Organic farming just as productive as conventional

Scientists from the University of Minnesota demonstrated yields of corn and soybeans were only minimally reduced when organic production practices were utilized as compared with conventional production practices. After factoring in production costs, net returns between the two production strategies were equivalent.

Catnip stops termites dead in their tracks

Cats may adore catnip, but termites hate it. That’s what two researchers found in a new study presented today at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society, held this week in New Orleans. The oil derived from the catnip plant was found to repel and kill termites in a laboratory test. The researchers hope that eventually a commercial product derived from the oil might provide a less toxic alternative to pesticides used today. Termites cause damages estimated at more than $1 billion annually in the United States. In New Orleans, the aggressive Formosan subterranean termite ? now found in at least 11 states ? is believed to infest about 30 percent of the area’s live oak trees and costs home owners more than $300 million a year.

First step towards detecting exposure to biowarfare agents

Army researchers are laying the groundwork for what one day could be a test to identify individuals who have been exposed to biological agents. They present their findings today at the American Society for Microbiology’s Biodefense Research Meeting. “Recent events have demonstrated that assessing exposure to a biological threat agent well in advance of onset of illness or at various stages post-exposure would be an important capability to have among the diagnostic options,” says Marti Jett of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, the scientist directing the study.

Making a safer anthrax vaccine using spinach

Researchers have developed a strategy for making a safer anthrax vaccine: enlisting the help of spinach plants to manufacture a key component. They report their findings today at the American Society for Microbiology’s Biodefense Research Meeting. “Protective antigen (PA) of Bacillus anthracis is one of the three components of the anthrax toxin,” says Alexander Karasev, a lead researcher on the study. “Purified PA is currently used as a vaccine against anthrax. However, the licensed vaccine derived from apathogenic B. anthracis has side effects and a more efficacious and safer vaccine is needed.”

Toy choice among boys, girls a matter of monkey business

Sure Santa Claus asks boys and girls what toys they want, but why they want them is a better question. The answer may have to do with a biological pre-wiring that influences boys’ and girls’ preferences based on the early roles of males and females. It’s commonly believed that boys and girls learn what types of toys they should like based solely on society’s expectations, but psychologist Gerianne Alexander’s work with vervet monkeys is challenging that notion. Alexander examined the monkeys as they interacted with toys. She and her collaborator, Melissa Hines of the University of London, found that the monkeys’ toy preferences were consistent along gender lines with those of human children. Though the monkeys had no concept of a “boy” toy and a “girl” toy, they still showed the same gender preferences in playing with the toys, Alexander says. That is, compared to female monkeys, male monkeys spent more time with “boy” toys, and the female monkeys, compared to their male counterparts, spent more time with “girl” toys.