrovnik, Croatia, out of 57,845 pictures in 22.5 hours. Digital re-creations of landmarks in Venice, meanwhile, took 65 hours based on Flickr's collection of 250,000 Venetian snapshots.

However, Agarwal said, "tourist photographs will never capture [a large] city in its entirety. Our hope is that we will ultimately be able to combine the Flickr photographs with something like Google Street View or aerial imagery like Microsoft Virtual Earth to build complete 3-D models of cities."

Hellish Exoplanet Rains Hot Pebbles, Has Lava Oceans

The first rocky planet ever discovered outside our solar system has a hellish environment where hot pebbles rain down on oceans of lava, a new study suggests. Located about 500 light-years away in the constellation Monoceros, CoRoT-7b was first discovered in February by the French and European space agencies' CoRoT space telescope.

CoRoT-7b is about twice the size and five times the mass of Earth, and it's separated from its star by only 1.5 million miles (2.5 million kilometers)—that's about 23 times closer than Mercury is to our sun. On CoRoT-7b a year lasts only 20.4 hours.

"It's actually the closest orbit of any exoplanet that's been discovered," said study team member Laura Schaefer, an astronomer at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

Rocky Rain

Because the newfound exoplanet orbits so close to its star, it's gravitationally locked to the smaller body. Half of the planet always faces its star, just as one side of the moon always faces Earth.

A new computer model of CoRoT-7b created by Schaefer and her team suggests the planet's surface on the star-facing side is a scorching 4,220 degrees Fahrenheit (2,327 degrees Celsius), and is covered largely by a lava ocean or scattered lava lakes.

(Related: "Most Earthlike Planet Yet Found May Have Liquid Oceans.")

And while Earth has a water cycle, CoRoT-7b has a rock cycle, the study says.

Vaporized rocks and minerals from the star-heated side rise to create a thin atmosphere. At higher altitudes, this material condenses into "rock clouds" that rain hot pebbles of different mineral compositions onto the planet's surface.

The pebbles are probably fairly small, Schaefer said.

"We're probably talking about dust size."

If the pebbles fall into the lava lakes or oceans, they get recycled back into the planet's rock cycle.

But if the rock clouds are pushed by stellar winds to the planet's frigid dark side, the pebbles remain solid once they hit the surface, Schaefer said.

Gas-mask bra leads IgNobel awards

Engineers who invented a bra that converts into a gas mask and Irish police officers who mistakenly wrote tickets to 'Driver's Licence' have lead the IgNobel prizes for 2009.

The IgNobels - a play on the name of the Nobel prizes awarded every October from Stockholm and Oslo - are given out by the Harvard-based humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research.

Prizes also went to Zimbabwe for issuing banknotes that ranged in value from one Zimbabwean cent to 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars, to Mexican scientists who made diamonds out of tequila, and to the leaders of four Icelandic banks that suffered spectacular collapses.

The Public Health prize went to Elena Bodnar of Hinsdale, Illinois and colleagues who designed and patented a bra that can be quickly converted into a pair of gas masks, one for the brassiere wearer and one to be given to some needy bystander.

Ireland's police won the literature prize for writing more than 50 traffic tickets to a frequent visitor and speeder named Prawo Jazdy. In Polish, this means 'driver's licence'.

Beer bottles, banks and knuckles

Pathologist Stephan Bolliger and colleagues at the University of Bern in Switzerland won for a study they did to determine whether an empty beer bottle does more or less damage to the human skull than a full one in a bar fight.

"Both suffice in breaking the human skull. However, the empty ones are more sturdy," says Bolliger.

This is because the pressure of the beer, aided by carbonation, makes a full beer bottle explode quickly.

The economics prize went to managers at Kaupthing Bank, Landsbanki, Glitnir Bank and Central Bank of Iceland "for demonstrating that tiny banks can be rapidly transformed into huge banks, and vice versa".

Donald Unger of California was honoured for a lifelong experiment in which he cracked the knuckles of his left hand but never his right for more than 60 years to prove that cracking your knuckles does not cause arthritis.

