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Science News

Bees learn the electric buzz of flowers

Floral electric fields could join color and fragrance as cues to pollinators
On the right-hand halves of flowers, a dusting of electrically charged particles (color in adjacent rectangle) reveals natural patterns. Bees can sense at least simple patterns in floral electrical charges, new research says.By Susan Milius

Slight electric fields that form around flowers may lure pollinators much as floral colors and fragrances do.

In lab setups, bumblebees learned to distinguish fake flowers by their electrical fields, says sensory biologist Daniel Robert at the University of Bristol in England. Combining an electrical charge with a color helped the bees learn faster, Robert and his colleagues report online February 21 in Science.

Plants, a bit like lightning rods, tend to conduct electrical charges to the ground, Robert says. And bees pick up a positive charge from the atmosphere’s invisible rain of charged particles.

“Anything flying through the air, whether it’s a baseball, 767 jumbo jet, or a bee, acquires a strong positive electrostatic charge due to interaction with air molecules,” says Stephen Buchmann of the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Chill turns monarchs north

Cold weather flips butterflies’ migratory path
Monarchs stop for nectar during their migration south. The butterflies don’t live long enough to complete a full round trip, making it a mystery as to how they know when to head north.By Meghan Rosen

Scientists have pinned down the answer to a long-standing butterfly mystery: what flips monarchs’ migratory compasses. A little cold weather may be all that’s needed. Just 24 days in a chilly lab incubator is enough to switch a butterfly’s flight orientation from south to north, researchers report online February 21 in Current Biology.

“It’s pretty doggone cool,” says insect ecologist Orley “Chip” Taylor of the University of Kansas, who was not involved in the new research. But the finding is also disturbing, he says. “It suggests that as temperatures warm, monarchs may be in trouble.”

Each fall, in a massive monarch migration, millions of butterflies set off on a journey from their northern range to central Mexico to escape freezing winters. Nestled among Mexico’s Michoacán mountains, the butterflies cling to tree branches, huddled together in roosts to fend off the cold. “They sort of snuggle each other,” says study author Steven Reppert of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. The snuggling creates a cozy microenvironment that buffers high and low temperatures.

Technology News

White House Must Respond Publicly to Ban on Mobile-Phone Unlocking

Photo: David Kravets

The President Barack Obama administration must enter the mobile-phone-unlocking fray.

Thanks to a petition reaching 100,000 signatures Thursday, the administration must respond publicly about a recent decision by copyright regulators making it illegal to unlock mobile phones purchased after January 26.

What’s this all about?

Unlocking enables a phone to operate on a compatible carrier of a consumer’s choosing.

Four months ago, the U.S. Copyright Office ended the practice of granting an unlocking exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The DMCA makes it illegal to “circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access” to copyrighted material, in this case software embedded in phones that controls carrier access.

The petition demanded that the White House “champion a bill that makes unlocking permanently legal” or, in the alternative, require the administration to ask copyright regulators to reverse course.

Five-O Goes High Tech With New Electric Motorcycle

Johnny Law goes electric with the law enforcement version of the Zero Motorcycles S. Same silent powertrain, now with more power and range. Photo: Zero MotorcyclesBy Alexander George

For a police officer, a motorcycle provides unparalleled mobility for weaving through traffic coupled with nimble handling and quick acceleration to catch fleeing perps. Now Five-O is adding another benefit: Stealth. The wonders of electric propulsion let the boys (and girls) in blue strike in silence.

Zero Motorcycles already makes some of the best electric motorcycles around, and it has found a niche supplying bikes to law enforcement agencies. The police bikes found fans with cops in Northern Califoria when Zero started offering a cop-specific riff on the DS dual sport machine in 2011. Now Zero is offering the same package on the street-ready Zero S.

“After seeing the success the 2012 model had in the field, we decided to expand our 2013 police and security offerings,” John Lloyd, vp of global sales, said in a statement. “To have the support of so many different law enforcement agencies and security organizations is an incredible honor.”

