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.

IBM (hearts) NY

IBM Wednesday opened a sophisticated semiconductor plant in East Fishkill, NY. The $2.5 billion facility is the single biggest capital investment the company has ever made, and presumably reflects an optimism that things will improve for the tech sector generally, and the beleaguered chip business in particular.

The new factory will make processors for everything from videogames and cell phone to mainframe computers. “The plant also will be the first to mass produce circuits thinner than 0.1 micron, or 1,000 times thinner than a human hair,” the Associated Press reports. “The old standard was 0.25 microns, with some chips now at 0.18 microns. The thinner lines, or conduits, allow chips to run faster and use less electricity.”

When it begins normal production next year, the factory is expected to employ about 1,000 East Fishkillers.

Break out the poison, boys

A panel of scientists has determined that poison is the best way to rid a Maryland pond of the carnivorous northern snakehead. The fish, a native of China, was introduced into the pond by a pet owner who tired of caring for the animals. Only problem is, the snakeheads are eating everything in sight, devastating the pond’s ecosystem. Worse, the insatiable critters can last three days out of water, often traveling short distances across land on their fins. And the Little Patuxent River is about 75 yards away. According to the Associated Press, “The panel considered several ways to get rid of the snakeheads, including removing them through trapping, netting and electroshock stunning. But those options would not ensure that every last fish was killed. The group also considered draining and filtering the pond, but that posed logistical difficulties.”

Looks like some kinda smart rodent

A single gene change that boosts the amount of a certain protein in early brain cells causes mice to develop abnormally large brains, Reuters Health reports. Normal mice have smooth, flat brains. But tinker with the gene in question and suddenly the little furballs develop brains so big they fold in on themselves, forming the wrinkles, ridges and crevices found also in the human brain. Study author Dr. Anjen Chenn of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard University in Boston said the finding might help researchers understand how humans came to develop brains so much bigger than those of other mammals. Whether or not more size means more smarts is uncertain, Chenn said. “It is quite an interesting question … and that’s something we want to look at in the future.”

Sh*t a brick

Taiwanese researchers say they’ve crafted a win-win situation in the discovery that sewage sludge can be used to bulk up construction bricks. The bio-bricks contain up to 30 percent sludge, which can come from either industrial slurry or the, er, human waste stream. Because the bricks are kiln-fired at 900C, all bacteria and viruses are destroyed. Plus the process seals in any heavy metals that might be present. Best of all, the researchers say, the bricks don’t smell at all. The team behind the discovery admits that people might need some convincing to live in such intimate contact with their past meals, noting that legal approval and public acceptance remain to be sought.