Other winners included farmers who showed that naming your cows makes them give more milk, researchers who used panda droppings to break down household trash, and a scientist who calculated why pregnant women do not fall over.

Previous Australian Ig Noble winners have include CSIRO's Nic Svenson and Dr Piers Barnes, for calculating the number of photos you need to take to make sure no one in the group has their eyes closed; Associate Professor Mike Tyler's team from the University of Adelaide for determining the odour of frogs; and ABC Science's Dr Karl Kruszelnicki for answering the question, what exactly is belly button lint and why is it almost always blue.

Fungus feasted on mass extinction

The world's worst mass extinction 250 million years ago was the trigger for a fungus explosion, according to a new study.

All across the supercontinent Pangea, what were once lush forests lay in ruins: the corpses of trees poking like matchsticks into the poisoned air.

In their place fungus ruled the land, feasting on defunct wood, spreading across the planet in an orgy of decay.

The finding, published in the journal Geology, offers evidence against an alternative theory that rampant algae fed off the dead forests and puts to rest an old idea that an asteroid impact may have had a hand in the massive destruction.

"This [fungus] was a disaster species, something that perhaps enjoyed the extinction a little more than it should," says Mark Sephton of Imperial College London. "It proliferated all over the globe."

Sephton and a team of researchers studied rocks containing microscopic fossils from the extinction. They were trying to settle a decades-old debate: Were the remains in fact the fungus Reduviasporonites, or algae, as had previously been thought?

Carbon isotopes within the fossils indicated the organisms ate wood while they were alive, a strong sign that they were fungus.

Sudden change

"What we're looking at is a lot of plant die-offs concentrated in time," says Dr Peter Roopnarine of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

"We're most likely looking at episodes of intense greenhouse warming, and chemical changes in the atmosphere that made it unsuitable for the huge, massive forests living at the time."

The finding has important implications for the Permian-Triassic extinction, which wiped out a large majority of life on the planet. If the fossils had turned out to be algae, it would've suggested a soggy, swampy world dominated by gradual changes in climate and the environment.

But in this ancient murder mystery, fungus fits.

Modern forests ravaged by acid rain are covered in the stuff, and scientists generally believe that the titanic eruptions of the Siberian Traps, a large volcanic province in Russia, choked the atmosphere and blighted the land with acid rains. The harsh conditions lasted for hundreds of thousands of years.

And it further puts to rest the idea that an asteroid impact caused the destruction.

"Fungal presence starts to increase just before the main extinction; it's not as sudden as the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction [which killed the dinosaurs]," says Sephton. "The idea of a declining ecosystem doesn't exactly fit will with an extraterrestrial impact event."

New disease identified in pet turtles

A researcher has identified the first Australian case of a captive turtle being infected with a highly contagious disease, which has the potential to spread to humans.

If let unchecked, the disease could have a huge impact on Australia native species.

The research will be presented at the Australian Veterinary Association's Unusual and Exotic Pets Annual Conference on Sunday.

Debbie Bannan, a second year veterinary science student from James Cook University in Townsville, says she discovered the disease on an Emydura macquarii, a common species of pet turtle, which was brought to a vet clinic where she was volunteering.

She says the turtle presented with a lesion on its front forelimb, which they thought was an isolated inflammation of the bone and could be treated by amputating its limb and flipper.

"It started to rehabilitate really well," says Bannan. "But three months after that it rapidly went downhill and reluctantly we had to euthanise it."

Bannan says when they conducted a post-mortem, they found the turtle had a bacterial disease, called mycobacterium, that had spread throughout its entire body.

"Mycobacterium is much like staph on human skin, and it can be carried by lots of animals."

The bacterium isn't pathogenic until it enters the body, through air passages, cuts or the intestines, she says.

Bannan says mycobacterium doesn't usually affect healthy animals, but it can have serious consequences for animals that are immuno compromised.

She says treatment for mycobacterium in captive turtles can be lengthy and costly.

"It can take six to 12 months and it's not always successful."

Once the bacterium has spread throughout the body, the turtle will most likely need to be euthanised, she says.