The latest law-enforcement models get crash bars, the requisite lights, a Whelen siren, and a shotgun rack. Options include hard cases, a detachable windscreen, and a quick-charge kit. The bikes also enjoy a boost in power and range over the 2012 models. They’re good for 70 to 112 miles depending how hard Johnny Law is riding, and a top speed of 95 mph.

Environmental News

Blood levels of BPA become source of controversy

Values reported for humans appear high, study charges, possibly suggesting contamination or exaggerated exposures
No BPA logoBy Janet Raloff

BOSTON — The ubiquity of the pollutant bisphenol A in many plastic products, food-can linings, cash-register receipts and dental resins means that everyone is exposed to it daily. But controversy remains about how much BPA people actually ingest or otherwise encounter. New data reported at a February 16 symposium raised red flags over the accuracy of previously reported human blood concentrations of BPA — amounts described over the years as being representative of the general population.

Those values appear to be roughly 1,000 times higher than most people actually encounter, concludes toxicologist and symposium organizer Justin Teeguarden of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash. His assessment, reported at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, was based on a reanalysis of data from previously published studies, including BPA values measured in more than 30,000 people.

Animal and human studies have linked exposures to BPA, a hormone mimic, with cardiovascular changes, altered behavior in children, prediabetic symptoms and reproductive impairments. So getting estimates of typical exposure right, Teeguarden said, is crucial to defining what intake levels should now be probed intensively by toxicity testing.

Caves point to thawing of Siberia

Siberian cavesEarth & Climate

Evidence from Siberian caves suggests that a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius could see permanently frozen ground thaw over a large area of Siberia, threatening release of carbon from soils, and damage to natural and human environments. A thaw in Siberia's permafrost (ground frozen throughout the year) could release over 1000 giga-tonnes of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, potentially enhancing global warming.

The data comes from an international team led by Oxford University scientists studying stalactites and stalagmites from caves located along the 'permafrost frontier', where ground begins to be permanently frozen in a layer tens to hundreds of metres thick. Because stalactites and stalagmites only grow when liquid rainwater and snow melt drips into the caves, these formations record 500,000 years of changing permafrost conditions, including warmer periods similar to the climate of today.

Records from a particularly warm period (Marine Isotopic Stage 11) that occurred around 400,000 years ago suggest that global warming of 1.5°C compared to the present is enough to cause substantial thawing of permafrost far north from its present-day southern limit.

Medical News

Surgery shows promise in treating persistent heartburn

Ring-shaped device around esophagus prevents acid reflux in most patients
HeartburnBy Nathan Seppa

A small ring of magnets cinched around the bottom of the esophagus can prevent acid reflux in many people. Eighty-six of 100 patients with persistent reflux who had the device surgically implanted no longer needed heartburn medications one year later, researchers report in the Feb. 21 New England Journal of Medicine.

“This is very encouraging,” says Peter Kahrilas, a gastroenterologist at the Northwestern University School of Medicine in Chicago who wasn’t part of the research. He says that for reflux disease, the magnet-laden ring is “the most promising device that has been introduced in a long time, if not ever.”

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the device for reflux in March 2012, scientists are still monitoring its long-term safety and effectiveness in patients with gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. Chronic GERD can lead to esophageal scarring and a condition marked by abnormal cell growth called Barrett’s esophagus, which increases the risk of an esophageal cancer called adenocarcinoma. In the United States, nearly 18,000 people each year develop some form of esophageal cancer.

Sleuth Your Way Through An Epidemic With CDC’s New iPad App

Image Credit: CDCApril Flowers

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be an Epidemic Intelligence Service agent, like in the movie Contagion, tracking down disease vectors and interviewing patients?

Now, thanks to an iPad app released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you can. The free app, called “Solve the Outbreak,” allows users to examine a range of variables based on factual information in a burgeoning disease outbreak. The user then makes decisions just as a real CDC decision-maker would. Such questions include quarantining the city and requesting more results from the lab.

The app currently comes with three outbreak scenarios based on real-life cases, according to Forbes. According to the CDC, more will be coming soon. As the user works through the puzzle, they earn points for each clue, with higher scores for better answers. They can earn badges, starting out as a Trainee and working to the goal of Disease Detective. Scores can be posted on Facebook and Twitter, and users can challenge friends to do more at stemming the epidemic.

