An eclipse blocks out the sun, Britain gets a new set of emissions targets and a Texas biotech company has big ambitions for horse cloning.

Total Eclipse of the Heart

Skywatchers in a narrow band of Africa, Europe and West Asia were treated to a total solar eclipse this Wednesday. The path of the total eclipse swept across the Western Hemisphere in just three hours. Jay Pasachoff, a professor of astronomy at Williams College who watched the eclipse in the Greek Isles, told the BBC that the event “was more fabulous even than we expected.” (Read Seed‘s coverage of the eclipse here

After axing a mission to two of the solar system’s largest asteroids a few weeks ago, NASA resurrected the project and is planning for its launch in 2007. The Dawn project was initially cancelled because of a combination of budget concerns and technical problems with the probe, which is designed to explore the composition of asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. After the lab responsible for the mission appealed the cancellation, NASA took a second look and decided they had invested too much money—$257 million thus far—to scrap the launch.

The first commercial rocket ever to attempt lift-off was grounded due to a fuel leak that caused an onboard fire 25 seconds into the launch. Executives at the company SpaceX had originally planned to launch the rocket in November, but technological problems forced an initial delay. The private space venture hopes to try again within the next six months.

Emission Remission

A British government report found that the country was unlikely to meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2010. The emissions target, which was set in 1990, is far more ambitious than the reduction mandated by the Kyoto Protocol, and the government still expects to have reduced its levels by 15 to 18%. The review also recommended that individual citizens do more to reduce their own contributions to global warming. (Read more about this here)

A new hybrid-electric car was put on the market in England, despite worries that consumer ignorance would stall the launch. In a survey conducted by Honda, the manufacturer of the new automobile, 40% of Brits were unaware that a hybrid car had a combined internal combustion and battery-powered engine—some even thought it referred to two cars welded together. Hybrid cars are slowly catching on in Europe—of the 130,000 hybrids Honda has sold worldwide, only 2,000 were sold in all European countries combined.

Americans fret almost as much about the country’s dependence on foreign oil as they do about the war in Iraq, according to a poll in the magazine Foreign Affairs. Nearly half of the 1,000 people surveyed in the poll believe that lawmakers are trying to free the country from foreign oil and almost 90% believe the dependence is a threat to national security. The nonpartisan group Public Agenda, which conducted the poll, announced that Americans are at a “tipping point” regarding our energy sources. 

Stumping for Biodiversity

At a UN conference on biodiversity, Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva chastised the world’s wealthier countries for not spending more to preserve the planet’s variety of species. He pointed to the fact that the most diverse ecosystems are often located in developing countries, where fewer resources are available to slow the rate of species decline.

At the same conference, the tiny island nation of Palau announced it would set aside wide swaths of the South Pacific and land area in Micronesia in order to protect the region’s marine wildlife. In a separate announcement, Kiribati said it planned to create one of the world’s largest marine parks around the coral reefs of the Phoenix Islands. Biodiversity in the region is under threat from deforestation, overfishing and the destruction of coral reefs—30% of which are severely damaged.

One-third of the coral located in the Caribbean may have died off due to diseases that thrive in its warming waters, say researchers from a number of agencies. This event is touted as one of the regions largest die-offs of coral, which not only serve as tourist attractions, but also are the breeding grounds of fish and serve as buffers to hurricanes and tsunamis. Scientists worry that much of the coral is unrecoverable, since it grows less than the width of a dime each year, according to an AP report.

Slow-Brewing Genius

Neurologists were surprised to learn that the brains of children with above-average intelligence actually developed slower in some manner than their less gifted peers. The researchers found that the cortex—the brain’s outer region, responsible for higher-level thought—took longer to thicken in children with high IQs. The researchers are still unsure how later development makes for brighter kids, but they speculate that the cortex may benefit from a later development coinciding with children having more complex experiences.

A study by Yale geologists found that left-oriented snails are better fighters than “right-handed” snails, as determined by the curl direction of their shells. The left-handed advantage against predators like crabs indicates that a right-handed crab might have difficulty when attacking a leftie snail, just as right-handed baseball pitchers are at a disadvantage when facing left-handed batters.

It Starts With Greenland

This week Science published a series of studies on global warming’s effects on the Arctic region. One study, based on data from a similar period of warming over 100,000 years ago, proposed that the ice sheet in Greenland could melt enough to allow a 3 to 4 meter increase in sea level by 2100. According to another paper in the journal, incidents of earthquakes in Greenland—caused by moving glaciers that can be as large as skyscrapers—have more than doubled since 2002. Also mentioned in the current issue is the possibility that the ice sheet in West Antarctica could be completely wiped out over the next 500 years.

Meteorologists are predicting that the East Coast could be hit with a devastating hurricane this season, similar to the fierce storms that hit the area regularly between the 1930s and 1950s. Warmer Atlantic temperatures and cooler Pacific temperatures are among the signs pointed out by hurricane specialists, who say that severe storm activity tends to have a 50-year cycle.

Copying Mr. Ed

ViaGen, Inc., a biotech company based in Austin, TX, announced the birth of two cloned horses. The company offers clones of horses (at a cost of 150,000 each) to owners who use them primarily for herding cattle. Eventually, it hopes to produce up to 100 horses per year. Italian researchers created the first cloned horse in 2003.

An organization at the University of Wisconsin has placed such an extensive patent on the cultivation of stem cells that other scientists are losing out, said a researcher and a patent lawyer in an article published in Science this week. The patent covers not merely the stem cells, but also the technique used to grow them, meaning that it inhibits most stem cell research around the country. The organization, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, charges $500 to universities and up to $125,000 to private organizations for the use of its patented technology.

The Kansas House of Representatives voted 63 to 52 to kill a proposed ban on human-animal hybrids on Friday. The bill proposed to make it a felony to attempt to create a hybrid embryo or to combine human brain tissue with an animal life form. Legislators argued that more evidence was needed to ensure that the progress of cutting-edge research in the state would not be hindered by the bill’s passage, which was shot down within a half-hour.

It’s Seeping Sulfur

One of China’s largest natural gas wells began leaking following an explosion last week that forced the evacuation of over 10,000 people. The 2,000-foot (approximately 610-meter) deep well is located in Chongqing in the southwestern part of the country, and the gas inside is highly pressurized and contains a high percentage of sulfur. Unsafe levels of hydrogen sulfide were detected over a mile away from the well and can cause difficulty breathing and burning of the skin.

Finally, a dependence on fossil fuels and slow movement towards curbing greenhouse gases could severely damage the economies of countries in the Asia-Pacific regions, says a new report by the World Bank. Climate change manifesting in severe droughts, rising sea levels and stronger storms could result in the loss of many lives and livelihoods in the area, which by virtue of having most of its economic activity near the sea, is extremely susceptible to shifting weather, the report says. While many of the regions countries do not emit many greenhouse gases, rapidly-industrializing China is now second to the US worldwide in harmful emissions.

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Originally published March 31, 2006


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