But what concerns Bannan about her research, is that there are no previously recorded cases of mycobacterium in captive turtles in Australia.

"If there is no literature it means it's harder for vets to identify and treat quickly," she says.

Brittle bone genes revealed

Scientists have discovered a number of genes linked to the loss of bone mineral density and osteoporosis.

The study, published in the latest edition of Nature Genetics, adds to the growing body of evidence that ties specific genes with the risk of osteoporosis, which may lead to a diagnostic test in the not too distant future.

Molecular geneticist and study author Associate Professor Scott Wilson of the University of Western Australia, says low bone mineral density is the strongest predictor of osteoporotic fracture.

Bone mineral density is influenced by a number of factors including diet, exercise, hormones and genetics.

Wilson says the meta-analysis pooled the results of five previous smaller studies, which in total reviewed the genomes of just under 20,000 people.

He says each study used high tech 'gene chips' to take a sample of each participant's DNA and look for variations at specific points, known as SNPs, in the genome.

They then looked at participant's bone mineral density to work out if clusters of people with similar bone mineral densities also have similar variations in their SNPs, says Wilson.

Wilson says it is the technology of the gene chips that has really revolutionised the study of genes.

In total, the meta-analysis found 20 genetic regions, known as loci, with a strong association to bone mineral density.

"It's amazing that we came up with so many loci with such convincing evidence."

Wilson says of the 20 loci found to have a strong association, 13 were identified for the first time.

This research is very relevant to the wider community, he says.

"One in three women and one in five men have a lifetime risk of developing osteoporosis."

Osteoporosis develops when an individual's bone mineral density, the mass per cubic metre of bone, falls below a certain level.

Pioneers of light win physics Nobel

An engineer in fibre optics and two scientists who figured out how to turn light into electronic signals, work that has paved the way for the internet age, have been awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize for physics.

Professor Charles Kao has won half the 10 million Swedish crown (A$1.6 million) prize for a discovery that led to a breakthrough in fibre optics, determining how to transmit light over long distances via optical glass fibres.

Dr Willard Boyle and Dr George Smith shared the other half for inventing the first successful imaging technology using a digital sensor.

"This year's Nobel prize in physics is awarded for two scientific achievements that have helped to shape the foundations of today's networked societies," the award- committee said in a statement.

Their achievements have allowed vast amounts of information to be sent around the globe almost instantaneously, as trillions of signals make their way through tiny glass fibres now long enough to encircle the planet more than 25,000 times.

Dr Robert Kirby-Harris, head of Britain's Institute of Physics, says nothing better symbolised the information age than the Internet and digital cameras.

"From kilobytes to gigabytes, and now to petabytes and exabytes, information has never been so free-flowing or ... so instantly visual," he says.

From YouTube to Hubble

In 1966, Kao discovered that light could travel long distances reliably via glass fibres, and four years later, produced the first 'ultrapure' fibre.

"These low-loss glass fibres facilitate global broadband communication such as the internet," the committee said. "Text, music, images and video can be transferred around in the globe in a split second."

Kao, who was vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong from 1987 to 1996, says news of the award left him "absolutely speechless".

"This is very, very unexpected," he says.

"Fibre optics has changed the world of information so much in these last 40 years. It certainly is due to the fibre optical networks that the news has travelled so fast."

A large proportion of the traffic over those networks is made up of digital images, which is where Boyle and Smith come in. In 1969, they invented the first successful imaging technology using a digital sensor, a so-called charge-coupled device.

"It revolutionised photography, as light can be captured electronically instead of on film," the committee said.

Professor Martin Barstow of the University of Leicester in Britain, says the impact of the invention had been immense.

"From YouTube to the Hubble Space Telescope, these devices are now at the heart of our digital video and still cameras and underpin the extraordinary progress made in astronomy during the past 20 to 30 years," he says.

The work by Boyle and Smith, both employed by Bell Laboratories before retiring more than 20 years ago, led to progress in areas from microsurgery to space exploration.

