China builds an enormous dam, electric fish may be dividing into two species and sperm quality declines with age.

Scientists Will Try To Clone Humans

Scientists from Harvard and the University of California, San Francisco have boldly gone where the federal government fears to tread—they plan to create cloned human embryos as part of continuing stem cell research. By creating stem cells that are genetically identical to a patient, scientists hope to develop therapies for diseases such sickle-cell anemia, diabetes and Lou Gehrig’s disease. The human cloning research is privately funded, as the federal financing ban prevents government funding for the work.

It is possible to fix human genetic disorders through cloning, argues Professor Ian Wilmut of the Roslin Institute in his new book, After Dolly. Wilmut, one of the scientists involved in creating the cloned sheep for which the book is titled, explains how an embryo afflicted with a genetic disorder could have its stem cells removed and modified in order to fix the defect. The cells would then be cloned, and from them a doctor would create a new embryo, free of genetic disease, which would be implanted in the mother.

Two cloned mules failed to take first place in the 20th annual Winnemucca Mule Races, Show & Draft on Sunday June 4th. The two mules, Idaho Gem and Idaho Star, came in 3rd and 7th place, respectively, proving that cloned animals can be fierce competitors. Idaho Gem was the first mule clone and, therefore, the first mule descended from any other, as mules are sterile animals. (Read more about this story here.)


Life Survived Adverse Conditions, Life Succumbed to Adverse Conditions

Minute droplets of oil from 2.4 billion years ago are providing evidence that life on Earth survived a period when the planet was covered with more than a half-mile of snow; an era affectionately deemed “Snowball Earth.” The oil, retrieved from ancient rock crystals, contains molecular fossils that scientists can identify as having come from specific life forms. A paper published in the June edition of Geology concludes that eukaryotes and cyanobacteria were alive before “Snowball Earth” and survived the hostile period.

The same meteor that created a 300 mile-wide crater in Antarctica may have also caused a massive extinction 250 million years ago, Ohio State University geologist Ralph von Frese announced on Wednesday. Satellite data shows that the crater, which lies more than a mile beneath a sheet of ice, dates back to the same period as the Permian-Triassic extinction, when nearly all of Earth’s animal life died out. Scientists had believed that a series of volcanic eruptions caused the extinction that cleared the stage for the dinosaurs to inherit the Earth.

A tooth extracted from a Neanderthal child found in Belgium has provided the oldest human-type DNA ever found. The DNA is around 100,000 years old, and it shows evidence of a more genetically diverse Neanderthal population than scientists had previously suspected. Researchers had expected to find the more limited genetic variance present in humans around 35,000 years ago, and scientists now postulate that disease or climate change may have wiped out some of the earlier diversity.

Cornell scientists believe they have found evidence of evolution in action in the form of African electric fish called mormyrids. The fish all look the same and have the same DNA sequences, but two groups are distinguished by having different electric “fingerprints,” characteristic electric impulses they use to sense surroundings and communicate with other fish. Each fish will only mate with others that have its own fingerprint. As all of the fish are genetically identical, they cannot be classified into two species, but the researchers said they believe the electric fingerprint may be the first step in speciation. (Read more about this story here.)


Energy Supplements

Britain and Sweden are the only two members of the Kyoto pact who are on target to reach their CO2 emissions goals by 2012, says a new UN report. To reach the target greenhouse gas emission level—a 5% reduction from the 1990 level—other countries will have to create more rigorous policies, the report says. The United States still rejects the Kyoto pact, instead relying on voluntary cutbacks by industry, coupled with government-funded research to curb global warming. US emissions of greenhouse gases rose 16% between 1990 and 2004, according to the latest EPA assessment.

China has green-lighted a project to construct a new dam capable of generating 12,000 megawatts of hydroelectric power. The dam will be built on the Jinsha River, the main headwater stream of the Yangtze, and will be the third largest in China, behind the Three Gorges station, which generates 18,200 megawatts, and the Xiluodo hydropower station, which has a 12,600 megawatt capacity.


The Sky Is Falling

A new test can tell if a bird may be infected with avian flu in just four hours, said Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns on Tuesday, although it requires a follow-up confirmation test that takes about a week for a diagnosis. The next most efficient test takes a day to produce results. The test can find H5N1 in humans just as quickly as it can in birds, said Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, but four hours is too long to wait for results if avian flu becomes highly contagious between humans.

The NASA Glenn Research Center will be taking on major role in the project to replace the aging space shuttle by building the vehicles that will take astronauts to the moon and, eventually, to Mars. NASA Glenn will be responsible for designing the power and propulsion systems for the new module. A recent reshuffling of NASA’s budget had cut aeronautics research, NASA Glenn’s specialty, but the new project will bring in fresh funds as well as direction for the center, said NASA Glenn director Woodrow Whitlow, Jr.

At a news briefing on Monday, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said he would welcome future cooperation on space missions between the United States and Russia, especially if Russia were interested in pursuing planetary exploration. Griffin further emphasized the heavily international nature of NASA projects, most notably the International Space Station. Griffin’s remarks came in response to a reporter’s assertion that Russian space officials have said they regret that NASA has not coordinated on exploration more frequently.


Doctors Transplant Beating Heart

A new system for heart-transplant storage keeps the donated heart beating and pumping blood during transportation, instead of packing it in ice before the transplant operation. A 58-year-old British man received the first heart to be stored with this technique two weeks ago at Papworth Hospital in Cambridge. The operation appears to be a success, as the man is said to be having an excellent recovery.

Men who complete high school are less likely to smoke than those who drop out, according to a study forthcoming in the July issue of the Journal of Labor Economics. Of the subjects in the study, 47% of male high school dropouts were current smokers, whereas only about 21% of male high school graduates smoked. The authors, Cornell University researchers, also analyzed the relationship between obesity and education level but found little correlation.

A National Institute of Health study released last week calculated that AIDS drugs in the United States alone have saved 2.8 million years of life. Drugs that prevent transmission of HIV from a mother to her child have saved some 2,900 infants from the disease, while those with the disease who entered therapy in 2003 are expected to live 13 years longer than if they’d begun treatment in 1989. The NIH has spent $30 billion on AIDS research since the early 1980s.

Sperm quality declines as men age, according to a study published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. While women’s fertility drops off abruptly, however, male sperm quality gradually deteriorates. When sperm quality declines, the researchers said, men have trouble fathering children and offspring are at increased risk for dwarfism.

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Originally published June 9, 2006

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