Slice that DNA carefully

The genome of the pufferfish, a Japanese delicacy, is teaching researchers about the more complex genetic makeup of humans. The pufferfish, or Fugu, has about the same number of genes as humans, but without most of the repetitive “junk” DNA found in naked apes, researchers at the Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, California, report. Fugu can pack a lethal tetrodotoxin whallop, but manages to do so with the smallest genome of any vertebrate. The findings were detailed in the journal Science and reported on by the Associated Press.

What a waste … of calamari

City work crews were busy Friday cleaning up 12 tons of dead and dying squid after what looks to have been the largest mass beaching of the rubbery mollusks in a century. Scientists say the squid were likely following prey, maybe grunion, when they ventured into the shallow waters off La Jolla Cove, California, and were washed up on shore. Locals were freaked. “It was just unbelievable,” Bill Halsey, 26, told Reuters. “They made these strange noises like a dolphin or a seal as they were dying.” Added Clif Williams: “The thing that weirds me out about the squid is that they have humanlike eyeballs.” The jumbo flying squid, aka Dosidicus gigas, usually call the eastern Pacific Ocean home, but have been turning up on beaches from Orange County to the Mexican Border. Researchers think warm water currents associated with El Nino are drawing the suckers north.

Congo town gets volcano double-whammy

Goma, a town in eastern Congo, has been hit with a volcano spurting molten rock 100 meters in the air, just a few months after a separate volcano devastated the area. “It was something like an explosion of the sun,” Dario Tedesco, a volcano consultant to the United Nations, told Reuters. “It was really spectacular, it was glowing everywhere, the sky was red, you could see the lava coming up from the fissure.” In January another volcano razed much of Goma, and researchers say they’re worried that hothead could blow again. According to the wire service, the winter eruption forced tens of thousands of people to flee into neighboring Rwanda — something few rational people would do by choice. Vulcanologists say the pool of molten rock bubbling in a 1.2-km wide crater at the top of the January volcano had risen rapidly in the last two weeks, but that it is devilishly hard to judge how much risk it poses.

Incidentally, the Granular Volcano Group runs a Web site that explains the physics behind much of a volcano’s activity. It’s a little math-heavy, but you can watch some neato supercomputer simulations of different kinds of gas clouds and debris flows.

Just wait til Lance Bass gets there

Stargazers this week may be surprised by the sight of a glowing orange object streaking across the night sky. It?s the International Space Station, which is making bright passes over the U.S. and Canada until mid-August. The ISS — which travels at 17,000 mph and circles the planet 16 times a day — crosses the sky in three to six minutes, and can shine more brightly than any planet or star except our sun and moon. (Its brightness depends on its orientation, your location and the sun.) Right now this impressive sight can be observed by the unaided eye if skies are clear. (A flyby near downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday night was clearly visible despite city lights.) To find out when the station will fly above your town, orbit over to NASA SkyWatch.

Who says chickens can’t fly?

The Associated Press reports materials researchers have begun experimenting with chicken feathers and soy resin to craft future computer processors. Researchers in the University of Delaware’s ACRES program — Affordable Composites from Renewable Sources — looked to chicken feathers because they have shafts that are hollow but strong, and made mostly of air, which is a great conductor of electricity. The feathers and resin are crafted into a composite material that looks and feels like silicon, according to program director Richard Wool. In initial tests, electric signals moved twice as fast through the organic chip as through a silicon chip, researchers said. “The first time, Dr. Wool’s response was, ‘Recheck,'” said post-doc Chang Kook Hong, who headed the research. “I repeated the test three times with the same results. Then he said, ‘You have a hit here.'” Don’t expect feather Pentiums any time soon, however. The natural bumps and irregularities that come from using an organic base are a big impediment to commercial use. “The microchip industry depends on materials that are ultrasmooth and ultraflat,” said one researcher. “This was anything but that.”

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.”

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Revisited

It’s hard to imagine that in what may be Big Oil’s political-clout highwater mark, anyone is talking about alternative fuel cars. But Wired does a
marathon out-take
in this month’s issue, delving deep behind the Oil Curtain in a mission to GM’s Detroit headquarters. The magazine takes yet another look at the possibility that hydrogen fuel cell cars will appear in our lifetime. Wired even has the humility to point out where its previously breathless boosterism may have been a wee bit premature.

Urban legends

Boy explodes from eating Pop Rocks with Coca-Cola. Girl summons vengeful spirit by chanting “Bloody Mary” while staring into mirror. Richard Gere checks into hospital, furry friend in tow. And once again, Apple plans x86-platform Macs. As posted on MacOSRumors, “Apple may be on the way to moving over to an x86-based platform, probably the AMD Athlon family of processors.”

Historically, this techno-legend was wishful thinking on the part of cultish Apple devotees in hopes that the Mac would rise up from its Amelio-era deathbed and strike a fatal blow to the Wintel camp. Today, there are several reasons why this rumor is feasible at this time in Apple’s history: Apple’s UNIX-based MacOS X seems an easy port to CISC-based processors; The Apple/Microsoft arranged union is soon to come to a close; rumors of Motorola’s processor shortages; and so on.

“Although Motorola sources have repeatedly stated that they do not believe Apple will be implementing Moto’s G5 family of processors as it is currently known — G4 processors “have legs,” according to those sources, and will power Apple computers for at least another year, they say — we do not believe that this means that Apple will not employ PowerPC processors significantly more advanced than the current crop. It may mean that Apple does not believe that the current G5 designs are suitable in terms of clock speeds, price, or reliable supply availability. In fact, this rumor that Apple isn’t going to implement the G5 may not be accurate at all.”

Consider that CISC-based processors are larger, consume far more power and run much hotter than RISC processors, which would not fare well in many of Apple’s newer, more compact machines that do not include processor-cooling fans. Additionally, Apple touts its PowerPC G4 with Velocity Engine processor“the chip that put supercomputing power on the desktop?can perform four (in some cases eight) 32-bit floating-point calculations in a single cycle ? two to four times faster than processors found in PCs.”