"When the Mars probe was on the surface of Mars and (they) used a camera like ours - that wouldn't have been possible without our invention," says Boyle.

The invention has had other repercussions, some considered less welcome by privacy-minded people.

"We are the ones who started this profusion of little, small cameras working all over the world," Boyle added.

At Bell Labs from 1953 to 1979, Boyle led research in optical and satellite communications, digital and quantum electronics, computing and radio astronomy. Among his credits, he helped NASA choose a site for the Apollo landing on the Moon.

Smith has led research aimed at creating lasers and other semiconductor devices and he now serves as an adviser to universities and Canadian government laboratories.

Sedatives may slow recovery from trauma

GIVING sleeping pills to soldiers and earthquake victims is common practice, yet it could be doing more harm than good. That's the suggestion from a study of traumatised rats, which seemed to show that the drugs suppressed the rodent's natural mechanisms for coping with trauma.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs says it will consider this and other studies when preparing new guidelines on treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If their results are strong enough, it may recommend withholding sedatives in the aftermath of traumatic events. The findings are also throwing up new possibilities for preventing PTSD (see "Fight stress with stress").

PTSD arises after a person has had a traumatic experience: symptoms include involuntary, often debilitating, flashbacks of the experience, which can keep happening for years. Not everyone develops it, though, and it seems that what happens directly after the event, as the brain lays down the memory, helps determine whether they do.

Benzodiazepines, a class of sedative that includes diazepam (Valium), are prescribed following a traumatic event because they reduce anxiety and aid sleep. However, some studies have suggested that they may hamper long-term recovery.

For example, a 2002 study of 22 volunteers who had experienced traumas such as traffic accidents found that those given a benzodiazepine for the following seven nights showed slightly more symptoms of PTSD six weeks later compared with those given a placebo.

To investigate further, Joseph Zohar and colleagues at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva, Israel, put rats in a confined space with well-soiled cat litter - a highly stressful experience used to gain insights into PTSD. Some were given the benzodiazepine alprazolam, while others were left untreated.

Despite a short-term reduction in anxiety, 30 days later the treated rats displayed more PTSD-like symptoms, such as freezing in response to unused cat litter, increased anxiety and less time exploring a maze, something they usually enjoy. As well as this, treated rats had lower blood levels of corticosterone, the rat equivalent of the human stress hormone cortisol, compared with untreated rats

Asteroid-hunting telescope in the repair shop

The first of the asteroid-hunting Pan-STARRS telescopes will be taken apart today in an effort to solve problems with image quality.

The 1.8-metre PS1 telescope is the first of a suite of instruments – the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System – designed to find asteroids and comets with orbits that could bring them close to Earth. Sited atop a volcano on the Hawaiian island of Maui, PS1 is the prototype for a planned four telescopes that will image the whole sky visible from Hawaii three times each month.

To scan so much sky, PS1 boasts a 1.4-billion-pixel digital camera and specially designed software to process the terabytes of data collected by the telescope each night.

But since the camera was installed in 2007, the telescope team has been struggling to get PS1's image quality to its targeted level. "There have been problems that we just didn't anticipate," says Pan-STARRS principal investigator Nick Kaiser of the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Big bananas

PS1's first problem was a misalignment of the optics. "When we switched the telescope on two years ago we had terrible-looking images. We could get sort-of round stars in the middle of the field, but they were big and fuzzy. But the stars at ends of the field looked like telephone handles or big bananas," Kaiser told New Scientist.

That problem was quickly fixed, but the images PS1 is taking are still 40 to 50 per cent fuzzier than they are supposed to be. "We're spending half our time doing mediocre science and half our time trying to improve it so we can do great science," says PS1's director, Ken Chambers, a colleague of Kaiser at Manoa.

The main culprit now seems to be a set of joints connected to the 18 rods that hold up the telescope's secondary mirror. These joints help connect the mirror to motors that adjust the mirror to counteract distortions of the telescope, which expands and contracts due to temperature changes and sags slightly as it scans across the sky.

