Sunday, December 31, 2006

The vaccine to prevent every strain of flu

"British scientists are on the verge of producing a revolutionary flu vaccine that works against all major types of the disease.

Described as the 'holy grail' of flu vaccines, it would protect against all strains of influenza A - the virus behind both bird flu and the nastiest outbreaks of winter flu.

Just a couple of injections could give long-lasting immunity - unlike the current vaccine which has to be given every year.

The brainchild of scientists at Cambridge biotech firm Acambis, working with Belgian researchers, the vaccine will be tested on humans for the first time in the next few months."

Click the title to read the entire article

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Dylan #1 of Billboard's critics

"Bob Dylan's acclaimed new album Modern Times has won another accolade 2006 prize from music industry magazine Billboard's critics.

Almost 50 of the publication's staff and writers were asked to name their favourite album of the past 12 months, and Dylan's 2006 release claimed the number one spot.

The album was Dylan's first number one on The Billboard 200 chart since Desire 30 years ago (1976).

Dylan's Modern Times claimed Rolling Stone's top album of the year honor earlier this week."

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Female Android Debuts in S. Korea

"She can hold a conversation, make eye contact, and express joy, anger, sorrow, and happiness. But is she good with kids?

These school-age tots seem to be making friends with EveR-1, a female android that made her debut this month in South Korea. The robot was built by Baeg Moon-hong, a senior researcher with the Division for Applied Robot Technology at the Korea Institute of Industrial Technology (KITECH) in Ansan, just south of Seoul (see a map of South Korea).

EveR-1 is designed to resemble a Korean female in her early 20s, according to a KITECH press release. Fifteen motors underneath her silicon skin allow her to express a limited range of emotions, and a 400-word vocabulary enables her to hold a simple conversation.

The android weighs 110 pounds (50 kilograms) and would stand 5 feet, 3 inches (160 centimeters) tall—if she could stand. EveR-1 can move her arms and hands, but her lower half is immobile."

See a video here

Company Develops Virtual Meal Technology

"Harvey Bumpus doesn't like to eat alone. But his wife died more than a year ago and his family is scattered across the country. Most nights, he heats up a simple meal of oatmeal or hot dogs and eats alone.

"I don't have much choice," said the 82-year-old retired correctional officer who looks forward to Christmas as one of the few days each year when he gathers with his family.

But when the planes, trains and automobiles that brought everyone together take his family away - he, like millions of other elderly people, will be alone again.

Now, the technology consulting company Accenture is developing a system called "The Virtual Family Dinner" that would allow families to get together - virtually - as often as they'd like.

The concept is simple. An elderly woman in, say, California, makes herself dinner. When she gets ready to sit down and eat, the system detects it and alerts her son in Chicago. The son then goes to his kitchen, where a small camera and microphone capture what he is doing. Speakers and a screen - as big as a television or as small as a picture frame - allow him to hear and see his mother, who has a similar setup.

"We are trying to really bring back the kind of family interactions we used to take for granted," said Dadong Wan, a senior researcher in Accenture Ltd.

Click the title to read the entire article

Friday, December 15, 2006

World's Tallest Man Saves Ailing Dolphins

Long Arms Of 7-Foot-9 Herdsman Remove Plastic From Dolphins' Stomachs

"The long arms of the world's tallest man reached in and saved two dolphins by pulling out plastic from their stomachs, state media and an aquarium official said Thursday.

The dolphins got sick after nibbling on plastic from the edge of their pool at an aquarium in Liaoning province. Attempts to use surgical instruments to remove the plastic failed because the dolphins' stomachs contracted in response to the instruments, the China Daily newspaper reported.

Veterinarians then decided to ask for help from Bao Xishun, a 7-foot-9 herdsman from Inner Mongolia with 41.7-inch arms, state media said. Bao, 54, was confirmed last year by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's tallest living man.

Chen Lujun, the manager of the Royal Jidi Ocean World aquarium, told The Associated Press that the shape of the dolphins' stomachs made it difficult to push an instrument very far in without hurting the animals. People with shorter arms could not reach the plastic, he said.

"When we failed to get the objects out we sought the help of Bao Xishun from Inner Mongolia and he did it successfully yesterday," Chen said. "The two dolphins are in very good condition now."

Photographs showed the jaws of one of the dolphins being held back by towels so Bao could reach inside the animal without being bitten.

"Some very small plastic pieces are still left in the dolphins' stomachs," Zhu Xiaoling, a local doctor, told Xinhua. "However the dolphins will be able to digest these and are expected to recover soon."

