SciTech Briefs

NASA’s Kepler and the search for Goldilocks

The Kepler Space Telescope, whose mission is to find potentially habitable planets outside of our solar system, has been on a roll recently. In the past week, scientists connected to NASA’s Kepler Mission have published findings of newly identified planets, and the results are “stranger and weirder than fiction.” One team observed a planet orbiting around two different stars, while another discovered the smallest planetary system thus far known to science, both firsts of their kind. Although both planets are outside of the “habitable zone” — the region around a star where liquid water can exist — the quest to find Earth-sized planets that might be “just right” for life continues.

Sources: The New York Times, Science NOW

Bird flu study sparks outrage, fear, and debate

In November, a team of scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Erasmus Medical Center (Netherlands) was preparing to publish virology research on a mutated strain of the H5N1 virus — commonly referred to as “bird flu.” The mutated virus found in the scientists’ studies was able to become airborne and contagious between ferrets, indicating that the new strain would be highly contagious in humans compared to the common strain of H5N1.

The scientists announced last Friday that they would put a 60-day moratorium on their research when the public, other scientists, and governments asserted that the potential publication of their research would pose an extreme bioterrorism threat.

Source: Wired magazine

Medical device advances field of cell sorting

A manuscript accepted for publication in Analytical Chemistry this week outlines a novel cell sorting method that could be used for detecting tumor cells in blood samples. Researchers used a well-established sorting method that relies on tagging cells with antibodies that contain magnetic beads, and then separating them from untagged cells within a magnetic field.

The breakthrough comes from the device that the team created: Using a microfluidic device scaled specifically for finding rare cells, the scientists were able to sort cells at much lower concentrations than previously possible. This opens the magnetic separation method as a possible tool for other disease diagnostics.

Source: Chemical & Engineering News

One journal, one university, two different takes

Separate research groups at Cornell University are making contradictory claims about the greenhouse gas impact of energy from shale-derived natural gas versus coal.

Professor of ecology Robert Howarth claims that problems like methane leaking in natural gas extraction from shale makes its greenhouse gas impact “perhaps more than twice as great” as that from coal. His research is met with a strong opposition voice from colleague Lawrence Cathles, who calls Howarth’s study “seriously flawed.” Both pieces appeared in the latest issue of the journal Climatic Change, and come at a tense period of debate for New York state, where there currently exists a moratorium on high-volume hydraulic fracturing methods of gas extraction.

Source: Associated Press

Enzyme research finds a friend in Pac-Man

Bacteria are to lysozyme as power pellets are to Pac-Man. That is the analogy used by Philip Collins, lead investigator of a new study published in the journal Science that demonstrates how lysozyme, an enzyme found in saliva and tears, is able to eat through a bacterium’s cell wall, causing it to explode. In the experiments, scientists attached the enzyme to a carbon nanotube that acted as a transistor, which amplified the signal of the lysozyme’s chomping motion. The study helps to shed light on the detailed chemical mechanism for how these “Pac-Man” enyzmes do their job in our immune systems.

Source: National Public Radio

Building retrofits a savvy investment, new study says

A new investigation prepared by Deutsche Bank and Living Cities says that retrofitting city housing dwellings is good not only for the environment, but also for investment. The first benefit is simple to understand: Replace an existing light bulb with a more efficient one, and you will save energy. But banks have been slow to underwrite loans for large-scale retrofits, and such projects usually rely on public subsidies. The study used a 231-building dataset to conclude that such retrofits can easily offset the loans required to pay for them by savings in energy costs.

Source: Next American City magazine