Sunday, December 24, 2006

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

Science's breakthrough of the year -- The Poincaré Theorem:

In 2006, researchers closed a major chapter in mathematics, reaching a consensus that the elusive Poincaré Conjecture, which deals with abstract shapes in three-dimensional space, had finally been solved. Science and its publisher AAAS, the nonprofit society, now salute this development as the Breakthrough of the Year and also give props to nine other of the year's most significant scientific accomplishments.

Bungee-powered backpack can lighten your load, University of Pennsylvania researcher says:

Penn researchers have announced details for a suspended-load ergonomic backpack that reduces the force of a backpack's load on the wearer by 86 percent, allowing wearers to run far more comfortably with heavy loads. The backpack was created with soldiers and emergency workers in mind and could prevent the sort of muscle and joint injuries associated with running while carrying heavy items.

Study finds the air rich with bacteria:

The air could be teeming with more than 1,800 types of bacteria, according to a first-of-its-kind census of airborne microbes recently conducted by scientists from the US Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

What it means to be human:

Approximately 6 percent of human and chimp genes are unique to those species, report scientists from the University of Bristol and three other institutions. The new estimate takes into account something that other measures of genetic difference do not -- the genes that are no longer there.

Pain relief effectiveness down to mind-set?:

Research by the Human Pain Research Group at the University of Manchester suggests that people's responses to placebo or "dummy" pain relief varies according to their way of thinking

Cellular killer also important to memory:

A protein that triggers apoptosis also plays a part in memory formation. Graham R. Huesmann, a lead researcher on the study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, had an intuition that growth and memory are linked. "You can't have growth without death," said David F. Clayton, a co-author of the study.

To catch an intermediate:

A new technique for capturing the short-lived but critical "intermediate" compounds that help carry chemical reactions which take place in aqueous solution from their starting point to the final product has been developed by researchers with the US Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab). This technique basically entails temporarily trapping the elusive transients inside molecular pyramids.

Genetically modified cells attack tumors:

Mice with neuroblastoma tumors have been successfully treated with genetically modified cells that sought out the cancer cells and activated a chemotherapy drug directly at those sites, according to investigators at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and their colleagues at City of Hope National Medical Center (Duarte, Calif.) and the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada). Neuroblastoma is a solid tumor that arises in the part of the nervous system outside the brain.

Shotgun sequencing finds nanoorganisms:

UC Berkeley scientists Jill Banfield and Brett Baker have found some of the smallest organisms known in a sample of slime from a California mine. Their discovery proves the value of a technique called "shotgun" sequencing to identify all organisms in a microbial community, particularly those too small to see in a microscope, those very low in abundance, or those too novel to be picked up by PCR.

Squirrels winning at outwitting trees' survival strategy:

In Science, Andrew McAdam at Michigan State outlines how red squirrels have figured out a way around the elaborate ruse trees have used to protect their crops of tasty seeds.The remarkable part: The squirrels are divining the arrival of bumper crops of spruce cones months before the cones ever materialize and then betting on those crops with the most expensive evolutionary collateral -- a second litter of pups.

Laser experiments reveal strange properties of superfluids:

Princeton University electrical engineers are using lasers to shed light on the behavior of superfluids -- strange, frictionless liquids that are difficult to create and study. Their technique allows them to simulate experiments that are difficult or impossible to conduct with superfluids.

Treatments for urinary infections leave bacteria bald, happy and vulnerable:

A different approach to treating urinary tract infections (UTIs) could defeat the bacteria that cause the infections without directly killing them, a strategy that could help slow the growth of antibiotic-resistant infections. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have been working to create pharmaceuticals that essentially "defang" the bacteria by preventing them from assembling pili, microscopic hairs that enable the bacteria to invade host cells.

Mayo Clinic study explores link between nanoparticles and kidney stones:

Researchers at Mayo Clinic have successfully isolated nanoparticles from human kidney stones in cell cultures and have isolated proteins, RNA and DNA that appear to be associated with nanoparticles.

High-quality marriages help to calm nerves:

A University of Virginia neuroscientist has found that women under stress who hold their husbands' hands show signs of immediate relief, which can clearly be seen on their brain scans. "This is the first study of the neurological reactions to human touch in a threatening situation, and the first study to measure how the brain facilitates the health-enhancing properties of close social relationships," says Dr. James A. Coan.

New research could lead to 'invisible' electronics:

Imagine a car windshield that displays a map to your destination or a billboard that doubles as a window. Researchers have long worked on developing new types of displays powered by electronics without visible wires but have fallen short of developing the right materials. Now Northwestern University researchers report that by combining organic and inorganic materials they have produced transparent, high-performance transistors that can be assembled inexpensively on both glass and plastics.

MIT implant could measure tumor growth, treatment:

A tiny implant now being developed at MIT could one day help doctors rapidly monitor the growth of tumors and the progress of chemotherapy in cancer patients.



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