Space News

Russia meteor virtually impossible to see coming

Current and planned efforts focus on larger objects
A European weather satellite captured an image of the supersonic meteor as it penetrated the Earth’s atmosphere over Russia the morning of February 15. The meteor damaged buildings and caused an estimated 1,200 injuries.By Andrew Grant

Scientists have begun piecing together the characteristics of the meteor that exploded over Russia on the morning of February 15, using data from seismic instruments that track earthquakes and microphones designed to detect sonic booms from nuclear explosions. Unlike the asteroid DA14, which narrowly but predictably missed Earth later that day, the meteor was too small to detect before its contrail appeared in the dawn skies over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk.

Yet even an object too small to detect can produce an impressive amount of destruction. The meteor was 15 meters across (compared with 50 meters for 2012 DA14) and weighed more than 7,000 metric tons when it entered Earth’s atmosphere, says Margaret Campbell-Brown, an astronomer at Western University in London, Ontario. She estimates that it was streaking through the sky at supersonic speeds of about 18 kilometers a second before exploding at an altitude of 15 to 20 kilometers, creating a shock wave that shattered glass in a deafening boom once it reached the surface. Various news sources have reported hundreds of buildings damaged and about 1,200 injuries.

Coincidentally, the largest observed meteor to enter the atmosphere since 1908 arrived just hours before a much larger object passed the planet uneventfully at a distance of about 27,000 kilometers.

Mini planet found far beyond Earth's solar system

NASA's artist's illustration compares the planets in the Kepler-37 system to the moon and planets in the solar system. NASA's Kepler mission has discovered a new planetary system that is home to the smallest planet yet found around a star like our sun, approximately 210 light-years away in the constellation Lyra. The smallest planet, Kepler-37b, is slightly larger than our moon, measuring about one-third the size of Earth. Kepler-37c, the second planet, is slightly smaller than Venus, measuring almost three-quarters the size of Earth. Kepler-37d, the third planet, is twice the size of Earth. A ''year'' on these planets is very short. Kepler-37b orbits its host star every 13 days at less than one-third the distance Mercury is to the sun. The other two planets, Kepler-37c and Kepler-37d, orbit their star every 21 and 40 days. All three planets have orbits lying less than the distance Mercury is to the sun, suggesting that they are very hot, inhospitable worlds.Reuters

(Reuters) - - Astronomers have found a mini planet beyond our solar system that is the smallest of more than 800 extra-solar planets discovered, scientists said on Wednesday.

The planet, known as Kepler-37b, is one of three circling a yellow star similar to the sun that is located in the constellation Lyra, about 210 light years away. One light year is about 6 trillion miles (10 trillion km).

"We see very large planets and they're uncommon. Earth-sized planets seen to be pretty common, so our guess is that small planets must be even more common," said Thomas Barclay, with NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

The smaller the planet, the more difficult it is to find.

Kepler-37b, as well as two sibling planets, were discovered with a NASA space telescope of the same name, which studies light from about 150,000 sun-like stars.

Odd News

Origins of alcohol consumption traced to ape ancestor

Eating fermented fruit off the ground may have paved way for ability to digest ethanol
The ability to metabolize ethanol might have arisen in the common ancestor of chimpanzees (shown), gorillas and humans as this ancestral ape became more terrestrial and started to eat fermenting fruits on the ground, a chemist proposes.By Erin Wayman

BOSTON — The taste for alcohol may be an ancient craving. The ability to metabolize ethanol — the alcohol in beer, wine and spirits — might have originated in the common ancestor of chimpanzees, gorillas and humans roughly 10 million years ago, perhaps when this ancestor became more terrestrial and started eating fruits fermenting on the ground.

Chemist Steven Benner of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, Fla., reached that conclusion by “resurrecting” the alcohol-metabolizing enzymes of extinct primates. Benner and his colleagues estimated the enzymes’ genetic code, built the enzymes in the lab and then analyzed how they work to understand how they changed over time.

“It’s like a courtroom re-enactment,” said biochemist Romas Kazlauskas of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Benner “can re-enact what happened in evolution.”

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