Chimps may be closer cousins than we thought, a NASA official leaves to find E.T., and the US fares poorly in a study of environmental responsibility.

Of Chimps and Men
Chimpanzees are genetically closer to humans than to great apes, according to a new study from the Georgia Institute of Technology. The study showed that humans and chimps are evolving at a similar rate; the genetic codes of the two species only differ by 3%. This finding supports a controversial proposal to reclassify the chimpanzee from the genus Pan to our genus, Homo.

People have higher foreheads, but less-prominent features than our counterparts from 650 years ago, according to a paper in the British Dental Journal. A team examined skulls from the mid-14th century and the mid-16th century, as well as current orthodontic records. The evidence suggests that an increase in cranial vault height may be due to an increase in intelligence.

The orangutan population has declined dramatically in the past 200 years, and researchers have linked the collapse to human deforestation. A paper in PLoS Biology examined the genetic profiles of 200 orangutans, inferring from the level of diversity that the population had dropped sharply in the past 200 years. The period of population decline correlates with colonial exploitation of the orangutans’ habitat.

Scientists have found the smallest fish on record, measuring only 7.9 millimeters in length. Unfortunately for this newly-discovered species of the Paedocypris genus, humans are rapidly destroying Indonesian peat swamps, its natural habitat. Scientists say the fish’s long term prospects are poor and that other tiny fish may have already become extinct due to swamp drainage and forest destruction.

According to a new study, ears probably first developed as respiratory organs. Swedish scientists who examined a 370-million-year-old fossil fish say that the ear developed in incremental steps. The researchers posit that the ear began as an expansion in a blowhole-like cavity, which soon began to resemble the ears of land animals.


Jumping Ship to Phone Home
G. Scott Hubbard, leader of the NASA Ames Research Center, is leaving his post to join Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) as the Carl Sagan Chair for the Study of Life in the Universe. Hubbard said the new position would allow him “to return to the research arena and pursue a lifelong interest in the search for life in the universe and its origins on Earth.”

Astronomers have found the smallest-known extra-solar planet that orbits a normal star. The planet, which orbits a red dwarf star approximately 28,000 light years away, is about 5.5 times the mass of Earth and appears to be rocky. The researchers who made the discovery say it suggests that rocky, somewhat Earth-like planets may be common.

NASA has delayed its mission to explore two of the solar system’s largest asteroids, the agency announced. NASA chalked the decision up to cost overruns and technical issues with its spacecraft, Dawn. This mission is part of the greater Discovery program, which aims to explore the solar system on a very small budget: Dawn was supposed to cost $371 million. The program has already requested an extra $40 million.

After six years of studying Earth’s magnetic field, NASA satellite Image ceased operation. Image successfully completed its primary mission after two years, continuing to make observations until its power supply failed one month ago. Image beamed back dozens of visuals during its tenure, one of which was the first global view of a double aurora.

On Tuesday, Japan launched an H-2A rocket carrying a four ton observation satellite. The satellite will make weather observations of the Asia-Pacific region and gather terrain data for maps. If this satellite is successful, Japan plans on launching two more satellites by March, 2007. The new satellites would be used to spy on North Korea and other dangerous areas.


Dirty Americans
The United States ranks 28th in the world at tackling domestic and global environmental problems, according to scientists and researchers at Yale and Columbia. While the US had the best-ranked water quality, it scored low on energy use. New Zealand earned the top spot, the United Kingdom was fifth, and Niger was last on the list, ranking 133rd.

2005 was the warmest year on record, announced federal analysts. It was slightly warmer than previous record-setter 1998, whose average temperatures were affected by El Niño’s warm currents. NASA scientist James Hansen said the Earth has warmed up a bit more than 1° C in the past 30 years, largely due to the buildup of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

The United Nations has advised countries to protect coral reefs and mangroves for the sake of their economies. The report issued by the UN said coral reefs and mangroves can contribute as much as $1 million per square kilometer to a country’s annual economy by improving fishing, tourism and coastal protection.

Japanese researchers have discovered ice that may be one million years old, the oldest sample of it ever found. The sample will be dated more precisely when it returns to Japan for analysis in the spring, but the researchers say they are confident of their estimate. The researchers will be able to study the effects of climate change by analyzing the air trapped in bubbles inside the ice.

Researchers hope to count the American white pelican population in North America for the first time in nearly 25 years. As of now, the count is only a proposal, but scientists from the US Fish and Wildlife Services believe it is the only way to effectively manage the species.


Human Guinea Pigs
For the first time ever, the Environmental Protection Agency will allow pesticide tests on humans. The EPA is currently establishing criteria for tests by pesticide makers and has said that, in accordance with President Bush’s requirements, intentional pesticide dosing studies of children and pregnant women will not be allowed. Some members of Congress, however, say the requirements are too lenient.

California has the country’s worst soot pollution rate, according to a new study by the action program Environmental California. The group blames power plants and California’s large number of diesel trucks, cars and ships for the air pollution.

Over 100 riverside chemical plants pose safety threats to the people of China, warned Zhou Shengxian, the country’s environment chief. After a November chemical spill poisoned the water supply of millions of citizens, the Chinese government began a survey of the 21,000 chemical factories along China’s rivers and coastline. Zhou said the factories deemed unsafe will be further investigated.


The Mysteries of HIV Uncovered
An international team of scientists revealed the three-dimensional structure of HIV, showing that it varies in diameter more than other viruses, and that its size is not defined by its internal features but by its membrane. By understanding the structure, the scientists said, we can better understand how HIV assembles—and, possibly, how to prevent it from doing so.

Six foreign medics infected 400 Libyan children with HIV by, and the kids’ families are now asking donors for $5.3 billion in damages. Donors from Bulgaria, the Libyan Gaddafi Charity Foundation and allies in the EU and US have formed a fund to aid the children, and to stop the dispute against the medics. The five Bulgarian nurses and the Palestinian doctor responsible for the infection were condemned to death, but Libya’s supreme court overturned the sentence. A retrial is still possible.

Malaria parasites can develop in the immune system’s lymph nodes, says a study published online in Nature Medicine. Scientists formerly thought that the parasites could only grow in the liver; however, when researchers from the Pasteur Institute injected fluorescently-tagged parasites into mosquitoes and let them bite a mouse, 25% of the parasites ended up in the mouse’s lymphatic vessels.


ID is for Kids
Nickelodeon has aired a program about the intelligent design disputes on it’s show “Nick News,” hosted by Linda Ellerbee. Ellerbee said the program does not debate the issues of evolution versus intelligent design; it instead informs children about the controversy surrounding whether intelligent design should be taught in the classroom.

British engineers plan on creating a laser that will recreate the conditions at the core of a thermonuclear explosion. The last chance to raise objections to building Orion, the £100 million ($175 million) laser, passed this week. Scientists at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Britain hope that Orion will be a safe way to keep young scientists interested in researching nuclear physics.

Finally, six Seoul National University professors will be punished alongside Hwang Woo-suk, said representatives of university. The head of the school has stripped Hwang of the title “chair professor,” and the university will issue a final punishment for Hwang within the next few months. For the time being, Hwang is still a professor. The South Korean government also is launching an investigation into abuses that might have occurred during Hwang’s clinical trials.

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Originally published January 27, 2006

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