NASA plans a risky launch, national science academies call for the teaching of evolution, and Norway houses a doomsday vault full of seeds.

Earth-Shattering, Groundbreaking News

The San Andreas Fault is primed for a major earthquake, reveals new research published in the June 22 issue of the journal Nature. Fault areas typically allow for some gradual “slippage,” or relative movement of the two plates forming the fault. However, the San Andreas Fault has been locked in place without slippage for the past 300 years, and it has accumulated about seven meters of slip “deficit.” If this tension is released in one event, the researchers report, it could cause a quake as severe as the one that devastated San Francisco in 1906.

Work began last week on a “doomsday vault” that will store samples of millions of important plant seeds from around the world. The vault site is about 1,000 miles from the North Pole, deep inside a permafrost-covered Norwegian mountain. While other gene banks around the world could be destroyed by natural or manmade disasters, the new vault will withstand most threats. The vault is scheduled to open in September of 2007.

The United States is not prepared to deal with another major disaster, be it terrorism or a hurricane, concluded a report published last Friday by the Department of Homeland Security. The report cited evacuation planning and command structure as two areas in need of significant improvements. New Orleans is still vulnerable to hurricanes, the report stated, as the levees are unequipped to survive another Category Five storm.

Avian flu has broken out in the poultry farms of the northern Chinese province of Shanxi, China’s Ministry of Agriculture announced last week. The area has been quarantined, allowing veterinarians to begin disinfection and culling. In China’s the southern region of Guandong, Chinese officials recently reported the country’s nineteenth case of human-contracted bird flu.

Advances with Embryos and Stem Cells

Scientists have successfully transferred pancreatic tissue from pig embryos to lab mice with non-functional pancreases. Past research has shown that embryonic pig cells can only be transferred to another animal during a specific window of time in the development of the embryo: Cells transferred before the window opens are non-functional and possibly cancerous, while those taken too late are rejected as foreign. The success indicates that transplanted embryonic pig tissue could allow diabetic humans to produce insulin and regulate their own blood sugar.

A recent advance in embryo screening could make the technology available to a wider audience. The new procedure, called pre-implantation genetic haplotyping, locates chromosomal markers of possible disorders instead of pinpointing individual mutations linked to defects. This strategy allows for greater accuracy, shorter turnaround time and a longer list of detectable disorders. 

Research out of Oklahoma City has revealed that adult stem cells in bone marrow, previously thought to be relatively inert, actually play an active role in the functioning of the body’s immune system. These marrow stem cells possess receptors capable of identifying bacteria and viruses. Upon detecting a hostile invader, the stem cells mobilize the immune system to fight off the infection. The discovery could help scientists gain a greater understanding of how immunosuppressive treatments affect the body.

Scientists Rally for Science

Sixty-seven national science academies from around the world have signed a statement saying that evidence for evolution is being “concealed, denied, or confused” in some classrooms. The statement lists scientific facts that are key to understanding the origin and development of life on Earth, such as dating the formation of the planet to 4.5 billion years ago. The academies encourage educators to teach children about the methods and discoveries of science and to omit hypotheses that cannot be tested or fail when tested. The statement follows recent debate on whether intelligent design may be taught in public schools.

The Fish and Wildlife Service should list polar bears as an endangered species, declared a June 15 letter from a University of Chicago climate scientist and 30 of her colleagues. The scientists expressed fear that global warming is leading directly to the destruction of the sea-ice habitat in which polar bears thrive. The Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to initiate a review of the situation.

It is a myth that environmental protection hinders economic growth, said Adam Steiner, the new head of the U.N. Environment Program, on June 16. Traditional economic measures do not account for the monetary value of natural services such as the coastline protection of coral reefs, and that paradigm must shift, he said. The Kyoto Protocol’s carbon dioxide emissions market, where firms can buy or trade for the right to emit, is a step in the right direction, Steiner said.

New Visions of Space

NASA’s space shuttle Discovery has been officially scheduled for launch on July 1, despite continued fears that the shuttle may be damaged during launch. NASA administrator Michael Griffin said that while such damage could hinder the success of the program, it would not harm the crew. A worst-case scenario would involve an unfixable break in the shuttle during lift-off, which would result in the astronauts returning home using an alternative craft.

Thanks to a new NSF grant and a Bureau of Land Management permit, the most powerful cosmic ray detector in the northern hemisphere may be fully operational in a year’s time. The detector, known as the Telescope Array, is designed to reveal the origin of cosmic rays, those ultra-high-energy atomic nuclei that bombard the Earth. Four hundred miles of Utah desert have been devoted to the project, which will begin testing in late spring of 2007.

Wars Waged Over Energy

Top scientists are urging world leaders to take action regarding global warming at next month’s G8 summit in Russia. The scientists said global warming could be pushed off the agenda due to energy supply worries. At last year’s summit in Scotland, the G8 committed to take action on climate change, but environmentalists said that oil prices have dominated pre-summit discussions, and the countries have made follow-up on global warming a low priority.

A major government effort, similar to the Manhattan project or NASA’s moon mission, is needed to avert the looming energy crisis, said scientists at a high-level energy conference in Los Angeles last week. The last shift in the United States’ primary energy source, from wood to coal in the 1800s, took about 50 years, and scientists said a shift today to more sustainable sources would take just as long. Some of the scientists present at the conference said that oil prices might increase so much that the United States will not be able to afford 50 more years of oil consumption.

Oil companies such as Chevron and BP have developed a new class of ship to get at oil deposits more than 1,000 feet below the surface of the ocean. At such depths temperatures water pressure approaches 20,000 pounds per square inch. When drilling, these ships suck up enough power to light 40,000 homes.

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Originally published June 25, 2006

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