The Week in Science: 12/30-1/5

/ by Edit Staff /

A researcher from Hwang Woo-suk's lab tells all, NASA celebrates a second anniversary and Britain recognizes renewable energy efforts.

Cloning Conundrum

A researcher from the group of shamed South Korean cloning scientist Hwang Woo-suk told a South Korean television station that Hwang coerced her to donate her own eggs for his cloning efforts. She revealed that after undergoing the painful procedure to have the eggs removed, she had to experiment on her eggs later the same day. The junior said she regrets that she didn’t stand up to the lead scientist; she feared she wouldn’t get academic recognition for her involvement in the research.

A collaboration between the University of Wisconsin and a company called WiCell has created the first human stem cell cultures without using animal cells. Typically the process involves mouse embryos, which can supply the nutrients and growth factors needed to harvest the cells. However, the animal embryo method carries the risk of protein contamination, which is eliminated with this technique.

For the first time, scientists have grown a whole organ, artificially, from nothing. The organ in question? Replacement breasts. Not one, but two teams have successfully outfitted mice with a new pair of boobs after identifying the type of stem cell responsible for breast tissue. While this may seem like a joke, the technique may allow women who have undergone a mastectomy to regenerate their breasts.

On the last day of 2005, there was a big first for biotechnology. On the morning of December 31st, Avery Lee Kennedy, the first baby fertilized from a frozen donor egg taken from a commercial egg bank, was born at the University of Kentucky Medical Center. 

A research group in Spain warns that children conceived via a common in vitro fertilization method called ICSI (or intracytoplasmic sperm injection) may end up with chromosomes containing bacterial DNA. By contaminating mouse sperm with the bacteria E. coli, injecting the sperm into eggs, and then testing the resulting embryos, the scientists found that the bacteria had not been weeded out of the genome. A UK scientist commenting on the study said that this was unlikely to cause negative health effects.

Going Green

A wave buoy, a solar-paneled skyscraper, a wind farm and a biomass plant have made the UK’s list of best green energy schemes. All the projects, which began operation in 2005, are part of Britain’s goal of switching 10% of its energy to renewable sources by 2010.

Researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California are looking to the past to predict the future of climate change. The scientists point to a large change in ocean currents that occurred 55 million years ago, that took nearly 150,000 years to correct. By studying itsy bitsy fossils from the ocean floor at 14 different locations, the team believes that north Atlantic currents that warm northern Europe may be getting weaker, a disruption similar to the ancient current shift.

Spacing Out

On Tuesday, NASA celebrated the two-year anniversary of its first Mars rover, Spirit, touching down on the Red Planet. The second Mars rover, Opportunity, reached the fourth planet’s surface three weeks later. Both have completed the mission’s main objective: determining, using geological evidence, whether water ever flowed on Mars. Apparently, it once did.

An article published this week in Nature reports that astronomers have discovered a wealth of data on Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, after briefly viewing it while it eclipsed the light of a star. At around 1,200 km (750 m) in diameter, the moon is half the size of Pluto; researchers determined that Charon likely doesn’t have an atmosphere, but if it does, it’s about one-sixth of a millionth as dense as the Earth’s.
NASA officials announced that they have observed an explosion on the Moon’s surface caused by a meteor crash. They estimate that the impact, which occurred on the periphery of the Sea of Rains, was equivalent to detonating 70 kg of TNT. Studying the crash could aid NASA officials in designing systems for its return to the Moon.

You have until February 13th to turn a far-out idea into a NASA project. The US space agency’s Institute for Advanced Concepts is probing space scientists for ideas—like bouncing robots for extraterrestrial exploration and genetically-engineered plants to be grown on other planets—to join previous entries like the space elevator, which the institute has funded.

Hovering around a star in the Ophiuchus constellation are all the ingredients necessary to make planets, according to CalTech astronomers. Using the Spitzer Space Telescope and Hawaii’s W.M. Keck Telescope, researchers have found acetylene and hydrogen cyanide gasses in a disk of debris and dust centered about the star IRS-46.

Don’t Tease the Fish

Five deep sea fish in the North Atlantic have joined the ranks of the “critically endangered,” including both hake and eel species. A new study out of Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada points to bottom-trawling fishing ships, which drag nets along the ocean floor, as the culprits that put these marine animals at risk. Some of the species’ populations have dropped by 98% in just one generation. Scientists are calling for a global moratorium on deep sea fishing to give these species a fighting chance at remaining on the planet.

The department of conservation in New Zealand had the unfortunate task of declaring that dozens of pilot whales be put to death last weekend. The whales, which beached on the coast near the northwestern tip of New Zealand’s South Island, were suffering, and an effort to have them refloated out to sea was deemed too difficult and unlikely to work.

Rewriting History

A skull believed to be that of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart will be authenticated this weekend when a team of experts reveals the results of a DNA analysis. The announcement coincides with Mozart’s 250th birthday celebration (he died in 1791 at the age of 35). The skull had been buried in a plot in Vienna, Austria. When the grave was reused, the skull became the property of the gravedigger. For the last century, the skull has been in the possession of the International Mozarteum Foundation in Salzburg.

It is widely believed that, after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem’s Jewish Temple in 70 CE, there was a mass exodus of Jews. However, a new dig located about one-and-half kilometers north of the holy city has turned up evidence that a community of Jews were living near Jerusalem after the temple crumbled. Stone vessels, used in purity rituals, were found in the community and were dated to a period between 70 and 132 CE.

Clinical geneticists at the Institute of Child Health in London have discovered that males who begin smoking before undergoing puberty have male children who are significantly fatter when entering their teens. The study of 5,000 fathers with a smoking history shows that a person’s lifestyle during childhood can make slight alterations to their DNA, which are then passed down to male offspring.

And finally, John Ball, a University of Oxford mathematician and the president of the International Mathematical Union celebrated the new year by being knighted. Ball is well known for his work on elastic theory, as well as for encouraging support for mathematics in underdeveloped nations through his work with the mathematical union.

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Originally published January 6, 2006

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