Avian flu mutates itself, Greenpeace leaves a present and the Stardust returns with, well, dust.

Ever-Adapting Avian Flu

A blood sample taken from one of the two Turkish siblings who died last week of avian flu contained a variation of the H5N1 virus that may make it more harmful to humans. While the mutation could be an incremental step toward the virus becoming communicable between humans, the World Health Organization said it is too early to tell if the single genetic mutation will prove to be significant.

An international team of researchers, led by a group at the University of Illinois, has received $10 million in federal funding to complete the first sequencing of the pig genome. The two-year project, which is expected to cost a total of $20 million, could lead to better pork products as well as aid in human medical research.

Forty percent, or 3.5 million, of the estimated eight-million Ashkenazi Jews alive today can trace their lineage back to just four mothers, says a new genetic study. The women each had a distinctive genetic signature traceable through mitochondrial DNA. All four are believed to have lived in Europe about a thousand years ago.

A Norwegian cancer researcher has been exposed as a fraud after findings he published in October of last year in Britain’s leading medical journal, the Lancet, were found to be based entirely on fabricated information. Jon Sudboe created an entire fictional study—from names to weights to drug use—when submitting his study on the effectiveness of an anti-inflammatory drug on oral cancer. The scandal follows in the wake of Hwang Woo-suk, the South Korean scientist whose career fell to shambles in the past few weeks.


Ding, Dong, Ditch

Greenpeace dumped the dead body of a 17-meter, 20-metric-ton fin whale outside the Japanese embassy in Berlin to protest Japan’s whale hunt, claiming that the species’ meat is ending up in the country’s restaurants. Japan plans to take more than 900 minke whales from a sanctuary in the Southern Ocean in the first four months of 2006. The nation claims the whales are hunted only for scientific study.

Late last year, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association confiscated a bag headed to Asia from the US marked only with the word “blanco” and filled with unidentified shark fins. DNA evidence proved that the 21 fins in the bag all belonged to endangered great white sharks, and that most of them came from realtively small sharks. Since 2004, the Convention for the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) began monitoring trade in products harvested from great white sharks. Nevertheless, the fins of great whites are still a delicacy in Asia.

In a related story, researchers believe that the world’s largest fish species, the whale shark, which is listed as “vulnerable” on the endangered species list, is shrinking as a result of their being caught for food in east Asia. In a study conducted off the coast of Australia, researchers have observed the average size of the fish declining from seven meters to five meters over the last decade. 

Giant jellyfish have invaded the waters off Japan. Scientists have speculated that global warming may be behind the huge bloom of the slimy beasts, which can weigh as much as 200 kg. Though their stings are not deadly, they are increasingly getting caught in the nets of Japanese fishermen and causing a negative economic impact on the country’s fishing industry.

An array of smart sensors are being deployed to monitor the health of coral on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The sensors, which communicate measurements of salinity, temperature and nutrient levels to researchers as far as 70 km away, will enable real-time observation of the environmental parameters contributing to destructive events such as coral bleaching.

There are an estimated 300 northern right whales left in the world, and none were ever expected to visit Texas. But a tanker pilot spotted a mother and a calf after possibly hitting one of them with his vessel in Corpus Christi Bay. The endangered whales, whose population suffered at the hands of commercial whaling, normally winter off Georgia and Florida on the other side of the Gulf of Mexico.


Up in the Clouds

Climate scientists have launched a massive effort to improve our understanding of critical cloud-formation processes. The researchers have deployed an army of student volunteers to camp in rainy, mosquito-infested locations around Darwin, Australia, where they will release weather balloons eight times a day for 23 days. The balloons will be tracked by radar, and the results will be used to improve models that predict the impact of climate change, especially its effect on storm activity.

A survey shows that British resistance to nuclear power may be weakening. Slightly more than half the British citizens surveyed would accept new nuclear power stations if they slowed global warming. Yet, more than three-quarters of Britons think that switching to renewable energy and a reduction in energy consumption arere better ways to fight climate change.


Creature Feature

Biologists in California have identified 27 previously unknown species in damp caves in the Sierra Nevada. Two of the more notable finds are a bug whose internal organs are visible through its translucent body as well as a small spider that glows flourescent orange. The species, which also include centipedes and scorpion-like creatures, have yet to be named.

Following the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas, a newfound colony of the endangered Ozark big-eared bats was found in Oklahoma. The Cherokee Nation has provided money to allow for the trees where the bats live not to be cut down, as the landowner who owns the timber had planned. There are only 2,000 of the bats believed to exist, and approximately 1,500 of them live in Oklahoma.

An international team of ornithologists is surveying the coast of Bangladesh, searching for spoon-billed sandpipers. There are believed to be just 350 pairs of the sandpipers left, and researchers want to explain the precipitous decline in their population.


Headed to New Horizons

NASA successfully launched the New Horizons spacecraft, sending it on its nine-year mission to explore Pluto and the Kuiper belt. Scientists hope to learn about the origin and evolution of the solar system by studying this region, which contains material largely unchanged since the birth of our solar system. Two previous attempts to launch this week were scrubbed by windy conditions.

Thirty anti-nucelar protesters concerned by potential fallout showed up in Cape Canaveral to oppose the plutonium-fueled NASA mission to Pluto. NASA estimated the cost of cleanup, if there were a serious accident during the launch, as somewhere between $241 million to $1.3 billion per square mile of affected area. Over eight years ago, several hundred protesters rallied against the launch of the mission to Saturn, which carried 33 kg (72 pounds) of plutonium as fuel. 

The NASA Stardust space capsule returned to earth, landing in the Utah desert Sunday after its seven-year journey collecting dust particles over the course of three orbits of the sun. One hundred fifty scientists worldwide have dibs on examining more than one-million bits of comet particles and interstellar dust retrieved during the $212-million mission. The material collected comes from a comet that dates back 4.6-billion years and, scientsts hope, will reveal information about the origin of the solar system.

Galileo, a European version of the US’s Global Positioning System, is on its way to becoming a reality. The Glove-A satellite, launched from Kazakhstan in late 2005, has transmitted the first of its navigational signals from space to stations located in the UK and Belgium. Glove-A orbits at a distance of 23,000 km above the Earth.


Shake, Rattle, and Blow

Last Friday, scientists shook a six-story condo nearly to the point of collapse in Japan in a test of the earthquake-simulating “shaking table.” The simulator, which replicated a 7.2-magnitude quake, will help engineers improve damage assessment and draw up better quake-resistant design standards. The condo, which was built to resemble condos designed in the 1970s, suffered significant structural damage but did not fall.

If consumers worldwide begin using copper at the same rate as North Americans, the global supply of the mineral could be completely depleted in as few as 50 years, say researchers at Yale. Currently, there is approximately 150 kg of copper in use for every person in North America. Copper, the electrical conductivity of which makes it essential essential for technologies such as cell phones and computers, may soon need to be recycled. 

Finally, after a three-day lull, the Augustine Volcano in south-central Alaska erupted again Tuesday, spewing ash eight-and-a-half miles above its summit. The ash scattered in the mountainous Bristol Bay region west of the uninhabited island; intermittent explosions may continue for the next several weeks but experts say catastrophic eruption is unlikely.

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Originally published January 20, 2006

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