The minute adjustments of the mirror are not occurring as they should be owing to a flaw in the original design, says Kaiser. So a crew will remove the secondary mirror to replace the joints and make other improvements to the support structure. The telescope is expected to be offline for several weeks, but if all goes well the procedure should go a long way toward improving the telescope's image quality.

Best of the Ig Nobel prizes 2009

Why don't pregnant women topple over? Do cows notice kindness? Does cracking your knuckles bring on arthritis? And is there more than one use for a bra? These questions and more inspired the research rewarded at the Ig Nobels, which were handed out on Thursday at Harvard University in a ceremony organised by the Annals of Improbable Research.

After a year of global financial turmoil, the theme was risk, expounded in a 1-minute keynote address by Benoit Mandelbrot, the mathematician who years ago showed that financial markets are fraught with wild fluctuations.

After a year filled with a flock of financial achievements any one of which might merit an Ig Nobel, the economics prize was bound to be controversial. The Ig Nobel committee picked the management and auditors of four Icelandic banks – Kaupthing Bank, Landsbanki, Glitnir Bank and the Central Bank of Iceland – for experimentally demonstrating that financial market fluctuations can rapidly transform very small banks into very large banks, then rapidly reverse the process, thereby demolishing the national economy.

The mathematics prize went to another financial wizard, Gideon Gono, governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, who imbued his compatriots with a sophisticated understanding of large numbers by printing the national currency in denominations ranging from 1 cent to 100 trillion dollars as the country's inflation rate soared to 231 million per cent.

Non-financial risk inspired Elena Bodnar of the University of Chicago medical school, who received the public health prize for a dual-use brassiere. Having lived in Ukraine at the time of the Chernobyl accident, she knew the importance of being prepared for unexpected public-health emergencies. Together with two Chicago colleagues, she designed and patented a brassiere with cups that can double as a pair of gas masks. In the event of nuclear accident, bioterrorist attack or smoky fire, the wearer can quickly detach the two cups, fasten one over her own mouth and nose for protection, and hand the other to a needy bystander.

The experimental quantification of risk earned the peace prize for Stephan Bollinger of the forensic medicine department at the University of Bern in Switzerland. With four colleagues, he attempted to find out whether a full beer bottle or an empty one is more likely to crack someone's skull. Using modelling clay, they mounted bottles horizontally in a bathtub, with small blocks of wood on the upward-facing side of each one.

It turns out that empties make a more dangerous weapon. Dropping 1-kilogram steel balls onto the blocks from various heights indicated that 30 joules of energy shattered full bottles, but empty bottles could withstand 40 joules (Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, vol 16, p 138). Both would suffice to break the weaker parts of a human skull.

In the same alcohol-related vein, the chemistry prize recognised Javier Morales, Miguel Apátiga and Victor Castaño of the National Autonomous University of Mexico for developing a peaceful, low-risk application for another alcoholic beverage: tequila. They found that tequila could be used to make diamond films – a super-tough semiconductor (

The physics prize recognises a delicate gravitational study to answer a question that only small children usually dare ask: why don't pregnant women tip over? For four-legged mammals and our knuckle-walking cousins, the maternal load is balanced between front and hind limbs, but for bipedal humans baby and belly protrude perilously.

How could primitive humans have survived when they spent most of their adult lives pregnant or nursing infants, wondered anthropologists Katherine Whitcome of the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, Daniel E. Lieberman of Harvard University and Liza J. Shapiro of the University of Texas, Austin. The answer, they discovered, was that women have a more pronounced curvature in their lower backs than men, shifting the upper part of the trunk backwards so their bodies balance better during pregnancy.

Donald Unger, an allergist in Thousand Oaks, California, earned the medicine prize for addressing another timeless question: does cracking knuckles really cause arthritis, as his mother warned him it would? As a child, he naturally thought his mother omniscient, but as a teenager he learned about science and started questioning received wisdom of this kind.

Illegal toxic waste spotted from space

Today's environmental detectives can use radar, helicopters and even satellite images to help them spot illegal toxic waste dumps and help catch those responsible.

Ironically, the tightening of restrictions on waste disposal and the enforcement of new recycling laws have made illegal dumping more likely, turning it into big business for the criminals involved.

