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Science News

E. coli caught in the act of evolving

Long-term lab experiment traces a trait's reappearance
DIET BREAKTHROUGHA flask of bacteria in an experiment at Michigan State University in East Lansing turned cloudy when the E. coli within evolved the ability to eat a chemical called citrate. A new study describes the three-step process that led to the ability.Brian Baer and Neerja HajelaBy Tina Hesman Saey

Big leaps in evolution are the products of tiny genetic changes accumulated over thousands of generations, a new study shows.

E. coli bacteria growing in a flask in a lab for nearly 25 years have learned to do something no E. coli has done since the Miocene epoch: eat a chemical called citrate in the presence of oxygen. Evolutionary biologists Zachary Blount and Richard Lenski of Michigan State University in East Lansing and their colleagues describe the molecular steps leading to the feat online September 19 in Nature.

The work demonstrates that although new traits seem to emerge in the blink of an eye evolutionarily speaking, those traits are actually the product of thousands of generations of genetic tweaks.

“The ability to be able to not just talk about how genes evolve, but to see it in action is just awesome,” says Bruce Levin, a population and evolutionary biologist at Emory University in Atlanta. “This is really getting at the nitty-gritty of evolution.”

Ancient Tooth Was Filled With Beeswax

Image Caption: This is a microphotograph of the tooth crown in occlusal view with indication of the surface covered by beeswax (within the yellow dotted line). Credit: Bernardini F, Tuniz C, Coppa A, Mancini L, Dreossi D, et al. (2012) Beeswax as Dental Filling on a Neolithic Human Tooth. PLoS ONE 7(9): e44904. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044904Brett Smith for

The application of new technology to existing materials is happening across every industry, and the fields of archeology and paleontology are producing some revolutionary results with these exciting advances.

Another example of just such a development was the revealing of ancient dental work in a 6,500-year-old jawbone that was found in Slovenia over 100 years ago, according to a report of the discovery in the journal PLoS One this week.

“The jawbone remained in the museum for 101 years without anybody noticing anything strange,” said study co-author Claudio Tuniz of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy.

According to the report, the discovery marks the first known evidence of “therapeutic-palliative dental filling,” which was made using beeswax. It appears to have been made just before or after the patient’s death.

Evidence of ancient dentistry is extremely rare. The oldest known specimens, which involved the drilling of cavities, were found in southwest Asia and have been dated between 7,500 and 9,500 years old. It was assumed that these cavities were filled, but until now, evidence of these fillings had yet to be found.

Using synchrotron radiation computed micro-tomography (micro-CT) and other scanning technologies, the research team was able to identify the dental fissure that likely plagued this patient. They were also able to spot the beeswax filling used in treatment.

Technology News

Apple Mapocalypse Sends iOS 6 Users Into a Tizzy, Riverbank

That’s not where Wired’s offices are. Image: Roberto Baldwin/WiredBy Christina Bonnington

Disgruntled users across the globe are flocking to share their displeasure with Apple’s new Maps app, which has a tendency to mislocate businesses, misplace cities, streets and towns, and display warped Dali-esque distortions of skyscrapers, bridges and other landmarks.

Apple replaced Google Maps with its own app in iOS 6, released on Wednesday, cutting its closest tie to smartphone rival Google. But the seemingly premature launch of the Apple app is turning into a significant black eye in an otherwise well-received operating system upgrade.

“The maps for my hometown in iOS 6 are not only extremely ugly (and old) but not a singular business has a correct location as far as I can see,” Apple forum member björnfrommalmö posted Wednesday. “Anyone else getting really annoyed by this switch?”

“iOS 6 Maps” and “Google Maps” began trending on Twitter Thursday, and a popular Tumblr emerged to provide a central location for the numerous Maps fails.

Cyberspying effort drops 'Mirage' on energy firms

Malware targets individuals at organizations in Philippines, Taiwan, Canada and elsewhere via "spear-phishing" e-mails bearing tainted PDF files.
Trojanby Elinor Mills

Researchers have uncovered a new cyberespionage campaign being waged on a large Philippine oil company, a Taiwanese military organization and a Canadian energy firm, as well as targets in Brazil, Israel, Egypt and Nigeria.

The malware being used is called "Mirage" and it leaves a backdoor on the computer that waits for instructions from the attacker, said Silas Cutler, a security researcher at Dell SecureWorks' Counter Threat Unit (CTU).

