Hwang is out, Shell Oil is in trouble and 2005 gets an extra second.

Hwanging It Up

Investigators at Seoul National University say that beleaguered Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk did not create any   of the individualized stem cell lines he reported in an article in Science last May. Hwang,  a national hero in South Korea just weeks ago, continues to insist that he has developed technology that would support the article’s findings. As a result of the pall hanging over his research (which cost South Korea nearly $40 million), Hwang has resigned his post and has been stripped of the official designation “top scientist.”

In other cloning news, Ian Wilmut, the Scottish scientist responsible for the cloning of Dolly the sheep, suggested that patients with terminal illnesses should have the option to take part in experimental stem-cell treatments. Wilmut says the possible benefits of using such treatments before they are fully tested may outweigh the risks to people who will otherwise die.

Warming Warnings

Last month a court ordered Shell Oil to stop the practice of gas flaring in Nigeria, a burn-off exercise which accounts for much of Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions. Shell has yet to comply with the order, electing to appeal it. Activists are petitioning to have the company placed in contempt of court.

Researchers from Purdue University released what may be the most detailed projection of climate change to date. Focusing on the southwestern United States, they predict that the number days in the 41°C to 44°C (105°F to 112°F) range could jump 560% and that heat waves could last as long as 15 days, if humanity’s impact on global warming continues .

The hot days will have an impact up north, too. Researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research modeled the impact of climate change on permafrost; according to their findings, warming temperatures could thaw up to 11 feet of the top layer. The change could be visible in most of the Northern Hemisphere by 2100, altering ecosystems across Alaska, Canada and Russia.

Hide and Seek

On Wednesday the EU and the European Space Agency launched a British-built satellite called Galileo on a Russian Soyuz rocket, taking an important step in producing an alternative to the Global Positioning System (GPS) which is run by the United States military. The project was gained momentum last year after President Bush said that GPS might be taken offline in the event of a terrorist attack. Galileo promises a civilian-run service that may be commercially available by 2010. Its umbrella of 30 satellites will allow greater accuracy than current GPS technology offers the public.

Researchers based in Australia discovered that the parasite Plasmodium falciparum—responsible for a form of malaria that claims one million lives each year— evades the body’s immune defenses by turning on a cloaking gene. In all, the parasite has a dozen or so different appearances. This new understanding could lead to therapies that disrupt the disease’s effectiveness.

A Promising Start

The New Year will be delayed one second. There will be one “leap second” added to 2005 in order to keep clocks in sync with the solar time used by astronomers. There have been seven such seconds added since 1972.

Astronomers using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope have discovered a newborn star cluster. It’s less than 100,000 years old, and is geometrically arranged as predicted by the theories of gravity, temperature and density. The cluster offers a glimpse of how our own solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago.

Beach Readings

Researchers compared two villages in Sri Lanka that were hit by last year’s tsunami, studying the coastal ecology. In a village with a dense mangrove forest along the coast, two people died from the force of the floods; approximately 6,000 people died in the village without the vegetation. Previous research has shown that mangroves absorb 70% to 90% of a normal wave’s energy.

The coast of Maine has 70 known methane fields on its ocean bottom. Because the gas is trapped in mud, it is not of commercial value. University of Maine scientists believe the methane occasionally bubbles to the surface, like a pot of soup, and that periodic releases leave substantial craters on the ocean floor.

Scientists are speculating that ocean storms forced thousands of rare seabirds to come to ashore in northern California. Red phalaropes normally only come to land to breed in the Arctic, spending most of the year miles off the coast.  This year, however, birders reported inland sightings of the birds during their annual Christmas Bird Count. The largest report was a flock of 1,200, observed near Half Moon Bay.

Another animal on the move is the Harlequin ladybug, which has relocated from continental Europe to Britain. The invader is threatening three native species of ladybug to such an extent that bug enthusiasts are calling for government support.

And, finally…Rwanda commemorated the 20th anniversary of gorilla researcher Diane Fossey’s murder. Fossey, who was the subject of the film Gorillas in the Mist worked to raise worldwide awareness of the plight of mountain gorillas. Her killer was never caught.

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Originally published December 30, 2005


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