The trouble is digging up suspect dumps to investigate their contents can release toxins into local water supplies. But with new remote-sensing techniques, such as ground-penetrating radar (GPR), you can find toxic trash without disturbing the soil. Instead, you bounce microwaves off buried materials and the strength of returning signals provides clues to what they are.

Alastair Ruffell, a forensic geologist at Queen's University, Belfast in the UK, has used GPR in 17 cases for the environment agencies of Scotland, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Most are ongoing, however three have resulted in the culprits being jailed and fined.

Sonia Silvestri of the Italian construction firm consortium, Consorzio Venezia Nuova in Venice, has used the transient electromagnetic method to get around such difficulties. TEM is a form of GPR in which electric and magnetic fields are induced in the ground by an electric current pulsing through a coil. It can be carried out from a helicopter hovering 10 metres above the ground. Silvestri recently used the method to identify pollution leaking from a large landfill into groundwater to the north of Padua in north-east Italy. She will present her TEM results at the Twelfth International Waste Management and Landfill Symposium in Sardinia next week.

First Shots From Upgraded Orbiter

A dusty pillar lit from within by newborn stars is among the first cosmic beauties snapped by the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), a new instrument installed in May during the final servicing mission to refurbish the Hubble Space Telescope.

The WFC3 replaces the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, the longest working instrument aboard the orbiting observatory. That camera was responsible for some of Hubble's most iconic pictures, and WFC3 is expected to become one of the next most popular instruments: It's already scheduled to be used in over half of the spacecraft's observations over the next year.

"The installation of the Wide Field Camera was a little touch and go, but I'm happy to say it's working beautifully at the moment," Bob O'Connell, chair of the science oversight committee for the instrument, told reporters today at a press conference.

Crop Circles Go Worldwide Overnight

But last night's crop circles—vast, strange, and often intricate patterns in grain fields—took digital form, as Google's logo morphed into an alien artwork, complete with hovering UFO.

An accompanying Google Twitter post of GPS coordinates sent Web users scurrying to Google Earth software, to discover that the digits denoted Horsell, U.K. (map), site of the first UFO landing in H.G. Wells's novel The War of the Worlds. (YouTube video: Crop Circles on Google Earth.)

The crop circle "Google doodle" remains an unexplained phenomenon, as do some real-world crop circles.

Dawn of Crop Circles

Crop circles first drew attention in the mid-1970s, when they were photographed from the air in fields in the county of Wiltshire, U.K. Made mainly from flattened cereal crops such as wheat and barely, these earliest examples were fairly simple in design.

Since then the Wiltshire region has played host to increasingly an elaborate portfolio of crop circles.

In 2008, for instance, a 150-foot-wide (46-meter-wide) coded representation of the first ten digits of the mathematical constant Pi appeared. And, this summer, a vast and spectacular jellyfish almost engulfed a barley field.

Saturn Lightning Storm Breaks Solar System Record

A lightning storm has been raging on Saturn since mid-January, making the tempest the longest-lasting storm ever detected in our solar system, astronomers announced today. The lightning flashes are 10,000 times stronger than lightning flashes on Earth, research team member Georg Fischer, of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, said via email.

And the storm itself is much bigger—around 1,850 miles (3,000 kilometers) across—than Earth's storms.

"Saturn is just very vigorous when you get a storm," said Andrew Ingersoll, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena who was not involved in the new research.

Storm Alley

Lightning storms on Saturn usually occur about 35 degrees south of Saturn's equator in a place scientists call Storm Alley.

The reason for the location is not clear, according to Fischer, who presented the data at the European Planetary Science Congress in Potsdam, Germany.

Researchers have never actually seen the lightning on Saturn, said Caltech's Ingersoll, a space-weather expert.

Rather, the team detects radio waves from the lightning with instruments on the Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn and its moons since July 2004. (See Saturn pictures.)

"Of course, there's also a visible flash that your eyes could see, at least [if the lightning were] on Earth, [but] we haven't been able to see them on Saturn," he said. That's because sunlight reflected by Saturn's many rings brightens the night side of the planet, obscuring the flashes.

