Santorum is out, blind mice have their sight restored, and Mercury makes a rare transit across the sun.

Electoral Design

Tuesday’s senatorial race in Pennsylvania was a big loss for incumbent Rick Santorum—the third most powerful Republican in the Senate—and a big win for opponents of intelligent design. Santorum was known as one of ID’s biggest advocates in Congress; his campaign ads cited his attempt to amend the “No Child Left Behind Act” to teach the controversy between evolution and intelligent design. Democratic state treasurer Bob Casey defeated Santorum by a margin of 18 percent.

Forest Dangers

Scientists at the U.K.‘s University of Leicester have developed a technique to uncover hidden earthquake fault lines. Many fault lines can go undetected because of forest cover, but the new method uses an aircraft-mounted laser to map forest floor topography by virtually deforesting land areas. The laser will allow scientists to identify fault lines and, therefore, better anticipate earthquakes in Indonesia, India, the Andes, the Alps, and other locations. The fault line in the 2005 earthquake in Kashimir went unnoticed because of tree cover.

Pervasive forest fires, often created intentionally by farmers to clear land, have created a thick smoke covering vast areas of Indonesia and its neighbors, Singapore and Malaysia. About 1,000 orangutans have died during this year’s dry season as a result of the fires, according to conservationist group Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation. The fires deprive the animals of food, forcing them to enter human settlements where residents attack them for damaging their crops.

The American Bird Conservancy has stressed that the Federal Communications Commission should act more quickly to consider a plan to make communications towers less dangerous and deadly for migratory birds.  The Conservancy, along with the Forest Conservation Council and Friends of the Earth, filed suit against the FCC in 2002, claiming that the lighting and support wires on towers kill up to 50 million birds from 230 species every year.  The lights interfere with the birds’ migratory clues, throwing them off and causing them to fly toward the towers or continuously circle them. The Conservancy is asking that the solid lights on towers be replaced by red or white strobe lights, which are less confusing for the birds, and that shorter towers, which don’t have to be lit, be built.

Three Formerly Blind Mice

A team of British ophthalmologists has restored sight in blind mice by transplanting developing retinal cells into their eyes, they reported in Nature on Nov. 8. The scientists used retinal cells that had started to differentiate but had not yet become fully developed photoreceptor cells. (Previous attempts to transplant undifferentiated stem cells were unsuccessful.) The results suggest that using embryonic stem cells for retinal transplants may not be necessary. It turns out that some cells located on the margin of the adult retina have stem-cell like properties—that is, they’re capable of self-renewal. Researchers now say these cells could be harvested—which is a minor surgery—and grown in the lab to become photoreceptor precursors to be re-implanted in a blind patient’s retina.

Bring on the American siesta, a study from Stanford University recommends. The study found that emergency room doctors working the night shift were more alert and in a better mood if they took a nap during their shift. At the end of their shifts, doctors were asked to perform several assessments, including a simulated car drive and a virtual I.V. insertion. Doctors who had napped did better on the tests. The study’s authors argue that napping is an important, inexpensive way to improve performance among health care workers.

Planet in Transit

Astronomers observed a rare event—the transit of Mercury across the face of the Sun—last week as Mercury swept inside Earth’s orbit. Transits of Mercury, during which the planet becomes silhouetted against the Sun, allow astronomers to study otherwise unobservable phenomena. In 1999, astronomers used the transit of Mercury to solve a troubling mystery called the “black-drop effect,” which had previously prevented scientists from obtaining an accurate measurement of the solar system’s size. In this transit, astronomers measured and observed features of Mercury’s “atmosphere,” among other things. This transit is the first since 2003; the next won’t happen until 2016.

The miles-thick haze of nitrogen and methane that surrounds Saturn’s moon, Titan, is the same kind of atmosphere that surrounded the young Earth a few billion years ago. In the Nov. 6 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, astrobiologists reported that this particular mix of chemicals could have nurtured the first living Earthlings, or may have even been the first ingredients of life itself. Using data gathered from the recent Cassini mission to Saturn, the scientists simulated atmospheric conditions in the lab, using ultraviolet lamps to simulate the Sun.

Green Versus the Green

The International Indigenous Forum, a group of leaders representing indigenous people from the Amazon to India, said that clean energy projects are damaging the environment and compromising the economy in developing countries. At climate talks hosted by Kenya, leaders from 189 nations stressed that combating poverty was more important than reducing emissions. Under the Kyoto Protocol, a scheme called the Clean Development Mechanism aims to put $100 billion into clean-energy projects in developing nations. But indigenous people in these countries complain that projects like hydro dams or plantations of fast-growing trees are changing the environment in ways that threaten their livelihoods.
Spain’s greenhouse gas emissions appear to be dropping for the first time, the nation’s environment minister said, estimating a one percent drop in the first half of this year. The government raised electricity prices this year to promote conservation, and the Environment Ministry recommended future increases in the prices of both electricity and water. Spain, a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, has exceeded its emissions target by a larger margin than any of the other Kyoto participants.

Children Left Behind

According to a new study, iron-deficient infants from low-income families scored low on cognitive tests well into their teens. What’s more, there were greater gaps between healthy and iron-deficient children from poor families than there were between healthy and iron-deficient middle-class children. Researchers tracked a diverse group of 185 Costa Rican children—those with and without iron deficiencies—for the first 19 years of their lives, administering cognitive tests to the children throughout the course of the study. By the time those with iron deficiencies were 19 years old, the gap in cognitive scores between iron-deficient and non-iron deficient teens had widened more for teens from lower class families than from middle class.  The study points to the fact that learning and cognitive development might not only be stunted at an early age by iron deficiencies, but also that this could have even greater effects on children from lower-class families.
More than 200 industrial chemicals—most of them unregulated by U.S. government safety agencies—may be to blame for neurodevelopment disorders such as autism and attention deficit disorder, public health researchers reported in Lancet. One in six children has been diagnosed with a developmental disorder, and the researchers say the unregulated chemicals are partly responsible for this “silent pandemic”. Fast, complex chemical processes happen during the development of a child’s brain, making it much more susceptible than an adult’s to toxic chemicals in the environment. The study called for stricter regulations on these chemicals.

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Originally published November 12, 2006


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