Victims are carefully targeted with so-called "spear-phishing" e-mails with attachments that are "droppers" designed to look and behave like PDF documents. However, they are actually standalone executable files that open an embedded PDF file and execute the Mirage trojan. The malware disguises its "phone home" communications to resemble Google searches by using Secure Socket Layers (SSL) in order to avoid detection, Cutler wrote in a report this week.

Researchers were able to take over domains being used in the campaign that were no longer registered or had expired and they used them to set up a "sinkhole" designed to receive any communications from infected computers. By pretending to be a command-and-control server they learned that there were about 80 unique IP addresses that appeared to be infected, involving as many as 120 individual computers.

Environmental News

Safety Rules for Fracking Disposal Wells Often Ignored

The growing number of wells used to dispose of wastewater from fracking are subject to lax oversight
Aerial view showing typical drilling activity in the Pinedale Anticline natural gas field of Wyoming. Drilling fluids (reddish-brown) are being expelled into open pits.By Abrahm Lustgarten and ProPublica

On a cold, overcast afternoon in January 2003, two tanker trucks backed up to an injection well site in a pasture outside Rosharon, Texas. There, under a steel shed, they began to unload thousands of gallons of wastewater for burial deep beneath the earth.

The waste – the byproduct of oil and gas drilling – was described in regulatory documents as a benign mixture of salt and water. But as the liquid rushed from the trucks, it released a billowing vapor of far more volatile materials, including benzene and other flammable hydrocarbons.

The truck engines, left to idle by their drivers, sucked the fumes from the air, revving into a high-pitched whine. Before anyone could react, one of the trucks backfired, releasing a spark that ignited the invisible cloud.

Fifteen-foot-high flames enveloped the steel shed and tankers. Two workers died, and four were rushed to the hospital with burns over much of their bodies. A third worker died six weeks later.

Russell E. Train, Conservationist Who Helped Create the E.P.A., Dies at 92

Russell E. Train was E.P.A. administrator from 1973 to 1977.By KEITH SCHNEIDER

Russell E. Train, a renowned conservationist who played a central role in the creation of groundbreaking laws and effective enforcement in response to rising concerns about environmental protection in America, died on Monday at his farm in Bozman, Md. He was 92.

His death was announced by Carter Roberts, the president of the World Wildlife Fund, which Mr. Train helped transform into a global force for conservation.

From 1969 to 1977, as Richard M. Nixon’s first chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and then as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under Gerald R. Ford, Mr. Train was among a select group of senior administration officials and Congressional leaders who shaped the world’s first comprehensive program for scrubbing the skies and waters of pollution, ensuring the survival of ecologically significant plants and animals, and safeguarding citizens from exposure to toxic chemicals.

Mr. Train was widely considered the father of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the cornerstone of all modern federal environmental legislation. Its signature provision was the look-before-you-leap requirement for federal agencies to prepare environmental impact statements before proceeding with any major project.

Medical News

Oral MS drug passes tests

BG-12 suppresses relapses
multiple sclerosis patientBy Nathan Seppa

People with multiple sclerosis might soon have a new option for controlling their disease with pills instead of shots. Two studies in the Sept. 20 New England Journal of Medicine demonstrate that a variation on a drug used against psoriasis for years in Germany holds off MS relapses and has minimal side effects.

“These data look good. Both studies show a reduction in relapses with really pretty robust effects,” says Clyde Markowitz, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania who wasn’t involved with the trials.

The drug, called BG-12, has been submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval by the biotech company Biogen Idec. Markowitz expects it to get approved. “It would be a clear benefit to the MS population to have another option,” he says. If approved, BG-12 would be the third oral drug available to treat MS.

The disease results when the immune system attacks the fatty myelin sheaths coating nerves in the central nervous system, leading to impaired muscle control, balance, vision and speech. BG-12, or dimethyl fumarate, has anti-inflammatory, cell-protective and antioxidant effects, which earlier work suggested could suppress the aberrant immune reactions in MS patients.

Simply Irresistible: Scientists Trace Gluttony's Path in the Brain

Stimulating a brain region induces intense overeating
Image: Current Biology, DiFeliceantonio et al.: 'Enkephalin surges in dorsal neostriatum as a signal to eat.'By Daisy Yuhas

How much is too much chocolate? Desperately devouring 5 percent of one's body weight might sound extreme, but scientists tinkering with the brain chemistry of rodents have found it's certainly possible.

