South Korea's cloning pioneer labeled a faker, a new map points out where endangered species could disappear and Virgin's Richard Branson finds a home for his spaceport.

Hwang Out to Dry

This week ethical troubles continued for South Korean cloning pioneer Hwang Woo-suk as his colleague, Roh Sung-il, charged that Hwang admitted faking data for a landmark article published last summer in the journal Science. According to Roh, nine of the 11 stem cell lines that Hwang claimed to have cloned were outright fabrications. The study, which involved generating stem cells from an egg whose nucleus had been removed and replaced with an adult nucleus, had previously come under fire in late November for accepting donations of human eggs from research assistants in his lab. (See article)

Meanwhile, scientists at the Salk Institute in San Diego created unique human-mouse chimeras whose brains are made up of 0.1% human brain cells. Researchers hope the procedure, which involved injecting 100,000 human embryonic stem cells into two-week-old mice embryos, will lead to the creation of better animal models for human neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s.

Unilateral United States

The US delegation to the UN Climate Change Conference balked at signing a statement that would allow for future talks on the battle against climate change. In defiance, 150 other nations have put pen to paper to continue cutting greenhouse gas emissions even after the first phase of the Kyoto protocol expires in 2012.

After two years of debate, the EU has decided to enact a law requiring companies to register all chemicals they import or produce. In addition, firms will have to get permission to work with particularly dangerous chemicals. An earlier version of the law would have required that all dangerous substances be replaced with safe alternatives.

Augustine, a 4,205-foot Alaskan volcano, has been steaming for a week. Two hundred miles from Anchorage, this newly active volcano also spewed clouds of sulfur gas which have been stinking up the surrounding area.

Going, Going, Gone

A consortium of conservation groups known as the Alliance for Zero Extinction released a map of places throughout the world where animals or plants are facing imminent extinction. Nearly 800 species dot the map, and most are confined to a single site. Researchers claim that protecting some of these areas could cost less than $1,000 a year. (See article)

Officials suspect a storm off Cape Cod last weekend resulted in the deaths of nine pilot whales and 24 dolphins, all of which were marooned on land. Five of the whales and seven of the dolphins were found alive on shore, but were so badly injured that they had to be euthanized.

Norwegian killer whales have beaten out polar bears for the title of most toxic mammals in the Arctic, says the World Wildlife Foundation. Blubber samples taken in Norway found high levels of PCBs and pesticides in the whales.

From the Outer Reaches

Richard Branson, billionaire playboy in charge of the Virgin empire, wants to begin construction on a commercial spaceport in 2007. The land he’s chosen, in New Mexico, is wedged between mountains and an army missile range. By 2008, Virgin Galactic, the space-exploring arm of Virgin, hopes to host space flights for travelers who can afford the $200,000 seats.

During its successful launch in July, NASA engineers suspect there was a high concentration of oxygen gas in the rear of spaceship Discovery’s engine two minutes after take-off. The agency is now investigating the leak due to the serious risk that on future missions it could lead to a fire or an explosion.

Astronomers have found a star 137 light-years away that nearly the same age as our own sun during the period when the Earth formed. The 30 million-year-old star, spotted with the Spitzer telescope, could be the site of a new solar system not unlike ours.

Using the Hubble Telescope, astronomers were able to calculate the mass of Sirius B, the white dwarf star closest to Earth. While the star’s diameter is very similar to Earth’s, it has 98% of the mass of the Sun.

Rewriting History

A morphological analysis of 81 8,000-year-old skulls found in southeastern Brazil supports a controversial theory that two different populations of humans colonized the Americas. The measurements of the new group match those of modern day Australians, challenging researchers’ previous thinking that the sole group to colonize the New World hailed from northeast Asia.

Flint tools found on a cliff-side in eastern England indicate that humans have resided in the area for 700,000 years; 200,000 years earlier than scientists previously thought humans had migrated to northern Europe.

An article in Nature this week states that Wikipedia, the online, editable encyclopedia is nearly as accurate as the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica with regards to science topics. While Britannica typically has three errors or omissions per science entry, Wikipedia has four.

Face to Face

In the wake of the first partial face transplant, which took place last month in France, a team of British surgeons has been granted ethical approval to perform the first full face transplant. Five patients with severe burns to the face will be the first patients to undergo the surgery, which is expected to last 14 hours.

Researchers at Stanford used functional MRI technology to allow chronic pain patients to see their ailment’s affect on their brains as it was happening. The patients were then able to control the pain’s intensity using mental exercises. (See article)

It appears the risky drinking behavior typified by college students is also prevalent among all late-teens and young adults, according to a University of Michigan study which showed no correlation between college attendance and binge drinking.

And finally … A remote submarine owned by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute took a photo of a squid carrying its young in a sac about the same size as the squid itself. This was the first ever picture taken of the behavior and the second notable squid pic of the year. The first ever portrait of a giant squid in its natural habitat was revealed in late September.

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Originally published December 16, 2005


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