Earth, Energy & Environment

Alien bugs here on Earth?

A tough microbe called Deinococcus radiodurans can withstand blasts of radiation, enduring several thousand times the lethal dose for humans. How did these little bugs develop this resistance? A team of Russian scientists has concluded that these extraordinary organisms are actually Martian microbes, here on Earth by way of meteorites. In tests on common bacteria E. coli, the scientists determined that evolution of radiation-resistance would take longer than 3.8 billion years, the time that life has been on Earth. In contrast, the bugs could develop this characteristic on the Red Planet in only a few hundred thousand years. On Mars there are much higher levels of radiation and the planet experiences regular climate swings that would induce dormancy in microbes, allowing them to accumulate sufficient doses of radiation to evolve into radiation-resistant critters.

See also: Acidic clouds of Venus could harbour life

And then there were three

You learn a lot analyzing dung. Sampling specimens from wild African elephants, UC San Diego researchers have found the continent is home to three distinct types of Proboscidia, not two. Apparently the distinction in the past was between savanna and forest elephants. Now it turns out a third, genetically distinct species has evolved that swings both ways.

Texas researchers develop Ricin vaccine

Texas researchers have developed a vaccine in mice against the deadly toxin Ricin, which has been used in the past as a biological weapon. Ricin is a protein produced by castor beans, making it one of the simplest and cheapest bioweapons to produce. Ricin can be administered in foods, water and through the air, and a single Ricin molecule inside a cell is enough to shut down protein synthesis and kill it. But researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas say that by removing snippets of the Ricin DNA, they were able to develop two strains of mutated Ricin that stimulate an immune response in mice, but cause no harm. The researchers say they believe one or both of the strains would be safe for use in humans. According to the UT team, Iraq is known to have stockpiles of Ricin as part of its bioweapons program, while at least one group associated with Al Qaeda is thought to have experimented with the toxin.

Thank you Mr. Farnsworth!

From Barney W. Greinke in Berkeley:"When people point out the great technological accomplishments of the 20th century, they usually think it's the big things that are the most important ones. The atom bomb, jet airplanes, the Salk vaccine, electronic computing, DNA, men on the moon."How incredibly wrong they are.

Reefs in trouble

Today a program called Reef Check at UCLA's Institute of the Environment released the results of a massive, five-year volunteer-run survey of the planet's coral reefs -- what may be the world's most comprehensive ecological study to date. Unfortunately the study reveals that the reefs around the world are in serious decline, and that the
">situation is only getting worse
. Overfishing has affected 95 percent of the more than 1,107 coral reefs monitored since 1997; at least four species of reef fish, hunted as food or for aquariums, face extinction, according to the study. So how do you monitor the coral reefs, which make up less than .09% of the area of the world's oceans and are spread around the globe? Volunteers, lots of them. Reef Check scientists taught teams of sea-worthy volunteers -- from recreational divers to village fisherman -- about reef ecology and scientific monitoring. About 5,000 scientists and volunteers contributed. According to Reef Check's founder, Gregor Hodgson, of the reefs surveyed, just one, near Madagascar, could be considered pristine. "What we have seen is coral reefs have been damaged more in the last 20 years than they have in the last 1,000," Hodgson said. "Suddenly, the pressures of overfishing and damaging types of fishing -- dynamiting fish and poisoning fish, particularly in Southeast Asia -- have taken off."

A lean green computing machine

PCs aren't known for being great friends of the environment. Chip making uses toxic chemicals, wastes water, and pollutes both water and air. Computers and components fill up landfills and add heavy doses of lead to the solid waste stream. NEC Solutions America says it's taking a step toward a more environmentally friendly computer with the PowerMate eco --- the first all-in-one, fanless ecological PC. The PowerMate eco has a 15-inch flat panel screen that contain none of the boron found in traditional CRT monitors and radiates less heat than its tubular counterparts; its motherboard is made with lead-free solder; it uses laptop components and has a "boxless" design; it has no fan; and it is made of a 100 percent recyclable plastic. The desktop is targeted at high density computing locations where noise, heat and desktop real estate are big concerns --- like call centers, hospitals, reception desks and financial trading rooms.

Intel’s latest: Two brains, one chip

Apple in recent years has sought to close the megahertz gap with Intel and Advanced Micro Devices by selling high-end machines that come with two processors instead of one. Thus, a dual-processor 1.2GHz G4 can reasonably claim to compete with a 2.5GHz Intel box. But Intel reckons there's more than one way to build a two-brained beast and is experimenting with putting two processor cores on a single piece of silicon. It's a process that CNET's News.com says over the next decade will improve performance and reduce power consumption. One advantage is the ability to better dissipate heat. When a series of calculations has Core A chugging along at full steam, its transistors can hit temperatures that start to degrade performance. When that happens, the chip can "hop" some of the work over to Core B for an overall performance improvement. Another approach is to have Core A and Core B specialize in different things, similarly spreading the number-crunching responsibility around.

Salt of the Earth

Live near the ocean? Ever wonder why your air is so clean, while the poor saps inland keep dying from smog? Reuters reports salty sea spray actually scrubs out air pollution. According to an article published in the journal Science, some of the spray rises high into the atmosphere and helps create raindrops, which drag pollution back down to earth (they also make you wet when it rains.) "The idea that larger salt particles can seed clouds and enhance rainfall is not new but it was not combined with actual observation," says Daniel Rosenfeld, who conducted the experiment.

Czechs to get vaccinated after flooding

Following devastating floods that submerged central Prague in water and caused 200,000 Czechs to leave their homes, the Czech government said it will be vaccinating 65,000 children against hepatitis A -- a liver disease that can spread when sewage systems are damaged and infected feces enters the drinking water. The Czech Republic's health minister has also asked the government to provide 3.5 million euros for other public health measures. The flooding has killed more than 100 people across Europe and caused billions of euros' worth of damage. It's not just the people who are hurting -- in the Czech Republic 100 animals died during the evacuation of Prague Zoo.

U.S. got its e-bomb on

New Scientist says that a military attack on Iraq could see the first use of an e-bomb designed to destroy electronics but not harm people. U.S. intelligence reports that Iraq has moved much of its military infrastructure underground or beneath civilian buildings like hospitals. As such, the magazine says, the role of non-lethal and precision weapons would be a critical factor in any conflict. The U.S. reportedly has in its arsenal High Power Microwave (HPM) devices that produce an electromagnetic field so strong they can destroy electronic equipment in hardened command, control, communications and computer targets. One mechanism for achieving this sounds like something out of "Back to the Future": An explosive pumped flux generator. That device is essentially a bomb which with a combination of explosives and electronics, sends out an electromagnetic wave of up to tens of millions of Amps. By comparison, a typical lightning strike --- which can wreak plenty of damage on its own --- carries just 30,000 Amps.

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