Scientists at the University of Michigan (U.M.) have identified how a brain region plays a role in our pursuit of sweet temptations. As they describe in the September 20 issue of Current Biology, a surge of chemical compounds resembling opium in this area can trigger the impulse to gorge on a treat without restraint.

The region in question is the neostriatum. In humans this area is split into two parts, behind the eyes and below the folds of the cortex near the front of the head. It's just above the brain's well-studied reward circuitry, which includes the ventral striatum and nucleus accumbens. Traditionally, the neostriatum has been studied in movement and habitual motor behaviors. Although no previous research had found a clear causal link between the region and motivation to eat, some human studies with functional magnetic resonance imaging have suggested that the neostriatum is active when an overweight subject looks at food or an addict views a drug of choice.

Space News

Ball Wet: Massive Asteroid Vesta Harbors Scant Frozen Water at Surface

Data from NASA's Dawn spacecraft reveals easily evaporated chemicals and hydrogen on the asteroid, suggesting the presence of water mixed into its surface material
MINIATURE WORLD: The framing camera on NASA's Dawn spacecraft shows the south pole of the giant asteroid VestaBy Marissa Fessenden

New evidence suggests that frozen water lurks in the dusty, pitted surface of our solar system's second most-massive asteroid. The discovery at Vesta is helping researchers understand how a once-molten protoplanet—a category that includes Earth's embryo—could gather water early in its history as it cooled and spun through space. Vesta's regolith, or rocky soil, is estimated to hold only 5 percent water by weight, however; hardly enough to get future astronauts wet or even offer them much of a drink. Space travelers would have better luck mining water on other, wetter asteroids.

The water conclusion was drawn from two teams' independent analyses of data from NASA's Dawn mission. Before embarking for dwarf planet Ceres September 5, the spacecraft orbited Vesta for more than a year, passing over the asteroid's poles (at an average altitude of just 210 kilometers for some of that time) as the protoplanet rotated below. From this orbital vantage point, all of Vesta's surface was eventually exposed to Dawn's instruments.

Fall Equinox Saturday Ups Chances of Seeing Northern Lights

AuroraMAX observatory took this image of an auroral display over Yellowknife, Canada, on September 12, 2012.By Joe Rao

The arrival of the autumnal equinox this Saturday (Sept. 22) signals a transition from northern summer to fall in an astronomical sense. But it also signals the start of aurora-watching season.

From now through the end of October, the chances of sighting the glow of the mysterious northern lightswill be reaching a peak.

In fact, auroras peak in frequency twice a year, with the other peak coming in the weeks before and after the Vernal Equinox, which marks the beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. But why are aurora displays more common around the time of the equinoxes?

According to Janet Green, a physicist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the times around the equinoxes are when geomagnetic storms — disturbances in the Earth's magnetic field — are strongest.

Odd News

Colorado Man Earns Millions By Eating Popcorn

Image Credit: Photos.comMichael Harper for

Wayne Watson, a Centennial, Colorado man, has just earned himself a tidy $7.2 million paycheck the old fashioned way: Eating 2 bags of microwave popcorn every day, making sure to deeply inhale the aroma from the bag immediately after it was cooked.

Diagnosed with something called “popcorn lung,” Watson took the makers of the popcorn, as well as the local grocers who sold it to him, to court, claiming the chemicals used in the artificial butter made it difficult for him to breathe.

Watson was first diagnosed with “popcorn lung,” better known as bronchiolitis obliterans at Denver’s National Jewish Health in 2007 after years of breathing in the steam from popcorn bags, according to his lawyer Kenneth McClain.

The culprit in this case is a chemical named diacetyl, which was once used in the artificial butter for the popcorn. Diacetyl has been at the center of other suits from workers in these popcorn manufacturing plants, and since it has been linked to health problems, has since been removed. Mr. Watson, however, claims Gilster Mary-Lee, the manufacturer of the popcorn, didn’t take steps to warn consumers about the dangers of deeply inhaling multiple popcorn bags a day, a misstep he says makes the company liable for 80% of the $7,217,961 in damages. Watson also brought his suit to the retail grocers who sold him the popcorn, making them liable for 20% of the total damages.

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