NASA plans for a lunar base, grouper and eels hunt together, and therapeutic cloning becomes legal in Australia.

All Your Lunar Base Are Belong to Us

NASA announced plans to build a lunar base to act as a staging outpost for manned missions to Mars. Constructing the base will be a long-term project consisting of multiple phases. Initially, a team of robots will survey the moon for natural resources and optimal landing spots, with human crews expected to launch in 2012. Once crews have established permanent housing, the program envisions lunar missions lasting up to 180 days. “With such an outpost, NASA can learn to use the moon’s natural resources to live off the land, make preparations for a journey to Mars, conduct a wide range of scientific investigations and encourage international participation,” NASA said. The project, a joint effort between 14 of the world’s space agencies, will put humans on the moon for the first time since 1972.

Water has flowed on Mars within the past seven years, and may be doing so now, according to photographs of Martian craters that NASA revealed last Thursday. Scientists have long known water ice and water vapor to exist on the Red Planet, but liquid water is more exciting because it’s assumed to be needed for life. The photographs show finger-like branches of sediment in two craters, the shape of which suggests flowing water carried the dirt downhill.

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A new study demonstrates that different species of fish can actively cooperate in the pursuit of prey. In an article published in PLoS Biology, scientists describe an example of coordinated hunting between groupers and giant moray eels. Moray eels can fit into crevices in coral reefs, whereas groupers hunt in open water around reefs. Prey pursued by groupers alone can escape by swimming into the crevices in coral reefs, but when groupers and eels hunt in tandem, there’s nowhere for their prey to hide. Investigators showed that groupers and eels actually seek out each other’s assistance and recruit each other for coordinated hunting through particular body movements. Recruitment is actually fairly common in the animal kingdom, but is rarely associated with animals, like fish, that rank low on the evolutionary ladder.

The Cocopah Indian Tribe and the National Wildlife Federation have partnered to co-host the first-ever Tribal Lands Climate Conference, a gathering of political leaders, climate scientists, NGOs, and more than 50 Native American tribes seeking to mitigate global warming. With generations of knowledge about natural cycles and the natural world, Native Americans have unique insight into the effects of global warming. “Native Americans can provide key inspiration regarding global warming and its impact on our world, unite broad stakeholder support, and demonstrate actions that alleviate global warming impacts,” Garrit Voggesser, manager of the National Wildlife Federation’s Tribal Lands Conservation Program, said in a press release.

Rice, Rice, Baby

China, the world’s top rice producer and consumer, has delayed commercial cultivation of genetically modified rice as it waits for more conclusive food safety tests. Bt rice, the best candidate for commercial production, contains a bacterial gene toxic to pests.  While Bt corn and cotton have been planted for years in many countries, rice requires special caution because it is consumed directly by humans (whereas corn is often used for animal feed or in other processed products). Food testing specialists predict it will take another one to two years before genetically modified strains reach the market in China.

Pollution has been identified as another factor in India’s stagnating rice harvest, joining soil exhaustion, deteriorating irrigation infrastructure, and declining market prices. In a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, researchers say that India’s rice harvest would have increased 14 percent between 1985 and 1998 had smog and greenhouse gas emissions not stymied crop yield. Soot from fires, factories, and automobile exhaust coalesces over much of India, forming one of the world’s largest clouds of pollution. That blanket of pollution both diminishes rainfall and prevents nighttime heat radiation, creating growing conditions that are too dry and too warm for optimal rice cultivation.

Bodies of Knowledge

Some smelly new research was released last week proposing that the human nose recognizes odor molecules not by their size, but by their vibrations. Our noses contain a variety of molecular receptors, each of which recognizes a particular kind of molecule; the activation of different receptors codes for different smells. Authors of the new study created a computer model that shows that when an odor molecule binds to a receptor, it vibrates its atoms at a specific frequency and sends a signal to the brain. Now that the theory has been played out on a computer, scientists say the next step is to verify the complicated mechanism experimentally.

Therapeutic cloning is now legal in Australia, thanks to a law passed by its lower house of parliament. The new law will allow scientists to clone embryonic stem cells for research. The measure, which was supported by 80 percent of the Australian public, overturns a ban imposed in 2002 that only allowed research on embryos left over from in vitro fertilization procedures. The new law still doesn’t allow importing or exporting cloned embryos or the placement of cloned embryos into a human body.

Building Blocks

One of the Seven Wonders of the World has just become a little more wondrous. New research shows that the pyramids of Giza were constructed with not only carved stones, but also the first blocks of limestone-based concrete cast by any civilization. Until now, scientists had assumed that the 2,000-pound limestone blocks used to make the pyramids were actually made miles away from the construction site, cut to shape in nearby quarries, transported to the pyramid sites, hauled up ramps, and then hoisted in place with wedges and levers. The new study—which chemically analyzed the block material and more than 1,000 micrographs over three years—argues that although the majority of the stones were carved and hoisted into place, crucial parts were not. The study’s authors say the ancient builders cast the blocks of the outer and inner casings, and likely the upper parts of the pyramids, using a limestone concrete, called a geopolymer.

Millions of gallons of water from the Colorado River currently seep from California into Mexico through an 82-mile all-American canal. Last week, the Bush Administration came out in support of a lawsuit that would line part of that canal with concrete to prevent this seepage. Supporters of the project say lining the canal could save enough water for 135,000 new homes in the San Diego area. Opponents, including Mexican business interests and U.S. environmental groups, say it would lead not only to significant financial losses for Mexican farmers, but to the pollution of wells and habitat depletion for migratory birds.

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Originally published December 12, 2006


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