The lightning could also be occurring deep down in the planet's atmosphere, preventing light from escaping, Ingersoll added.

Long-Lasting Lightning

Scientists are uncertain how lightning storms form on Saturn or other giant planets such as Jupiter.

"We don't even understand the differences between [storms on] Jupiter and Saturn," Ingersoll said. "They should be rather similar, but lightning storms on Jupiter last for [only] a few days."

The internal energy of Saturn appears to power the storms and triggers vertical convection, or heat transfer, of water clouds, the Austrian Academy's Fischer said.

"Similar to Earth, this leads to a charging of water particles, and a charged thundercloud develops," he said.

"It is still not known what keeps them going for so long. But it is typical for Saturn as well as Jupiter that storms can last much longer [than on Earth]."

Color-blindness Cured by Gene Injection in Monkeys

A simple injection of cells has cured monkeys of color-blindness—giving a green light to future research into improving human vision with gene therapy, a new study says. Calling the procedure his gene therapy "dream," researcher Jay Neitz said that "ultimately this could be a tool that could cure all sorts of eye diseases."

It's too early to say that the technique can help color-blind people who can't see red or green, but study co-author Neitz is confident.

"If we did this exact same thing to a human being today, I believe we would have cured their color vision," said Neitz, an ophthalmologist and professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.

(Related: "Mice Get 'Human' Vision in Gene Experiment.")

Color-blindness Can Be "Heartbreaking"

The most common genetic disorder in humans, color-blindness affects about 3.5 million people in the United States, more than 13 million in China, and about 16 million in India, the study authors say.

Most color-blind people are men, and most function fine.

But some are "heartbroken" that they can't enter careers that require full-color vision, such as geology and aviation, Neitz said—not to mention that the color-blind can't fully enjoy fall colors and sunsets, or even tell if they're getting sunburned, he added.

Color-blind Monkey Miracle Cure?

Some squirrel monkeys also have a form of color-blindness identical to that of humans: Their eyes lack a pigment gene that allows them to see reds and greens.

To find out if gene therapy could cure color-blindness, Neitz and colleagues trained several of the monkeys—some color-blind, some not—in a lab.

Robot Arm to Grab Robotic Ship -- A Space Station First

For the first time, a robotic arm attached to the International Space Station (ISS) will capture an unmanned spaceship for docking on Thursday. The bus-size Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle, or HTV, was launched on its maiden flight September 10. The remote-control ship is carrying more than four tons of equipment, food, clothes, and other essentials for the six astronauts currently aboard the space station.
Thursday, the craft should reach the correct position for the station's Canadian-built robotic arm, Canadarm2, to reach out and berth the Japanese ship.

With NASA's space shuttle program due to retire next year, experts say unmanned supply ships like the HTV will become crucial to maintaining the space station.

"This flight represents a significant step for Japanese space industry, by demonstrating key technologies that will benefit the station for many years to come," said Masazumi Miyake, deputy director of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) offices in Houston, Texas.

What's more, the success of the HTV may very well have a direct impact on the orbiting outpost's ultimate lifespan. Due to budget concerns, the ISS is currently slated to be deorbited in 2015.

The HTV's robotic-arm approach may prove to be a simpler, cheaper docking system than those used by existing European and Russian cargo ships, opening the door for a possible extension of the station's mission.

Cosmic Catch

Since 2000 unmanned Russian Progress craft have been supplementing shuttle missions to the space station. The ships bring up cargo, take on waste, then detach and eventually disintegrate in Earth's atmosphere.

In 2008 the European Space Agency sent up its first Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), dubbed Jules Verne, to add to the delivery system. (Watch video of Jules Verne burning up as it reenters Earth's atmosphere.)

Both the Russian and European supply ships dock themselves directly to entry hatches using complicated and expensive guidance and thruster technology.

By contrast, the HTV will use its GPS and laser guidance systems to gingerly inch itself to within 30 feet (9.1 meters) of the underbelly of the orbiting facility.