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Tall Mountain Range Found on Titan

"The international Cassini spacecraft spotted a nearly mile-high mountain range shrouded in hazy clouds on Saturn's giant moon Titan, scientists reported Tuesday.

The mountains, which stretch for nearly 100 miles, surprised researchers who re-analyzed the images to double-check that they were real and not shadows of other surface features.

Robert Brown, a Cassini scientist from the University of Arizona, said the mountains reminded him of California's Sierra Nevada range.

"You can call this the Titan Sierra," said Brown, who unveiled the new infrared images at an American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

The mountains are the tallest ever seen on Titan and probably formed from the same process that occurs in the Earth's mid-ocean ridge. Scientists speculated that hot material beneath Titan's surface gushed up when tectonic plates pulled apart, creating the mountain range.

Cassini found the summit of the range capped with brilliant white layers that are likely deposits of methane or another organic material.

Cassini flew by Titan on Oct. 25 and snapped images of the mountains. It also found new evidence of sand dunes and a circular feature resembling the remnant of a volcano.

Launched in 1997, Cassini is funded by NASA and the European and Italian space agencies."

China's River Dolphin Declared Extinct

"A rare, nearly blind white dolphin that survived for millions of years is effectively extinct, an international expedition declared Wednesday after ending a fruitless six-week search of its Yangtze River habitat.

Specialists prepare to examine Qi Qi, a Yangtze River dolphin in captivity, in an aquarium in Wuhan, capital city of China's Hubei province, in this June 13, 2002 file photo. An international expedition to search for a rare Chinese river dolphin has ended without a single sighting, and researchers said Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2006 that the aquatic mammal is facing imminent extinction.

The baiji would be the first large aquatic mammal driven to extinction since hunting and overfishing killed off the Caribbean monk seal in the 1950s.

For the baiji, the culprit was a degraded habitat - busy ship traffic, which confounds the sonar the dolphin uses to find food, and overfishing and pollution in the Yangtze waters of eastern China, the expedition said.

"The baiji is functionally extinct. We might have missed one or two animals but it won't survive in the wild," said August Pfluger, a Swiss economist turned naturalist who helped put together the expedition. "We are all incredibly sad.

The baiji dates back 20 million years. Chinese called it the "goddess of the Yangtze." For China, its disappearance symbolizes how unbridled economic growth is changing the country's environment irreparably, some environmentalists say.

"It's a tremendously sad day when any species goes extinct. It becomes more of a public tragedy to lose a large, charismatic species like the river dolphin," said Chris Williams, manager of river basin conservation for the World Wildlife Fund in Washington.

"The loss of a large animal like a river dolphin is often a harbinger for what's going on in the larger system as whole. It's not only the loss of a beautiful animal but an indication that the way its habitat is being managed, the way we're interacting with the natural environment of the river is deeply flawed ... if a species like this can't survive."

Randall Reeves, chairman of the Swiss-based World Conservation Union's Cetacean Specialist Group, who took part in the Yangtze mission, said expedition participants were surprised at how quickly the dolphins disappeared.

"Some of us didn't want to believe that this would really happen, especially so quickly," he said. "This particular species is the only living representative of a whole family of mammals. This is the end of a whole branch of evolution."

The damage to the baiji's habitat is also affecting the Yangtze finless porpoise, whose numbers have fallen to below 400, the expedition found.

"The situation of the finless porpoise is just like that of the baiji 20 years ago," the group said in a statement citing Wang Ding, a Chinese hydrobiologist and co-leader of the expedition. "Their numbers are declining at an alarming rate. If we do not act soon they will become a second baiji."

Pfluger said China's Agriculture Ministry, which approved the expedition, had hoped the baiji would be another panda, an animal brought back from the brink of extinction in a highly marketable effort that bolstered the country's image.

The expedition was the most professional and meticulous ever launched for the mammal, Pfluger said. The team of 30 scientists and crew from China, the United States and four other countries searched a 1,000-mile heavily trafficked stretch of the Yangtze, where the baiji once thrived.

The expedition's two boats, equipped with high-tech binoculars and underwater microphones, trailed each other an hour apart without radio contact so that a sighting by one vessel would not prejudice the other. When there was fog, he said, the boats waited for the mist to clear to make sure they took every opportunity to spot the mammal.

Around 400 baiji were believed to be living in the Yangtze in the early 1980s, when China was just launching the free-market reforms that have transformed its economy. The last full-fledged search, in 1997, yielded 13 confirmed sightings, and a fisherman claimed to have seen a baiji in 2004.

At least 20 to 25 baiji would now be needed to give the species a chance to survive, said Wang.

For Pfluger, the baiji's demise is a personal defeat. A member of the 1997 expedition, he recalls the excitement of seeing a baiji cavorting in the waters near Dongting Lake.

