Avian flu heads west, the north was warm in 2005 and Snuppy is all that remains of Hwang Woo-suk's eastern empire.

Avian Flu Spreads its Wings

Two avian-flu deaths took place on the brink of Europe last week, a long way from Southeast Asia. A pair of siblings in eastern Turkey, a 14-year-old boy and a 15-year-old girl, succumbed to the same H5N1 virus that has already claimed 74 lives in Asia. The virus has appeared in eastern Europe several times since July, and there have been 15 total infections in Turkey; these are the first avian-flu deaths in the region. The UN warns that H5N1 could become endemic and spread to neighboring countries.

Approximately 500,000 female births are selectively aborted in India every year, according to joint Indian and Canadian research. While most countries have slightly more females than males, India’s population grows while maintaining a “girl deficit.” In addition, the researchers found that when the previous child was a girl, parents tend to select for a boy more often. Abortions based on sex selections have been banned in India for over a decade.

A frozen pipe burst in China last Thursday, causing oil to seep into the Yellow River, the nations second longest. The oil entered the river, a source of drinking water, at 27 times the national safety standard, causing 63 water-pumping stations along the river’s banks to shut down. The nearly 7-million residents in the stricken area are being served by reservoirs. This is the third spill that’s affected the country’s water supply in three months.

2005: Hot or Not?

Data culled from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and NOAA satellites indicates that the phenomenon of global warming isn’t exactly global. Even though last year’s average temperatures tied with those of 2002, the second-warmest year since 1978, the most significant warming is confined to the northernmost third of the globe. The warming rate in that section of the planet is over seven times faster than in points south.

In Sydney on Thursday, the US and Australia pledged to earmark a combined $127 million for lowering greenhouse gas emissions. The two countries, both of which have refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, have teamed up with China, India, South Korea and Japan to form a coalition called the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate. This union prefers the promotion of renewable resources over curbing the burning of fossil fuels; they believe the latter will damage their economies.

Going against the textbooks of plant biochemistry, a group of scientists in Germany published a story in Nature announcing that plants regularly produce methane. Common knowledge was that plants would only produce this greenhouse gas when in low-oxygen environments. This new finding doesn’t just challenge prior belief—it could account for anywhere from 10% to 30% of the world’s methane emissions.

The Worldwatch Institute, a US-based think tank, warned that the booming economies of India and China overshadowed each country’s high pollution rate. In its “State of the World 2006” report, the group estimated that the two nations would need “a full planet Earth” unto themselves to allow them to reach the water, energy and agriculture standards enjoyed by Western nations.

The Proof is in the Frogs

Scientists in Costa Rica reported that harlequin frog species native to Central and South America are disappearing at a rate that corresponds to the warming rate. Rising temperatures increase cloud coverage in tropical areas, causing warmer nights and cooler days; the frogs are succumbing to a skin fungus that is thriving in the new climate. The frogs are an indicator species: Changes in their population signal that their environment has been altered.

On a similar note, a University of Montana biologist warned duck hunters that if they want to continue enjoying their sport, they should get serious about global warming. Rising global temperatures will dry up duck breeding grounds across North America, leaving hunters shooting at air.

Officials at Yellowstone National Park plan to send 200 newly-captured wandering bison directly to slaughter, without testing them for the disease brucellosis. Under a state-federal management plan, when wandering bison are captured they can either be hazed, or tested for the disease and sent to slaughter if they test positive. Because Yellowstone has a bison herd of nearly 5,000, park officials are allowed to send the animals directly to slaughter without testing them.

Only one public hearing was held to discuss a plan to remove grizzly bears from federal endangered species protection. Interested parties either had to trek to Cody, Wyoming, or forego the hearing and send in comments via post or e-mail. Supporters of the plan note that grizzly populations increase by 4% to 7% every year. Opponents value the endangered species protection because it mandates conservation of the grizzlies’ already-small habitat.

The Warped Milky Way

From our outpost near the center of the disk-shaped Milky Way, we can’t tell that our galaxy is warped. But it is: concave from some vantage points, convex at others, and sinusoidal elsewhere. Scientists at the University of California Berkeley believe the culprits misshaping the Milky Way are two satellite galaxies, which disturb the dark matter around our galaxy as they orbit it. The warp is, at times, as severe as 20,000 light-years (or 6 trillion miles).

A total of 435,000 names will be heading to Pluto as part of a public-relations campaign to generate interest in a mission to the ninth planet. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab is sending a spacecraft to study Pluto and its three moons, and the names of people who entered their information into the mission’s website are going with it. The spacecraft may reach Pluto as early as 2015.

Indian scientists have announced they can build a rocket that will be lighter, faster and cheaper to launch than any rockets in existence today. Supersonic Combustion Ramjet, or “Scramjet,” rockets will use atmospheric oxygen as fuel, making them much lighter and easier to launch than rockets that need their own oxygen source. Within 10 years, the scientists hope to master the technology that may allow them to travel at 24 times the speed of sound, at nearly 8 times the speed of the fastest conventional aircraft, and to cut launch costs by over 90%.

Snuppy’s Tail Still Wagging

All that’s left of the empire Hwang Woo-suk built over the last couple of years is his trusty Afghan hound Snuppy, the world’s first cloned dog. While Hwang is still credited with that cloning feat, a investigative panel at Seoul National University found that his work creating cloned stem cell lines was based on fake evidence. The journal Science has retracted two papers of Hwang’s: one from 2004, where he claimed to have harvested embryonic stem cells from cloned embryos, and another from last year, where he claimed to have created 11 lines of patient-specific stem cells. Hwang, who has gone from national hero to goat, publicly apologized on Thursday, saying, “I seek your forgiveness.”

In the wake of a Chinese group’s claim that it created embryonic stem cells using rabbit eggs (whose genetic material had been removed), stem-cell researchers in the UK are considering the validity of animal eggs as hosts. Scientists are split. One camp argues that it is a necessity, due to a lack of human eggs for research. The other contends that using animal eggs in lab conditions wold further deter women from donating their eggs.

Cat’s Eye View

A study appearing in the journal Science is rewriting the history of felines. The research effort, led by two scientists at the National Cancer Institute, has tracked the evolution of cats using mitochondrial DNA. In addition to tracking the felines’ crossing of the land bridge between Alaska and Siberia, where the Bering Strait now lies, the researchers have split the entire family into eight lineages. They also found that new species of the successful predators evolved in response to the ebb and flow of sea levels.

A photograph of a one-eyed kitten that circulated earlier this month could be real, say medical authorities. “Holoprosencephaly” is a condition that causes facial deformities. At its most severe, it can cause a single eye to appear where the nose should be. The cycloptic kitten, appropriately named Cy, lived for about one day, said Traci Allen, Cy’s owner who took digital pictures of the kitten and provided them to the Associated Press. Allen is preserving Cy’s corpse in her freezer, on the off chance that scientists will want to investigate.

Finally, it turns out our eyes have a third type of photoreceptor on their retina. In addition to cones and rods, there are the newly-discovered intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (shorter name hopefully coming soon). This new class of photoreceptor, which was discovered in mice by researchers at Brown University, is responsible for regulating our circadian rhythms and communicating messages to the brain regarding the overall brightness of our environment. The scientists happened upon these cells when they realized that blind mice could adjust their body clocks, discerning day and night.

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Originally published January 13, 2006

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