Afghan seedbank destroyed

As if Afghanistan didn’t have enough woes, the country has just lost its main agricultural insurance policy: two stores of carefully selected and maintained seeds representing the biodiversity of the nation’s native crops. The seeds were ruined when looters broke into a storage facility where they were kept and made off with the airtight jars that held them. The seeds themselves were tossed on the ground, and have now been so jumbled together that they are virtually worthless. “It’s like having a library of books with no titles on them,” says Geoffrey Hawtin, director general of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in Rome. “All of the [traits you prize] are there, but you no longer know where to look for them.”

Worm slaps Penguin

It may be Microsoft’s time to feel a little smug. For years Redmond has been the butt of jokes — and curses — for the vulnerability its systems seemed to have to viruses. Now Linux has fallen prey to a nasty bug of its own, one that has created a giant peer-to-peer attack network from thousands of infected Linux Web servers. Only computer systems running both Apache Web server software and the Linux operating system are vulnerable, New Scientist reports. But that’s a heck of a lot of machines. Once installed on a machine, the Linux.Slapper.Worm tries to forward itself on to other computers. “But unlike many other worms, it also tries to establish connections with computers that have already been infected,” the magazine reports. The bug was first identified Friday, and though characterized by computer security firms as slow-moving, has so far infected an estimated 3,500 machines. In a note accompanying the worm, the author says it was designed as a proof-of-concept for “educational” purposes and should not be used for destructive attacks.

Meerkat: cutest animal ever

World events got you down? Get your hands on the September issue of National Geographic, the one with the meerkat on the cover. Mattias Klum’s photos of meerkats are guaranteed to brighten your day. Klum has captured the swaggering little southern African mammal in a variety of poses — standing, sitting, eating, mating, foraging. The baby meerkat pictures are just ridiculous, but the funniest photo has to be the meerkats lined up in formation like a high school dance squad at halftime. As National Geographic Editor in Chief Bill Allen is quoted in the issue as saying: “You can never have too many meerkats.”

Hunting: No role in controlling fox population

In Britain a central rationale in support of fox hunting has been challenged by a scientific study. Hunting advocates have long claimed that fox hunts keep the fox population from exploding, protecting livestock. But scientists from the University of Bristol said today that banning fox hunting would not cause an increase in the fox population. This announcement adds some concrete support to a debate that has been waging for years between hunting defenders and animal welfare campaigners. The scientists got the opportunity to test assumptions about the effects a ban would have because of foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks in Britain in 2001 that led to a ten-month ban on fox hunting. The British government is currently in a six-month period of consultation in search of a compromise on fox hunting between the House of Commons, who earlier this year voted for a full ban, and the House of Lords, who voted for licensed hunting.

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.”

No ‘Fear Factor’ for Thai goverment

Government officials in Thailand have been whining about the new trend of adopting giant African roaches as pets. Because they make lousy pets? No. Because they’re supposedly filthy. The people of Bangkok — like children in classrooms and museums the world over — are quite taken with the large Madagascar hissing cockroach, and are snapping them up at the popular Chatuchak market. But the goverment is worried that escaped roaches could become a health risk and is asking vendors to stop selling them. The Madagascar hissing cockroach is a docile, slow-paced creature that can grow to 3 inches and live for more than 3 years; its name derives from the fact that it can force air through a pair of breathing pores in its abdomen to make a hissing noise. It has not been established that roaches actually do spread disease, though some people are allergic to the feces of certain species. The hissing roach lives outdoors in the jungles of Madagascar with the lemurs and chameleons, and like 99 percent of roach species is not a household pest. (And check out the roach cam.)

Long-life contact lenses

A Texas scientist has discovered that a special metal coating could allow contact lens wearers to keep their lenses in for longer periods of time. Coating contacts with a one-molecule-thick layer of selenium, an antibacterial metal, keeps them bacteria-free for at least two months, says Ted Reid of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock. Although selenium can be toxic to humans in large quantities, these lenses would apparently be safe, with less selenium than you’d find in an average lunch. Reid hopes the coating could be used on other internal devices, like heart valves and catheters, and even suggests selenium-coated molecules could be used to keep people exposed to HIV from becoming infected. In other eye news, new eye-tracking software developed by scientists at Cambridge University could help computer users with disabilities write more quickly, accurately, and comfortably than before.

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.

Mice in the news

It has been a big week for the common lab mouse. Tests in mice showed that the deadly botulism toxin could be neutralized with an experimental drug. The drug, fashioned from two antibodies from mice and one from a human, could be mass-produced and thus could be used as a deterrent to the use of botulism toxin as a weapon. In other mouse news, scientists at the Universiy of Pennsylania have figured out that they can turn mice into goat and pig sperm “factories” by grafting testes onto their backs. The technique could be used in the future to make sperm for young cancer patients left infertile after treatment, to help human couples struggling with male fertility problems, and to preserve species close to extinction. The most amazing mouse news of the week? Researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston created a transgenic mouse with Lance Armstrong-like capabilities, able to endure hard exercise for extended periods of time.

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.

Avoid skeeter bites, says CDC

In response to outbreaks of West Nile virus throughout the eastern U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has pointed out that the best way to avoid infection is to avoid mosquito bites. West Nile virus is spread by the bite of an infected mosquito, and in addition to humans can infect horses, many species of birds, and some other animals. Fortunately, most people who become infected with West Nile virus will have either no symptoms or mild ones. But on rare occasions, infection can result in West Nile encephalitis, a severe and sometimes fatal inflammation of the brain. (The risk of severe infection is higher for persons 50 years of age and older.) Officials in Washington D.C. have been getting the word out about protective measures people can take after West Nile virus infected a 55-year-old resident, who is now hospitalized with encephalitis. As of Thursday, state health departments around the U.S. have released information on 113 cases of human illness related to West Nile virus this year, including 5 deaths.

‘People’s chemist’ dead at 72

Oh, to be as well-regarded and useful as recently departed polymer chemist William Mallow. Mallow, the man credited with inventing clumping cat litter and perfecting Liquid Paper, was remembered this week by family and friends as a scientist with a knack for practicality. In addition to litter and white-out, Mallow worked on the space shuttle’s heat-resistant tiles, developed a way to artificially age Scotch whiskey and improved the rubber skin used on robot dinosaurs at Walt Disney World, Reuters reports.

“He was a people’s chemist,” said Dr. Robert Bass, a colleague at the Southwest Research Institute. While at the institute, Mallow also helped Liquid Paper inventor Bette Nesmith Graham perfect the white goo. (Nesmith Graham, it should be noted, is the mother of former Monkees member Michael Nesmith).

Mallow’s latest project was a military-grade slip-n-slide gel called the Mobility Denial System. Meant to foil attacks on government buildings and control crowds, “it can be sprayed on any surface and causes people to slip and fall and prevents vehicles from getting traction.”

Mallow, a native of Akron, Ohio, died of leukemia at age 72 in a San Antonio hospital on Tuesday, Reuters says.