"It marked me," he said. He went on to set up the Foundation to save the dolphin. In recent years, Pfluger said, scientists like the eminent zoologist George Schaller told him to stop his search, saying the baiji's "lost, forget it."

During the latest expedition, an online diary kept by team members traced a dispiriting situation, as day after day they failed to spot a single baiji.

Even in the expedition's final days, members believed they would find a specimen, trolling a "hotspot" below the industrial city of Wuhan where Baiji were previously sighted, Pfluger said.

"Hope dies last," he said."

On the web:

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Two species cooperate to hunt

By Charles Q. Choi

Researchers say it's the first example of coordinated hunting seen in fish

"The giant moray eel is normally a lone hunter in the dark. Now scientists find these eels may at times hunt in the daytime in the Red Sea, and surprisingly cooperate with another predatory fish, the grouper, which is also normally a solitary predator.

This is the first example of coordinated hunting seen in fish, and the first known instance of cooperative hunting between species seen outside humans, researchers said.

The giant moray eel is as thick as a man's thigh and can grow up to nearly 10 feet long. It normally lurks through crevices in coral reefs at night to corner victims in their holes, meaning the best way to avoid these hunters is to swim into open water. On the other hand, groupers normally hunt in the open water during the day, meaning the best way to avoid them is to hide in coral reefs.

Behavioral ecologist Redouan Bshary from the University of Neuch√Ętel in Switzerland was following groupers to collect information on so-called "cleaner fish" that enter the mouth of predators to eat parasites.

"When I first saw a grouper shaking its head in the face of a moray, I thought two top predators were about to fight each other," Bshary said. "So I was very surprised when they swam off together side by side."

Bshary and his colleagues followed fish around by snorkeling. They found groupers often visited giant morays resting in their crevices and rapidly shook their heads an inch or so from the eels to recruit them in a joint hunt. At times this call took place after a grouper failed in its hunt because prey escaped into a crevice the grouper could not get into but a giant moray might.

If the moray emerged, the grouper guided the eel to a crevice where prey was hiding. Groupers sometimes even performed a headstand and shook its head over a prey hiding place to attract moray eels to the site. At times the moray ate the fish it rooted out, while at other times the grouper did.

Before this, coordinated hunting was only seen in mammals and birds. In addition, until now the only other examples of cooperative hunting between species were seen with humans and dogs or humans and dolphins, Bshary said.

The researchers are uncertain whether this cooperation is an innate or learned behavior, although currently Bshary suspects it is learned because there is considerable variation in levels of it between individuals, especially in morays, "which may reflect personal experience." They plan to study whether this cooperation is local to the area they studied or whether it is widespread in the Red Sea.

"The most important implication is that there are still so many surprises to be discovered in coral reefs," Bshary said.

Bshary and his colleagues reported their findings in the December issue of the journal Public Library of Science Biology."

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Experts reconstruct Leonardo fingerprint

Discovery could provide more detail about the artist's life, ethnicity

By Marta Falconi

"ROME - Anthropologists said they have pieced together Leonardo da Vinci's left index fingerprint _ a discovery that could help provide information on such matters as the food the artist ate and whether his mother was of Arabic origin.

The reconstruction of the fingerprint was the result of three years of research and could help attribute disputed paintings or manuscripts, said Luigi Capasso, an anthropologist and director of the Anthropology Research Institute at Chieti University in central Italy.

"It adds the first touch of humanity. We knew how Leonardo saw the world and the future ... but who was he? This biological information is about his being human, not being a genius," Capasso said in a recent telephone interview.

The research was based on a first core of photographs of about 200 fingerprints — most of them partial — taken from about 52 papers handled by Leonardo in his life. Capasso's work, presented in 2005 in a specialized magazine called Anthropologie, published in the Czech Republic, is on display in an exhibition in the town of Chieti through March 30.

The artist often ate while working, and Capasso and other experts said his fingerprints could include traces of saliva, blood or the food he ate the night before. It is information that could help clear up questions about his origins.

Certain distinctive features are more common in the fingerprints of some ethnic populations, experts say.

"The one we found in this finger tip applies to 60 percent of the Arabic population, which suggests the possibility that his mother was of Middle Eastern origin," Capasso said.

Other experts, however, say that determining ethnicity based on fingerprints is vague.

What the science says, "generally speaking, is that if your parent has a lot of arches, you'll probably have a lot of arches," said Simon Cole, associate professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California at Irvine.

'The science essentially comes up with breakdowns: x percent of Asians have arches, x have whorls, x have loops. Some races have very low incidences of some patterns and very high incidences of others.'"