Sunday, April 23, 2006

Science Sunday: Wrap-up of recent advancements in science from EurekAlert!

Rutgers team's coal-to-diesel breakthrough could drastically cut oil imports
Researchers have developed a practical way to convert carbon sources, such as coal to diesel fuel, that could significantly cut America's dependence on foreign oil. The breakthrough technology employs a pair of catalytic chemical reactions that operate in tandem, one of which captured the 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. They have revamped the Fischer-Tropsch process to the point where, for the first time, it becomes commercially viable for coal conversion.

Scientists fashion semiconductors into flexible membranes
University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers have demonstrated a way to release thin membranes of semiconductors from a substrate and transfer them to new surfaces-an advance that could unite the properties of silicon and many other materials, including diamond, metal and even plastic.

Graphite-based circuitry may be foundation for devices that handle electrons as waves
A study of how electrons behave in circuitry made from ultrathin layers of graphite - known as graphene - suggests the material could provide the foundation for a new generation of nanometer scale devices that manipulate electrons as waves - much like photonic systems control light waves.

New mechanism for essential genome-wide gene silencing identified
Estimates are that only about 10 percent of the roughly 25,000 genes in the human genome are activated, or "on," at any given time in a particular cell - the default setting for most genes is "off," or repressed. Reliable gene silencing is vital to the health of an organism. Improperly activated genes can lead to cancer, for example. In a new study, researchers have identified an important new global mechanism for this essential gene silencing.

Lizard 'third eye' sheds light on evolution of color vision
Lizards have given Johns Hopkins researchers a tantalizing clue to the evolutionary origins of light-sensing cells in people and other species.

Relationship of brain and skull more than just packaging
People usually think of the skull as packaging for the brain and researchers usually investigate them separately, but a team of researchers now thinks that developmentally and evolutionarily that the two are incontrovertibly linked.

'Chemical Companion' helps first responders and hazmat teams identify spilled chemicals
A new software tool known as the "Chemical Companion" will help first responders more quickly determine how to deal with chemical spills - and identify unknown chemicals. The tool, which runs on personal digital assistants, includes information on 130 of the most common chemicals associated with hazmat incidents. It will be made available at no charge to the military, law enforcement officers and fire departments.

Some like it hot: Worms at deep-sea vents favor a fiery 45-55.C
Scientists have found that worms dwelling at deep-sea hydrothermal vents opt for temperatures of 45-55 degrees Celsius (113-131 degrees Fahrenheit) when given a choice of conditions, giving them the highest thermal preference of any animal studied to date. This unique preference for extreme temperatures may be the undersea worms' meal ticket, since they are apparently the only animals able to access -- and feast on -- lush mats of bacteria that thrive around deep-sea vents.

Nanogenerators convert mechanical energy to electricity for self-powered devices
Researchers have developed a new technique for powering nanometer-scale devices without the need for bulky energy sources such as batteries. By converting mechanical energy from body movement, muscle stretching or water flow into electricity, these "nanogenerators" could make possible a new class of self-powered implantable medical devices, sensors and portable electronics.

Rewind, please: Nature paper shows that cell division is reversible
Gary J. Gorbsky, PhD, a scientist with the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, has found a way to reverse the process of cell division. The discovery could have important implications for the treatment of cancer, birth defects and numerous other diseases and disorders. Gorbsky's findings appear in the April 13 issue of the journal Nature.

Research milestone brings goal closer of cheap antimalarial drug for developing world
Artemisinin drugs have proved to be a miracle cure for malaria, but the cost of the plant-derived drug is prohibitively expensive for those in the developing world. UC Berkeley's Jay Keasling showed in 2004 that microbes with inserted yeast and wormwood genes could make a chemical precursor of artemisinin. Now, thanks to money from the Gates Foundation, his team has nearly reached its goal of total microbial synthesis of the drug.

High efficiency flat light source invented
A group of chemists and electrical engineers succeeds in making a prototype white-light organic LED. Assuming the development of a waterproof backing, the advance could bring major changes in indoor lighting.

Evolution follows few of the possible paths to antibiotic resistance
Darwinian evolution follows very few of the available mutational pathways to attain fitter proteins, researchers at Harvard University have found in a study of a gene whose mutant form increases bacterial resistance to a widely prescribed antibiotic by a factor of roughly 100,000. Their work indicates that of 120 harrowing, five-step mutational paths that theoretically could grant antibiotic resistance, only about 10 actually endow bacteria with a meaningful evolutionary advantage.

Ants are surprisingly ancient, arising 140-168 million years ago
Ants are considerably older than previously believed, having originated 140 to 168 million years ago, according to new Harvard University research published in the journal Science. But these resilient insects, now found in terrestrial ecosystems the world over, apparently only began to diversify about 100 million years ago in concert with the flowering plants, the Harvard scientists say.

Waterproof superglue may be strongest in nature
The glue one species of water-loving bacteria uses to grip its surroundings may be the strongest natural adhesive known to science. If engineers can find a way to mass-produce the material, it could have uses in medicine, marine technology and a range of other applications.

New computer model of football can help NFL coaches call the next play, evaluate players
An Indiana University scientist has created a computer model of football as it's played in the National Football League. ZEUS runs on a laptop, perfect for a football sideline, and it's designed to do what a coach can't -- calculate the consequences of a decision before he calls the next play. Another application can convert a player's performance to net wins per season, a great aid to managers who must work within a salary cap.



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